Pickles Delicatessen

Pickles Delicatessen (http://www.picklescatering.com/) is one of my favorite destinations in Longwood, on State Road 434 right off I-4 exit 94.  It is located in the same little shopping center where the Longwood location of 4 Rivers Smokehouse is.  In a town sorely lacking authentic New York-style delis, Pickles is the closest we have to the great delicatessens of New York City and its boroughs (and parts of South Florida).  Of course there is the Toojay’s chain, but I greatly prefer Pickles for its authenticity, quality, and selection.

They have all kinds of cookies and pastries brought in fresh from New York.  My wife loves some of the Italian-style cookies, like the ones with sprinkles, and pistachio cookies shaped like red and green leaves.  My mom used to buy cookies like that at a little bakery in Miami back when I was a kid in the ’80s.DSC02195

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The bagels at Pickles are maybe the best you can get in Orlando, especially the everything bagels my wife and I both like.  Pickles serves the Just Bagels brand from The Bronx, and they are extremely high quality.  I’d rather have a really good frozen and toasted authentic New York bagel than a mediocre fresh-baked bagel.  The other morning, I was overjoyed to find two of these saved in my freezer from our last trip to Pickles, and I happened to have nova salmon and cream cheese.  It’s rare when the universe lines up so perfectly.DSC02198

On my last takeout order, I brought home terrific latkes (potato pancakes).  Even after the drive home, they were still nicely crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with tastes of onion, garlic, and pepper.  They are served with sour cream and applesauce.  Some people prefer one over the other with their latkes, but I like both.  If you haven’t had them that way, you don’t know what you’re missing!DSC02199

I don’t have a photo, but if you like potato knishes, Pickles serves Gabila’s, a commercially-available knish that is definitely my favorite.

Here’s their pastrami sandwich on rye bread with caraway seeds.  My wife especially loves their pastrami.  It is sliced thin, and not too lean or too fatty.  I wish it was hand-sliced a little thicker like New York’s iconic Katz’s Deli, but this is the Orlando ‘burbs, not the Lower East Side.  It’s definitely a solid and generously-stuffed pastrami sandwich.DSC02202

This is a very small sampling of my mustard collection at home, perfect for pastrami.  In recent months, I was lucky enough to stock up on a dozen bottles of the Grey Poupon Mild & Creamy Dijon when Publix put it on clearance, AND five jars of the Sir Kensington’s Spicy Brown (which has a bit of maple syrup) when Lucky’s Market recently did the same.  Not bad — usually those aren’t the cheapest brands, but I have mustard to last me years (months?) for a buck and change each.  But I still take risks with new, exciting, and fancy varieties, like the Kozlik’s Hot Russian mustard, an indulgence that wasn’t cheap, but was totally worth every penny.DSC02203

Pickles has really terrific vinaigrette pasta salad, which I always love as a side item with their sandwiches.DSC02206

If you don’t feel like a Jewish deli classic like pastrami, corned beef, brisket, or chopped liver, Pickles also serves some great Italian hoagies and other deli-style sandwiches.  I’m a huge fan of their Italian Combo, with cappicola, sopresata, Genoa salami, mozzarella,  Italian peppers, lettuce, tomato, balsamic, and parmesan.  I swear I took a picture of it at some point in the past, but it would have been on my lousy phone camera, so people probably would complain more if I included a photo of this sandwich than if I didn’t.

They serve breakfasts, burgers, salads, and wraps as well.

But WAIT!  What’s this?DSC02196

It’s true, dear readers — Pickles carries Junior’s cheesecake from Brooklyn, which might be the best cheesecake I’ve ever had.  I sang its praises in my review of Junior’s, when we went to New York this past May and ended up eating at both of its Times Square locations.

Here’s a slice of their plain cheesecake, which I’ll take over Publix or the Factory any day:dsc02201.jpg

And here’s the chocolate cake-layered cheesecake.  I can normally take or leave chocolate cake, or anything chocolate, but this was on a whole other level, and I loved it.  dsc02200.jpg
On top of the cheesecake being awe-inspiring, the chocolate cake was rich, dense, moist, fudgy — almost like a gooey brownie, but still clearly cake.  I don’t think I’ve ever had such good chocolate cake.  As you can probably guess, this was very rich, and even the two of us working together got four portions out of this one generous slice.

Since Pickles has so many authentic New York products and ingredients, imagine my surprise after our New York trip to find Fox’s U-Bet VANILLA syrup, after I had the best vanilla egg cream at Veselka in the East Village.  I’ll argue to anyone that Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup is the best commercially-available chocolate syrup, especially if you’re making an egg cream with milk and seltzer water.  Nothing else tastes right.  Luckily most Publix stores carry Fox’s U-Bet chocolate in their kosher sections, but I had never seen the vanilla syrup for sale anywhere locally until noticing it at Pickles.  Needless to say, I had to buy a bottle, and now my homemade vanilla egg cream game is strong.  dsc02205.jpg
Since the trip I photographed for this review, we used up this one bottle, and I returned to Pickles to buy three more.  Imagine the deliciousness of a vanilla milkshake, only thinner, lightly carbonated, surprisingly helpful with digestion, and with much less guilt, and you’ve got it.  This stuff has been a game-changer at Casa de Saboscrivner!

Just so you know, Pickles is open 8:00 to 4:00, Monday through Saturday.  That means they aren’t open for dinner hours or on Sundays, and those are times when I tend to want their food the most.  But go there when you can for a little slice of New York deli heaven right here in Seminole County, Florida.

Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery

One of Orlando’s culinary highlights is its burgeoning Vietnamese restaurant scene.  The Mills 50 neighborhood near downtown Orlando (the intersection of Mills Avenue, AKA Highway 17-92, and Colonial Drive, AKA State Road 50) might be the best part of town for dining out, period.  We have the most Vietnamese restaurants centered around there, plus lots of Vietnamese and other Asian markets.  Vietnamese cuisine carries some French influences, from delicate pastries to banh mi, sub sandwiches with various cured meats and pickled vegetables on perfect crisp baguettes.  Even Vietnamese iced coffee, or cà phê sữa đá, is a strong dark roast served over ice with sweetened condensed milk — ooh la la, hon hon hon!  So rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.  I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.

Amid all our other Vietnamese options, we have a new choice that just opened recently and is getting plenty of well-deserved foodie buzz: Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery (https://parisbanhmicafebakery.com/).  It’s not a full-service, sit-down restaurant, but a casual cafe, wide open with modern decor, specializing in banh mi sandwiches, baked goods, and tasty beverages.  You order at the counter, but first you have to run the gauntlet of all those beautiful, fresh-baked pastries on display.  DSC02305

I arrived after the lunch rush on Independence Day, after treating myself to a mid-morning showing of the new Spider-Man sequel on a day off work.  The baked goods were picked over, but there was still plenty to choose from:DSC02304

When you enter, grab a tray and a pair of tongs, because you can start serving yourself on your way up to the counter.  A hungry or sweet-toothed person can do a lot of damage, but at least these pastries aren’t expensive, so you can make some choices and have a good time with a mostly-clear conscience.DSC02301

I had been warned to not miss these flaky round pastries stuffed with savory seasoned ground beef.  They were kept in a separate glass case on top of the front counter, being kept warm.  As soon as I saw them, I knew I would have chosen one anyway.  I can’t recommend them highly enough, especially at only $2:DSC02300

I selected an assortment of five pastries to bring home to share with my wife, but a kind gentleman who worked there advised me of their special deal of buying five and getting a sixth free.  How could I refuse?  So I walked out with a flaky margherita pastry with tomato filling (top left; $3), a cheese croissant that was much more like a cheese danish (top middle; $2), a sweet cheese blueberry croissant (top right; $2.80), the warm, meat-stuffed pastry that rang up as a pate chaud (bottom left; $2), a mozzarella and tomato sauce-filled pastry that was kind of like a really good pizza Hot Pocket (bottom; $3), and a sweet, buttery, flaky kouign amann (the round one on the right; $2.80).
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Here is the banh mi menu, at last!  These are a bargain at $5 each, and they are extremely high-quality, especially the fresh-baked baguettes, so crispy outside and so soft inside.  I’ve had some banh mi served to me on stale baguettes that shatter when you bite into them, and a couple you could use as baseball bats, but I can’t conceive of such a thing at Paris Banh Mi.  dsc02307.jpgI ended up choosing a B1 special combination, with several different cold cuts (served cold), and a B2 grilled pork (served warm), both to go.

Here they are, unwrapped back at home.  I’d definitely rank them among the best banh mi in a city blessed to have lots of good ones to choose from.
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Here is the drink menu, also posted above the counter.  The Paris By Night latte looked beautiful, and you can never go wrong with iced coffee or Thai iced tea, but I chose a drink I’ve been hearing about for months but haven’t had a chance to try yet: milk tea with cheese foam ($5).  dsc02306.jpg

This was my cool, creamy milk tea with cheese foam.  It’s not as weird as it sounds, I promise.  The milk tea is sweet and refreshing, and never tastes too much like tea to me, but I’m okay with that.  The foam at the top is kind of like a sweetened cream cheese, but not thick and solid like cheesecake.  It’s sticky and frothy and a little salty — more like thicker, sticky, salty whipped cream.  Go ahead and giggle — get it out of your system — but I swear it works.  I enjoyed this drink and would totally order it again.  DSC02298

On my way out, I took some more photos of the beautiful cakes, eclairs, napoleons, macarons, tarts, and other pastries in their glass cases up front.  Things like this never tempt me that much, but I have no doubt each one would be wonderful.  My parents, who are definitely not adventurous eaters, go gaga over French pastries like these, so I’d love to take them here if they ever make it up from Miami to visit us.  No pressure, though!  (I know they read my blog and wonder how I got this way.)

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Best of all, on this visit — my first visit — someone called my name, and it was three friendly and delightful regulars from the Orlando Foodie Forum, the Facebook group that inspires my food blogging, and hopefully I inspire some of them with my recommendations right here.  Even on a national holiday and a day off work, after seeing Spider-Man and picking out delicious food to bring home, the biggest treat of all was meeting Rasha, Brian, and Yousuf.  They were warm and welcoming — fellow foodies I had never met before, but they recognized me and were kind enough to introduce themselves and make that connection.  This was their second time getting food from Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, and I think they’ve even returned since last week.  I can’t blame them.  I already knew they had impeccable taste, and this place is GOOD.

When you make it to Mills 50, it’s hard to choose where to eat.  You can have spicy Szechuan Chinese at Chuan Lu Garden, cool and refreshing Hawaiian poke at Poke Hana, or endless Vietnamese restaurants like Pho 88 — all reliable recipients of the Saboscrivner Seal of Approval.  But no matter where you go for lunch or dinner, consider saving some room for a sweet dessert, a snack to go, or some frothy milk tea (and don’t forget the cheese foam!) at Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, or make a special trip there for some of the best banh mi in Orlando.  It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and I’d be shocked if anyone visited and couldn’t find something to love.

The New York Adventure Part 3: Junior’s

One thing New Yorkers and well-traveled foodies always warn people about is to NEVER EAT IN TIMES SQUARE.  It’s tourist trap central, featuring comically-large, multi-story versions of national and worldwide chain restaurants.  That’s where you have your oversized Olive Garden, your astronomical Applebee’s, your stupendous S’barro (someone once said they have the best pizza in New York!), and I swear we passed some kind of combination prodigious Planet Hollywood and Brobdingnagian Buca Di Beppo.  (“I’M AT THE PLANET HOLLYWOOD!  I’M AT THE BUCA DI BEPPO!  I’M AT THE COMBINATION PLANET HOLLYWOOD AND BUCA DI BEPPO!”)

But when we took a cab down to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to see Hamilton (only the greatest musical of all time!), my wife and I both clocked Junior’s (https://www.juniorscheesecake.com/), another one of those legendary, old-school Jewish New York restaurants.  I was a little surprised to see it, because I thought Junior’s was a Brooklyn thing, and I knew we weren’t going to make it into Brooklyn on this trip.  I barely gave it a second thought, because on the rare times we go to concerts, plays, and stand-up performances at home, my wife is usually too tired to go out for a bite afterwards.  When I lived in Gainesville (go Gators!), I loved going out for food with my friends after a show.  To this day, food always tastes the best to me at night, after doing something fun.

But after being completely blown away by the awesomeness of Hamilton, my wife said she could eat, and we both immediately thought of how close we were to Junior’s.  It turns out there are two separate Junior’s locations in the Times Square/Broadway area, and they’re open late to accommodate the after-show crowd.  Little did we know that we would end up taking in a second Broadway show on this trip, or that we would end up at both Junior’s locations!  I’m so glad we did, though.  Since this was the only restaurant I didn’t research in advance, it ended up being the most pleasant surprise.

This is the 45th Street Junior’s location, at 1515 Broadway.  It looks old, but it was founded in 2006.  (The original location in Brooklyn was founded by Harry Rosen in 1950.)DSC02130

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Like so many of the iconic Jewish delis of decades past, Junior’s served us free cole slaw (good) and dill pickles (meh) for the table.DSC02132

My wife’s chocolate milkshake was good enough to bring anyone to the yard.  Dig that Junior’s glasses have instructions for mixing up the perfect egg cream, with seltzer, milk, and chocolate syrup (go Fox’s U-Bet or go home).dsc02134.jpg

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting anything special when I ordered onion rings, but I am an onion ring aficionado, this is The Saboscrivner, and we have a little recurring feature on here called

[NEW YORK POLICE SIREN SAMPLE!]

RING THE ALARM!

And these were godly onion rings.  I didn’t know what to expect from their thick batter coatings, but they were crispy-yet-yielding on the outside, and soft on the inside, with a slight sweetness.  If I had to describe them, it was almost like a funnel cake-style batter, or like a really good old-fashioned sour cream cake doughnut, but with a crunchier outer layer — and of course not that sweet.  I’ve never had their equal and doubt I ever will again.DSC02136

This was the combination corned beef and pastrami Reuben sandwich we ordered to share in our post-Hamilton afterglow, and it was a winner.  The rye bread was buttered and lightly grilled to perfection, as opposed to too many Reubens where the bread is toasted hard to the point of being burned, and you can’t even take a bite without the sandwich flopping apart.  Both meats were sliced thin and lean, but this would not be our only pastrami experience on this trip, fear not.  DSC02137They served the Russian dressing on the side, which was great because my wife is always hesitant around sauces and condiments, whereas I generally love them, and I feel like we ended up with more this way.  Needless to say, some of my onion rings took a dip.

And finally, the piece de resistance — a slice of Junior’s famous blueberry cheesecake.  We both love cheesecake, and we both agreed this was the best cheesecake of our little lives — so much better than Florida mainstay Publix, and streets ahead of the Cheesecake Factory.  It was perfect in every way, to the point where I almost feel guilty posting this pic and raving about it, knowing my dozens of readers (baker’s dozens?) can’t just pop off to Junior’s to score a slice for themselves.  DSC02138

Our last day in New York, we realized we didn’t have any set plans for the evening, so we decided to see Chicago, a musical we had never seen live before.  We love the 2002 Best Picture-winning movie, though.  Since the Chicago revival is the longest continuously-running show in Broadway history (since 1996), it didn’t have the hype that Hamilton did, and were were lucky to score excellent and affordable fifth-row orchestra tickets.  It razzle-dazzled us, especially Desi Oakley, whose adorably sexy and hilarious lead performance as coquettish murderess Roxie Hart, blew away the A-list actress from the award-winning film.  Plus, we’ve been digging Fosse/Verdon, the FX miniseries about the mercurial director-choreographer and his dancer-actress-muse, and they aired their making-of-Chicago episode mere days before our New York arrival.  Call it fate, call it luck, call it karma, but I believe that everything happens for a reason!

Our luck just kept improving, because the Ambassador Theatre, where we saw Chicago, is right next to the other Times Square-area Junior’s location, 1626 Broadway at 49th Street, which opened in the summer of 2017.  And after how much we loved it the previous night, my wife was more than up for an encore performance.  This one featured the mid-century “space-age” design I love so much, that was so popular from the postwar years into the early 1960s.  It was cool to see this new version of the rotating “Junior’s” sign that the original location in Brooklyn has.  DSC02175

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My wife ordered something I probably never would have gone with, but it knocked our proverbial socks off: a brisket sandwich served on crispy-fried potato latkes, served with au jus and some of the freshest, chunkiest applesauce ever.  This thing was huge!  The brisket was pretty good (we’re both too used to smoked barbecued brisket, and this could have been improved by being a little fattier), but the latkes (AKA potato pancakes, goys and girls) were among the best we’ve ever had.  And yes, you eat them with applesauce.  DSC02180

I spend so much of my life thinking “What am I, chopped liver?” that along the way I became a big fan of the stuff.  I had yet to try chopped liver at any of our other NYC deli destinations, so tonight was the big night.  It came served simply, two big scoops with some thin slices of bread, which could have been toasted or grilled to hold up better to the weight and creamy richness of the chopped liver.  And as much as I love onions, raw red onion is a little much for me, so I left those alone.  DSC02181

I asked my wife if we were going to indulge in another slice of Junior’s heavenly cheesecake, but she was already enchanted by seeing a slice of red velvet cake being walked out to a nearby table.  She loves red velvet cake far more than I do, but hey, anniversary trip, and who am I to stand in the way of her continuing good times?  She loved it, and even I liked the bite I had.  Fear not, fearless readers — even the two of us, together at this late hour, couldn’t finish the whole supersized slice.  DSC02182

So that was Junior’s.  I hadn’t planned it into our schedule at all, but fate intervened, and we ended up there twice — two different nights, two separate locations.  And Times Square or not, tourist trap or not, everything we ordered transcended our expectations.

And here’s a helpful hint from your old pal The Saboscrivner: Orlando denizens, you CAN treat yo’selves to Junior’s cheesecake locally, at Pickles Deli in Longwood, on State Road 434 right off Exit 94.  They ship it in from New York and serve plain, raspberry swirl, chocolate “skyscraper,” and carrot cake “skyscraper” cheesecakes by the slice.  So forget the Factory and try Junior’s for yourselves.  Plus, Pickles is pretty great too.  Expect a review at some point this summer!

The New York Adventure Part 1: Ess-A-Bagel

My wife and I are celebrating our TENTH wedding anniversary in October, and we both wanted to make a big thing of it by returning to New York City, where we spent our honeymoon in 2009.  We haven’t had a chance to return in this entire last decade, but since my wife is a college professor and I’m also in academia, October is a pretty busy time for us, and it would be impossible to get away then.  So we opted for a mid-May getaway, during the empty and quiet weeks between the spring and summer semesters, before New York starts to rival Florida’s heat and humidity.  We also had some personal and professional milestones to celebrate, so the timing was right and the stars lined up for us.  We planned to take in the sights, see shows, and eat like kings.

Just as we did on our honeymoon, we chose our hotel based on its proximity to the legendary Midtown Manhattan bagel restaurant Ess-A-Bagel (https://www.ess-a-bagel.com/), considered by many the best bagel shop in the bagel capital of the world (sorry, Montreal!).  And wouldn’t you know it — we ended up reserving the exact same hotel, just under a different name and new management, ten years later.  It was meant to be!

So here is where the magic happens, this hole-y site.  I’m always taken aback by just how small and cramped many iconic New York restaurants and businesses are, and Ess-A-Bagel is no exception.  You enter and automatically line up, make your way down the counter until someone calls you, place your entire order with them, pay at the end, and hope there’s a tiny table available for you by then.  DSC02113

Ess-A-Bagel boils and bakes some of the largest bagels I’ve ever seen, with all the classics represented: plain, sesame, onion, garlic, salt, everything, pumpernickel, and cinnamon raisin, among others.  Here’s a gigantic everything bagel, which is our favorite — coated with sesame and poppy seeds, toasted onion and garlic, and coarse kosher salt crystals.
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You have a ridiculous choice of cream cheese and tofu-based spreads, all made fresh in-house.  This is like heaven.  The choices are unlimited, but you cannot go wrong.DSC02114

In addition to all the standard cream cheeses, Ess-A-Bagel has a large selection of smoked, cured, and pickled fish, all standard Jewish fare that accompanies bagels.  Most people are familiar with nova salmon — sometimes referred to as lox, although most lox is MUCH saltier than the more familiar nova your basic brunch spot offers.  It pairs so perfectly with cream cheese.  But when you get out of Orlando, you have far more fishy options for your bagels, and these are everything to me: smoked whitefish salad, large golden smoked chubs (whitefish), pickled herring fillets in either a sweet wine-based sauce or a sour cream-based sauce (both with plenty of sweet pickled onions!), rich smoky sturgeon, and the finest of all the smoked, cured, and pickled fishies: buttery sable, which sounds far more appetizing than “black cod.”  Sable is the finest thing you can eat, and here is an article I found with a recipe and more information about it, for the uninitiated.  These are the foods of my people, and they fill me with such joy.DSC02116

You also have a wide variety of tuna, salmon, and other seafood salads.  DSC02117

And some pasta salads, potato salad, cole slaw, and additional vegetarian options, sold by the pound to enjoy as sides.DSC02118

You can also order bagel sandwiches with the sliced deli meats and cheeses of your choice, but it seemed pointless to me to come all the way to New York and Ess-A-Bagel for a turkey, roast beef, or ham and cheese sandwich.  (Despite its traditional Jewish specialties, Ess-A-Bagel is not a kosher restaurant, and I’ve never kept kosher anyway.)

The day we left for New York, we woke up at 3:30 AM to catch our 6:30 AM flight, got caught in morning rush hour traffic from Queens to Manhattan, and made it to our hotel to find out our room wasn’t ready yet.  At that point, it was 12:30 PM — nine hours since we got up, and we hadn’t eaten anything yet.  So we walked to Ess-A-Bagel just in time to join the long lunch line, and by the time we got our food and snagged one of those aforementioned tiny tables, almost an hour after that, it didn’t occur to me to take any pictures.  Mea culpa, although some long-suffering Saboscrivnerinos may be relieved.

That first day, my wife ordered a toasted and buttered everything bagel, with a quarter-pound side of whitefish salad on the side.  I wanted a bialy, that lovely cross between a bagel and a roll (baked, but never boiled!) with an indentation in the middle for baked onions, but they didn’t have any left.  (See this Food Republic article for some bialy background!)  So I got an everything bagel with sun-dried tomato cream cheese and my sweet, sweet sable.  I also ordered a huge, fluffy salt bagel to tear off chunks and scoop up a quarter-pound of smoked shrimp and crab salad that looked and sounded great, and tasted even better.  Everything was magnificent.  My wife had fond memories of an apple cinnamon muffin from our last visit a decade back, but that was crumbly and dry, failing to live up to her nostalgia the way the bagels and fish did.

Our second day in the city, we wanted to take it relatively easy and eat a light lunch in our room, in preparation for seeing a show that evening.  I walked back to Ess-A-Bagel to bring everything back to our hotel, and that time I remembered to take some photos.

My wife tried my sable the previous day and understood what I had raved about on and off for the last ten years, so she asked for an everything bagel sandwich with sable (left), and I happily obliged.  I decided to try something different: a bialy sandwich (finally!) with baked salmon salad (right), at once smoky and creamy, so it didn’t need a layer of cream cheese.  DSC02120

Here’s a half of my bialy sandwich, generously stuffed with the baked salmon salad: DSC02124

And her sable bagel, with nice thick chunks of the buttery, rich fish to melt in our mouths:DSC02125

That huge everything bagel I showed you earlier came from this second visit.  I also got a quarter-pound of their smoked tuna spread to go with that, and it was another good choice.  I grew up eating canned tuna, to the point where I was shocked the first time I ever encountered rich, deep purple raw tuna in sushi in my late teens.  My wife doesn’t like the smell of canned tuna, and it’s high in mercury and unsustainable, so I haven’t bought or even ordered it in years (although I am a huge sardine aficionado, and those are super-healthy and super-sustainable).  But trying smoked tuna seemed like a worthwhile move, and it was far better than any conventional tuna salad I’ve ever had before.  DSC02123

My wife also asked for a black and white cookie, that New York deli and bakery classic.  These should be more cake-like than anything — thick and moist, never crunchy or crispy.  This one was unique for having a slight lemony flavor to the yellow cookie/cake underneath the layer of black and white icing that reminds us “We’re not so different, you and I.”DSC02122

And then we went to see Hamilton, and I think it tied with seeing Tom Waits in concert in 2006 as the greatest musical experience… no, greatest cultural experience of my life.  I love American history, and I come by it naturally.  My dad was an esteemed history and social studies teacher, and now I teach a class that incorporates some U.S. history too.  Combine that with my deep loves of musical theater (encouraged by my wife, a former child and teen actress) and hip hop, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning show always felt like it was made just for me.  I have obsessed over the original cast album for over three years, so finally being able to see it (and in the greatest city in the world, no less!), being right there in the room where it happens, was awe-inspiring.

Like I said, we ate like kings over our few days in the City, so stay tuned over the next week (or let’s face it, probably longer) for more of our culinary New York Adventures, right here on The Saboscrivner!

I was a judge in the National Pie Championships! (Again!)

I like sweets and desserts as much as anyone, but I can usually stay strong in the face of  chocolate, candy, cupcakes, or cake, and turn them down without regret.  Even cookies have to be some pretty serious, next-level cookies to get me to indulge.  But one thing I will always choose and never refuse is PIE, that most humble and all-American of desserts.  Whether it’s a custard, cream, or fruit filling, a flaky dough crust or a crumb topping, hot or cold, sweet or tart or even savory, pie is everything.

There is a group called the American Pie Council that agrees with me.  From their website: “The American Pie Council Is The Only Organization Committed To Maintaining America’s Pie Heritage, Passing On The Tradition Of Pie-Making And Promoting America’s Love Affair With Pie.”  If that’s not a noble goal, I don’t know what is.  They publish a quarterly newsletter called Pie Times (I love it!), full of tips, tricks, recipes, promotions, and networking information for bakers.

But the American Pie Council’s most visible event is hosting the prestigious National Pie Championships in Orlando, Florida every year — a chance for the most gifted commercial, professional, and amateur pie bakers to prove themselves in the ultimate pie arena, like Pie Thunderdome. These brave bakers descend upon Orlando from throughout the United States to compete for those blue ribbons and bragging rights, mostly for the fun of it, and for the honor of being the best.  Here is a Bon Appetit article about last year’s National Pie Championships, and here is an essay on Taste by two bakers who competed last year.  Christopher Guest really needs to write and direct a mockumentary about the world of competitive pie-baking, something like Best in Show meets Iron Chef meets… I don’t know, The Fast & the Furious.  “I live my life one quarter-stick of butter at a time.”  “If your dough isn’t out of control, you’re not in control.”  And what good is pie if you can’t share it with family (including chosen family)?

Anyway, last year, a fellow foodie friend told me that she regularly volunteers to judge the National Pie Championships, and I could apply to be a volunteer judge as well.  What the–?!!  People actually do this?  You can get chosen to sample a bunch of delicious pies from some of the best bakers in the country — for free!! — and then evaluate and rank them and offer constructive feedback?  I felt like every event in my life to date, everything I’ve ever learned and accomplished, had brought me to that point, and it could be a lifelong dream coming true.  I’m not a baker on the level of these master bakers — I have one EXCELLENT pie recipe that everybody goes crazy for — but I thought I would be a great pie judge between my two Orlando Weekly best-of-the-year food lists, blogging here as The Saboscrivner, and having pretty good taste in general.  Luckily, the American Pie Council agreed.  I volunteered and served for the first time in 2018, and just did it again last weekend, this time with my best friend, who drove all the way up from Miami.

When you are a National Pie Championships judge, you get assigned to a table in a huge hotel conference room where all the judging takes place, and each table gets one pie category the entire time.  They judge the commercial pies (think supermarket bakeries, frozen foods, and restaurant chains) on the Friday, and then professional and amateur pies on the Saturday, which is what I did both years.  On your judging application, you can choose your top six categories, and hopefully you will be placed in one of those.  You can choose among apple, cherry, blueberry, pumpkin, sweet potato, chocolate, nut (expect to overdose on heavy pecan pies!), peanut butter, citrus, tropical fruit, “open” fruit, “open” cream, and more.  There are 16 professional categories, and even more in the amateur division.  There is even a savory pot pie category!  Last year, the APC included a category for Hollywood-inspired pies, and this year’s unique category was for pies inspired by special and memorable vacations.

In 2018, I got moved away from my top choice at the last minute and placed at the Comstock apple pie table.  Comstock is one of the National Pie Championships sponsors, the company that makes canned apple, cherry, peach, strawberry, and blueberry pie fillings that you can buy at most supermarkets.  I was skeptical, but I got to taste some really solid apple pies that day.  I was definitely burned out on apple pie by the end, but luckily we then got to judge the Comstock “Best in Show” pies — the best apple pie from our table (a maple praline apple pie), plus the winners from the other Comstock categories: a chocolate-covered cherry pie, a raspberry peach bellini pie, a classic, old-fashioned strawberry rhubarb pie, and the delightful blueberry lemon cream pie that we crowned the winner.  I still remember this one fondly, over a year later, so enjoy the recipe and this photo:
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This year, which just happened to be the 25th anniversary of the National Pie Championships, my buddy and I made sure to fill out the same six categories, and I asked the powers that be to seat us at the same table so we could hang out.  And we were lucky enough to get placed at the Professional cream pie table, a highly-desirable category that was one of my top choices.

The way it works is volunteer pie servers pass the unsliced pie around our round table so we can all ooh and ahh and photograph it if we wish, to evaluate each pie in its uncut state.  Then the server returns with one slice removed, so we can evaluate how the slice holds up on its own, as well as how the pie looks with a slice taken out.  Then we pass the one slice around the table and cut off small slivers for ourselves, so everyone just gets a tiny taste.  Believe me, we don’t each eat an entire slice from each of these pies.  That would be ill-advised.  Each pie judge fills out an anonymous scoring worksheet as we evaluate each pie, with our judging number and the pie’s identification number.  There is even math involved!

We ended up sampling 14 pies in all:

The first of many coconut cream pies:DSC02000DSC02001

The first banana cream, which included some pineapple and crispy banana chips:DSC02004DSC02003

A chocolate-mint brownie cream pie, which was a big hit at our table:DSC02006DSC02005

Another coconut cream:DSC02008DSC02009

This lovely coconut cream was extremely thick and firm, and it was my favorite of the many coconut cream pies we tried.DSC02010DSC02011

I felt so bad for this baker, because this beautiful berry cream pie was damaged when the slicers tried to slice it.  However, it was delicious, and I would totally buy one if I ever saw it for sale or on a menu:DSC02012

I think everyone lost their minds over this Oreo cookies ‘n’ creme cream pie.  I know it was my friend’s favorite.DSC02014DSC02016

WHO DAT?  This was a New Orleans Saints-themed banana cream pie.  It would have been a nice touch if the baker went full N’awlins and made it a Bananas Foster cream pie.  I still don’t know if the fleur-de-lis was edible.DSC02017DSC02018

I don’t even remember if this one was banana cream, coconut cream, or something else entirely, but it was good, because how could it not be?  Those things around the crust might have been candied nuts, so maybe banana walnut?DSC02019DSC02020

This hypnotically beautiful cinnamon roll cream pie won our superlative award for Prettiest Pie at our table.DSC02021DSC02023

Another coconut cream:DSC02024DSC02025

This strawberry cream pie was far and away my favorite, and the only one I gave a perfect score to.  It was a cross between a strawberry cream pie and a strawberry cheesecake.DSC02026DSC02027

I forget what this one was:DSC02028DSC02029

And this was a heaven-themed coconut cream pie to end our judging, with edible golden sugar “glitter” and sparkling whipped cream.DSC02030DSC02032

We probably each ate the equivalent of 2-3 slices of pie, passing all of those around the table and cutting off tiny tastes from each slice — but that’s still a lot of rich cream pie for a regular person.  We were the first table to finish, and it came as a relief.

The second-place winner from our Professional Cream Pie table was the “Sunsational Islandtime Coconut Cream Pie,” baked by Avon Park, Florida’s own Amy Freeze.  I don’t remember which coconut cream pie that was, so apologies to the talented Ms. Freeze, but I enjoyed every single coconut cream pie we tried that day.

The winner, as you might have guessed, was the “Double the Good Stuff Cookies and Cream” pie, baked by Michele Stuart, who traveled all the way from Norwalk, Connecticut and entered several pies, with a grand total of FIVE winning either first or second place in different categories!  Ms. Stuart is a PIE BAWSS.

When each table of judges is finished, the scores are tallied to select first and second-place winners in each category.  Then each of those first-place pies compete against each other for the Best in Show, in both professional and amateur categories.

I have been sitting on this review for a week, waiting for the American Pie Council to release a formal announcement of all the winners, and here they are.  The Professional Best in Show pie was Iceland’s Café Loki-Inspired Rye Bread Cream Pie, baked by David Eaheart from Kansas City, Missouri.  “Layered with a cream filling, toasted rye bread, piped meringue and a caramel sauce drizzle, this pie is based on Café Loki’s Rye Bread Ice Cream, which Eaheart discovered on a walking food tour of Reykjavik.”  I didn’t get to try this pie, but I would have awarded it a perfect score for creativity.

On our way out of the judging room, I couldn’t help but snap a photo of this gorgeous apple pie.  It has been over a year, so maybe I can start eating apple pies again, while taking a break from cream pies.  DSC02033

Being an official pie judge in the National Pie Championships two years in a row has been a great experience, and even a great responsibility, for which I have no regrets.  I’ll probably volunteer again, because it’s such a treat to sample so many delicious pies from bakers at the top of their game.  I’m just glad it only happens once a year!  DSC02046

EDIT (4/22/19): The American Pie Council posted hundreds of photos from the event, so feel free to spend some hours scrolling through beautiful pies.

Maple Street Biscuit Company

Despite living not too far from Oviedo, I almost never drive all the way east to head out there.  Every time I do, I’m always amazed by how much the area has been developed, with so many new restaurants popping up.  One of Oviedo’s newest neighbors is the Maple Street Biscuit Company (https://maplestreetbiscuits.com), a small chain that was founded in Jacksonville, Florida, and has since expanded into six Southern states (Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Texas).  Despite being a chain, it has a very “down-home” Southern feeling, with everything in the bright, spacious dining room made of wood (or wood veneers).

Maple Street Biscuit Company specializes in fried chicken sandwiches made with fresh, white meat chicken breasts on fresh-baked biscuits, but they have lots of other options.  They make their jams and jellies from scratch too, which is not that common anymore.

I ordered the Squawking Goat sandwich, which includes fried chicken breast, a fried goat cheese medallion, and house-made pepper jelly on one of those fantastic biscuits.  I loved it.  It was awesome.  They were generous with the pepper jelly, ladling it on all over the plate, so it was definitely a sandwich to eat with a knife and fork.  I thought the goat cheese “medallion” was quite small, but it was so delicious, coated in seasoned bread crumbs, that I craved more.

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My wife ordered the Sticky Maple sandwich, with a fried chicken breast and pecanwood smoked bacon on a biscuit, with real maple syrup from the Bissell Family Farm served on the side.  (They usually pour it right on.)

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We had meant to share the Smoky Mountain Mac n Cheese, a $4 side of macaroni and cheese made with three different types of cheese and topped with a crunchy cheese cracker crumble, but then I think my wife remembered she isn’t the hugest mac and cheese fan.  More for me, I thought!  But the portion was very small, so it wasn’t that much more for me after all.  Still, it was rich and cheesy and gooey and tasty, so how can I complain?

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Also pictured above is the iced cinnamon pecan biscuit they were gracious enough to include with our order because it was our first visit.  It was delicious — much more of a dessert that something you should eat for breakfast, but I feel that way about most breakfast pastries (muffins, doughnuts, danishes, Pop-Tarts, and their ilk).  The icing was very fresh and very thin, like you would find on a cinnamon roll or a good cheese danish.  

My wife studied the menu in advance, and she knew she wanted the house-made ganache hot chocolate with steamed milk.  She tasted cinnamon and said it reminded her of Mexican hot chocolate, which she always loves.

I rarely drink coffee, but I love anything with vanilla and maple flavors, so I couldn’t turn down an iced maple vanilla latte.  Of course it was more like a dessert than anything else, but that’s how I like my coffee (like my women): sweet, smooth, and cool.

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And finally, because we didn’t have enough carbs and sugar already, they had fresh-baked cookies near the cash register, where you place your order, and we couldn’t resist trying the lemon blueberry cookie.  I was surprised my wife suggested it, since I love anything with lemon and with berries, and she usually doesn’t, opting for chocolatey sweets instead.  And I think she liked it, but I definitely liked it more.  It was obviously very freshly-baked, extremely soft, still warm, and delightfully lemony.  We ripped into it so quickly, I almost forgot to photograph it, as you will be able to tell:

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Maple Street Biscuit Company closes at 2:00 most days and stays closed on Sundays, so it isn’t the easiest place for us to get to.  Still, I’m glad we were finally able to try it.  I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back, but I definitely would return to get that Squawking Goat again, and maybe I’ll ask for extra fried goat cheese next time.  I’d get that cookie again, too!

The Polite Pig

Well-traveled Orlando foodies are probably familiar with The Ravenous Pig, one of our finest local restaurants.  Situated in Winter Park, James and Julie Petrakis’ venerable institution was founded in 2007 and quickly established itself as one of the shining stars of Orlando’s burgeoning culinary scene.  I still consider it a “special occasion” sort of restaurant and don’t go as often as I would like, but it never disappoints.  I’ll have to get back there one of these days to write a proper review, as it’s the sort of place that all locals and tourists alike ought to make a pilgrimage to.

In the meantime, the Petrakises have expanded their empire with a few other local restaurants, including The Polite Pig (https://politepig.com/), a fast-casual barbecue joint, which opened in 2017 in Disney Springs.  For the uninitiated, this is an area outside of the actual Disney theme parks (so you don’t have to pay for admission or even parking to visit it), specializing in shopping and dining.  It has grown immensely over the last few years and added a lot of high-profile restaurants, including some helmed by celebrity chefs.  It is cool to see our local legends establishing a foothold in there too, and The Polite Pig provides the Petrakises a greater chance to feed and impress guests from around the world.  It’s a relative bargain for Disney Springs, where many of the restaurants are more upscale, with prices to match.  Because it’s casual, fast, reasonably-priced, and the food is hearty, familiar, and GOOD, it is a great option for families with kids and any other visitors who want to avoid white tablecloth joints and entrees priced over $20.

My BFF (best food friend) and I went there in May of 2017, just a few days after it opened, and we both agreed it was fine.  Not bad at all, but he lives in Miami and I live almost an hour away from that side of Orlando, so neither of us were going to rush back.  But he visited Disney recently with his mom (my first-grade teacher), so we agreed it would be a swell place to meet for lunch to catch up.  And I’m so glad we chose it, because we both liked it so much more this time, almost two years later.  I would unequivocally recommend it to anyone visiting Disney Springs, especially if you like meat and don’t want to spend an arm and a leg.

We ordered our food and paid at the counter, and it seemed like it was delivered to us in a matter of minutes, but we were also smart and got there right when it opened at 11 AM.  By the time we left, it was mobbed, and the rest of Disney Springs was mobbed too.  All the barbecue sandwiches come with a choice of a side order, and the entrees come with a small jalapeno cornbread muffin, “signature Polite slaw,” and a choice of a side.  My friend and his mom (who is no longer my first-grade teacher, so I am proud to also call her my friend) both ordered baby back ribs, which come covered with a dry rub and sweet, sticky barbecue sauce glaze.  I got to try a rib, and it was very tender.  Like any good smoked ribs, the meat doesn’t exactly “fall off” the bone, but they were extremely tender, not dry or stringy or tough at all.

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He chose baked beans as his side, and she went with crispy waffle fries, dusted with barbecue seasoning.

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I decided to go with the barbecue cheddar sausage, which the menu said was covered with a bourbon glaze.  The outside had a subtle sweetness, and the natural casing had a very good snap when I bit into it, something I always appreciate in sausages and hot dogs.  That’s what I call the pursuit of snappiness! 

I got four decent-sized cuts and immediately gave one to my buddy.  I was impressed that the cheese was gooey and melty in each bite I took.  True to form, I chose macaroni and cheese as my side, which was also nice and melty with white cheese and al dente mini-shell pasta.  I’ve gone twice now and always turned away from the tomato watermelon salad with feta, basil, and pickled onions at the final moment, but maybe next time I’ll try that.  It sounds delightfully refreshing.

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My magnanimous friend also ordered us the slider trio to share: three mini-sandwiches on tiny, soft brioche rolls.  The fried chicken sandwich came topped with sweet & smoky barbecue sauce, Duke’s mayo, pickles, and cole slaw.  The Southern Pig included pulled pork, fennel-apple slaw, tangy mustard barbecue sauce, and Duke’s mayo, the only kind of mayo I ever buy for my house.  I think our table’s favorite was the Low & Slow Brisket, with Prime brisket, pimento cheese, porter barbecue sauce, pickled jalapeños, and onion straws.  I was reminded that on our earlier visit almost two years ago, we ordered the Southern Pig and Low & Slow Brisket sandwiches and split them both.  Even these mini-slider versions were better than what we remembered from back then, which only speaks well of The Polite Pig and how much it has improved.

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Speaking of barbecue sauces, they have four house-made sauces “on tap,” and you can fill little paper cups to dip to your heart’s content: Lil John’s Signature Porter sauce (made with a reduction of Working Man porter beer, brewed at another Petrakis restaurant, the Cask & Larder), Layla’s sweet sauce, Thomas’s Southern Gold sauce (a mustard-vinegar hybrid), and an Alabama-style white barbecue sauce that pairs excellently with chicken… and surprisingly everything else.  I’m not the kind of person who pours ranch dressing all over my food, but this white sauce is different.  If you’re skeptical, try a tiny taste in one of the paper cups.  It’s free, so you have nothing to lose!

The Polite Pig offers fountain sodas — mostly Coke products, but also excellent root beer and lemonade from the Blue Sky brand, made with cane sugar.  I try to be so good about not drinking sodas, but I really like root beer and lemonade, so I couldn’t resist.  Of course they were cold and refreshing.  When we were there two years ago, I remember being half-dead, exhausted and sun-baked after spending half the day waiting in lines and schlepping around the Orlando MegaCon (sprawling pop culture convention for nerds and geeks alike), and I slaked my thirst with Blue Sky orange-mango soda, but they didn’t have that one anymore.  The root beer had a vanilla creamy taste, which I always appreciate compared to the more herbal, “biting” root beers, so that was a good choice.

And finally, they were offering chocolate chip cookies from Gideon’s Bakehouse, located in Orlando’s very East End Market, which I will argue is the best chocolate chip cookie anywhere, and certainly anywhere in our city beautiful.  My buddy loves chocolate chip cookies and supposedly makes some pretty great ones himself, but I got one for him and his mom to split, after hyping it up for the last year.  They might have been stuffed from an excellent lunch, but they made room for that cookie, which lives up to all the hype.  Sorry I didn’t get a photo of it, but check out the website above.

So that’s it!  If you’re on Disney property, they’ve got ya.  You’re going to pay, so it’s just a question of how much you’re willing to pay, and what you get for your money.  The Polite Pig is a fantastic option if you’re relaxing at Disney Springs and don’t want to go to a more upscale and expensive restaurant.  Vegetarians will have to stick to side orders or salads (hold the bacon!), so they would be better served almost anywhere else, but most meat-eaters will be perfectly pleased by the Polite Pig.  And here’s a helpful hint: it’s right outside of the Lime Garage at Disney Springs, so if you’re just going to eat there and don’t want to linger, that’s the place you want to park.