Zero Degrees

The other day I drove further west than I’ve ever driven before, in my almost 15 years in Orlando.  There’s a whole “Chinatown” west of downtown, even past Taste of Chengdu, with lots of Asian markets and restaurants, as well as a Caribbean supermarket.  It felt like I unlocked a new level in a video game, venturing to an unfamiliar new area and discovering all kinds of exciting, even legendary places to eat and explore in the future.

I went out that way on a quest for a certain kind of hot sauce, after coming up empty at three much closer Asian markets.  I finally found it at the Tan Tien Oriental Market, and a few doors down from it, I stumbled upon Zero Degrees (https://zerodegreescompany.com/).  It immediately felt like a Southern California sort of place due to a lot of Mexican and Asian fusion food and beverages, and the website confirmed it was founded in (that other) Orange County.

Zero Degrees has an eclectic menu full of frosty, sweet, refreshing (non-alcoholic) drinks, including fruit slushes, sweet shakes, limeades, milk teas (including Thai iced tea), green teas, Vietnamese iced coffee (with sweetened condensed milk, so good!), and Mexican horchata (sweetened rice milk), which can all be ordered with or without chewy boba pearls made from tapioca.  They even have a Splitcup: a cup split down the middle into two separate compartments, so you can order two drinks in the same cup without having them mix together, for $5.50.

The food menu is snack-focused, featuring different variations of fries, nachos, elotes (Mexican street corn), chicharrones (pork rinds), and macaroni and cheese with a variety of toppings, including cheese, carne asada beef, and crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I knew carne asada fries is a real L.A. thing.  They also have wings and crispy popcorn chicken bites, in salt and pepper or honey barbecue flavors.

I was in a hurry and had a hard time deciding, but I went with the garlic noodle dish (a larger entree, but still only $6), stir-fried in butter and garlic, with melty Cotija cheese and topped with grilled carne asada beef (a $3.50 upcharge).  You can also get it with shrimp (also $3.50) and/or an egg ($1.50).  It was great.  Really rich, probably horrible for me, but it hit the spot.  The beef had a hint of lime to it, and I’m sure it would be great over the other items on the menu, like the fries.

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I also ordered Zero Degrees’ signature drink, the Mangonada ($6), a fresh mango slush with chamoy (a salty-sweet-sour sauce made from pickled plums or apricots that made its way to Mexico from China), Tajin (a spicy chili-lime spice powder that is popular sprinkled on fruit in Mexico), and topped with chunks of fresh mango.  They asked me if I wanted my Mangonada spicy or not spicy, and I chose spicy.  It has a lot of nice flavor, but it wasn’t “burn your tongue” spicy in the least.  We have a bottle of Tajin at home, and we’ve found it is great on certain fruit, especially melons.  It worked beautifully with the mango in the drink.  And this was my first experience trying chamoy, so now I want to try it in other things, too!  20190107_152742_resized

If that straw looks weird, it’s because it is coated with spicy-tangy-fruity-sweet-sour-salty-chewy tamarind candy, making a unique sensory and taste experience.  The tamarind candy straw was also a $1 upcharge, but I figured “Why not?”, especially since I live so far from this place.  I admit the straw was more hassle than it was worth, especially since it didn’t extend past the plastic lid when touching the bottom of the cup.  Also, it was messy, sticky, and hard to bite the chewy candy off the plastic, especially while driving.  I don’t think I’d bother to get that straw again, but I’m glad I tried it.

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I returned to Zero Degrees a few days later, even though it’s quite a distance away, because I wanted to explore the Chinatown area further.  (Stay tunes, Saboscrivner Society of America!)  I also really wanted to try the strawberry limeade and strawberry horchata, so the SplitCup was the perfect solution to my dilemma.  Apologies for the pic, dear readers — it was an unseasonably hot January afternoon, and I drank most of the limeade before I got it home to take a (not even that) decent photo.  They used fresh strawberries in both beverages that tasted just like my homemade strawberry smoothies do, with no extra sugar or sweet syrup added to them.

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I also brought my wife an ube milkshake.  The purple yam, popular in Filipino desserts, tasted more like vanilla to both of us, but it was a beautiful purple color (her favorite color), so I knew (hoped) she would like it.  It came garnished with a toasted marshmallow (she loves those), some rainbow-colored sour belt chewy candy, and glittery purple sugar.  If I actually used Instagram like a normal food blogger in 2019, this would be the kind of thing I’d be ‘Gramming about.  But instead, you’re hearing it here first!

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I don’t know when I’ll return to Zero Degrees because it’s literally across town, but I’m so glad I accidentally discovered it and took the time to try it twice in the same week.  I’d love to go back  and get the mac and cheese covered with Flamin’ Hot Cheeto dust, but I’ve done enough damage for this week.  Eating healthy in 2019, yea yea!

MX Taco (soft opening!)

Happy New Year, Sabo-bots and Sabo-cons!  Here’s hoping that 2019 brings us all health, happiness, and some truly memorable meals.

Yesterday I attended the soft opening of Orlando’s newest taco spot, MX Taco.  Chef-owner Ryan Manning started out cooking in kitchens across Mexico, and his specialty is cuisine from the Yucatan region.  He was the chef of the Mexican embassy in Washington, D.C. before he brought his expertise with authentic Mexican cuisine to our city.

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We already have plenty of taco joints and Mexican restaurants to choose from, and some of my favorites include Tortas El Rey, Francisco’s Taco Madness, and Hunger Street Tacos.  But the good news is that they provide something to satisfy everyone.  None of these restaurants are exactly alike, and they all have unique specialties, strengths, and weaknesses, so there is room for all.  Besides, tacos are tasty!

MX Taco is a tiny little spot on Bumby Avenue, near Lou’s Lounge and Saigon Noodle and Grill, with Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market across the street.  There are only four tables (three of which are high-tops), and you order and pay at the counter.  For the soft opening, Chef Manning wasn’t offering every single item on their exciting menu, but most of them were available, and I tried everything I could.

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I absolutely love that MX Taco’s menu is a map of Mexico, showing you which region each individual dish comes from.  I’ve never had the opportunity to travel to Mexico, but I love geography and how food influences and is in turn influenced by geography, economics, and culture at large.  It’s rare when you can order food at a restaurant and learn something at the same time.

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Prices are extremely reasonable, since you order tacos and other items individually — everything I ordered was either $3, $3.25, or $3.50.

At the restaurant, I ordered the cochinita pibil taco (pulled pork with bitter orange and pickled onion from the Yucatan region), the bistec en salsa roja taco (braised steak with pepper sauce and avocado from the Sonora region), the quesadilla con chorizo (Oaxacan cheese and crumbled chorizo sausage from Mexico City), and a piña (pineapple) agua fresca, a sweet, cold, refreshing drink made with fresh pineapple and surely plenty of sugar.  The food came out quickly, and everything was delicious.

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I love cochinita pibil (sometimes referred to on menus as puerco pibil) and order it whenever Mexican restaurants offer it, which isn’t often.  I always think back to the cheesy action movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico, where Johnny Depp’s corrupt CIA agent ordered puerco pibil everywhere he ate, in a quest for the best version of the dish.  When he finally found it, he went into the kitchen and shot the chef to “consecrate the moment.”  It’s a good thing that was a fictional movie (and even better that the real Johnny Depp is somewhere far, far away from us), or otherwise Chef Manning might have been in danger!  It was so fresh and so good.  The chorizo in the quesadilla was excellent as well, and I’m a big chorizo fan too.

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They have three housemade hot sauces available in bottles on the tables.  From left to right: a medium arbol chile sauce that is orange, a mild guajillo pepper-based sauce that is thick and dark red, and a fiendishly-hot habanero sauce.  The Guajillo was my favorite.  Habanero is usually too much for me, but I had to try it, and I appreciated that it packed a lot of flavor (a bit fruity, in fact!), rather than just painful heat like too many sadistic sauces.

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I placed a takeout order to bring some food back home to my wife, and while I waited, Chef Manning insisted I try his avocado ice cream.  It was very smooth, soft, and creamy — not icy or chunky at all.  It tasted so much better than you’d ever expect avocado ice cream to taste, and I say this as someone who loves ice cream and avocados.  It was topped with pepitas (pumpkin seeds, possibly lightly toasted?), toasted shredded coconut, and dark chocolate shavings.  It was a small cup, but I highly recommend it to anyone who dines at MX Taco, as it was a nice palate cleanser and worked well for cutting any lingering heat.

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My wife insisted on letting me sample all the food I brought home for her: a carnitas taco (confit pulled pork, onion, and cilantro from the Michoacan region), a bistec con sikil pak taco (steak, avocado, pickled onion, and pumpkin seed sauce, which I asked for on the side, from the Yucatan region), a quesadilla (with Oaxacan cheese and chipotle crema, from Mexico City), and an order of totopos (chips) and guacamole.  The guacamole was excellent, I have to say.  Extremely fresh — some of the best I’ve had anywhere around here, including more upscale Mexican restaurants that make a big production of “tableside guac.”  It was a nice-sized serving of guacamole, too.

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Sharp-eyed Saboscrivner followers will probably recognize our green plates by now:

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I also got her an horchata con coco agua fresca, rice water sweetened with sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and coconut — some of her favorite flavors in one drink, and an ideal heat-cutter.  It was the thickest and richest horchata I’ve ever sampled, that’s for sure.  I love aguas frescas, but a lot of them are made from sugary powdered mixes, not that dissimilar from Kool-Aid.  I could tell both my pineapple drink and her horchata were very fresh.

It should go without saying that everything is made fresh in-house.  The only exception are the tortillas, corn tortillas Chef Manning told me he gets from a tortilleria in Atlanta.  I almost hate to admit it, but I prefer flour tortillas, and I’ve never had quesadillas on corn tortillas before.  The totopos looked like they might have been made from the same corn tortillas.  I thought they could have used some salt, but the guac was good enough to offset that.

Orlando taco lovers, I encourage you to make it over to MX Taco sooner rather than later, to try the newest taqueria in town and see how it stacks up to your established favorites.  I guarantee it will be different enough from the tried-and-true taco joints that you’ll appreciate having it as one more option.  Just FYI, Chef Manning told me he will be closed today (Friday, January 4th) and open for limited hours over the next week: 4:00 to 8:00 PM, starting tomorrow, Saturday the 5th.

Pho Cali and Quickly Boba

There’s a strip shopping center along Aloma Avenue in Winter Park (in an area that feels more like Casselberry) that once housed a Publix and several other businesses.  The Publix moved to a newer location ten minutes up the road, and most of the other tenants moved out.  I thought the entire strip was dead for sure, but a gym moved in, and now some restaurants have opened in there.  One of them is essentially two restaurants in one: a new Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Cali (https://www.facebook.com/phocalialoma/menu/), connected to an interesting chain called Quickly Boba.  They share the slick, modern dining room, but Pho Cali has table service, while you order at the counter at Quickly Boba.  They just opened in late August.

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The night I stopped by to check them out, I ended up bringing home some takeout from both.  Pho Cali has a pretty typical menu for a Vietnamese restaurant, but a little more expensive than most of the restaurants in Orlando’s Mills 50 neighborhood.  My wife asked for grilled beef with rice vermicelli, her go-to standard when she doesn’t order pho.  It even came with three spring rolls, which were a pleasant little bonus.

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I’ve been to a few other Quickly locations in Orlando, and they’re all a little bit different.  They usually offer boba teas, smoothies, and slushes with a long list of flavors, macarons, and sometimes they have food menus with spicy popcorn chicken, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches on baguettes, or even poke bowls.  This location had a lot of bakery items and desserts I’ve never seen at other Quickly stores, displayed in attractive glass cases.

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This is where they customize your boba drinks, and dig the multicolored macarons on top of the glass.

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I was thrilled to see that this location had banh mi, because sometimes I crave those sandwiches, my previous favorite banh mi shop Mai Bistro closed recently, and the current reigning contender, Nha Trang, is much further from home than this place.

A good thing about banh mi sandwiches is that they’re usually cheap, like in the $5 range.  In addition to whichever sandwich filling you choose, as the crusty baguettes are typically dressed with butter or mayo, pork liver pate (similar to liverwurst or braunschweiger, but less smoky-tasting), crunchy pickled carrot and daikon radish, cucumber spears, sprigs of refreshing cilantro, and slices of fresh, crunchy jalapeno peppers, which are much hotter than the pickled jalapenos most people are used to.  I was impressed to see this Quickly had an open area where you could watch your sandwiches being made and request custom ingredients, a la Subway.  Most places just disappear into the back to make them.

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I usually get a cold cut combo sandwich, but I noticed this Quickly location had crawfish on the menu, so I decided to get one of each, have half of each when I got them home, and save the other halves for the next day.  I don’t know why I was expecting breaded and deep-fried crawfish tails, but these were chilled and marinated, like a tangy crawfish salad.  I like seafood salads, so I figured I would try it.

The cold cut banh mi:

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Both were very fresh and tasty.  They’re always much lighter and more refreshing than most subs or hoagies, and a good banh mi should taste very fresh, with a variety of textures and flavors: crunchy bread and vegetables, soft meat fillings, some tangy, some spicy, and richness from the creamy mayo and smooth pate.  I don’t know if they dethrone Nha Trang or the late, lamented Mai Bistro, but they hit the spot, the price was right, and I’m glad I have the option much closer to home.

I also picked out a bun from the Quickly bakery case, with strands of salty, soft shredded pork baked on the top.  It was a savory bun with the slightest hint of sweetness, very buttery, and much softer and lighter than you would expect.

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It’s an interesting combination, and maybe just what this desolate shopping strip needs to revitalize itself.  I’m happy to provide some good word of mouth to help send business their way, and I wish them the best over there on Aloma.  It’s a very nice, cool dining room, reminiscent of Bento, a local favorite.  I think if people check it out, they will be pleasantly surprised.  Even if Pho Cali is a little more expensive than the Mills 50 stalwarts that have been serving Vietnamese food for far longer, I suspect it will win over folks in Winter Park, Winter Springs, Casselberry, and Oviedo that don’t want to drive all the way out there.

And next time I’ll actually try the pho!

Tampaversary Part 2: La Segunda Central Bakery

Our original plan was to have lunch somewhere after checking out of our Tampa hotel, then to visit another nearby local landmark, La Segunda Central Bakery, to get some pastries and possibly sandwiches to go, before driving back to Orlando.  But when we woke up, my wife was hungry, ready to get home sooner, and didn’t want to wait for most restaurants to open at 11.  We decided to go straight to La Segunda and then take off, and to save other restaurants for other trips, when we have more time and could make plans with local friends.

We easily found La Segunda Central Bakery (https://www.lasegundabakery.com/), but what I didn’t realize was that it was just a takeout operation with no dine-in seating.  They have a second location that is more of a cafe setup, but leave it to me to want to visit the original.  We are already huge fans of Tampa’s other historic bakery, Alessi (http://www.alessibakery.com/), which was founded in 1912.  La Segunda had been described as very similar, and it was founded in 1915.  I wanted to compare the legendary bakeries, and I can safely say they are both great, and if you like one, you’ll certainly like the other and ought to give it a chance too.

Since they didn’t have tables, we just decided to get stuff to go, and to have a mini-picnic in the car on our way out of town.  My wife ordered buttered Cuban toast with a side of crispy bacon, made on the absolutely gigantic loaves of Cuban bread people were carrying out by the armful.  These loaves were several feet long; my wife is five feet tall, and they very well could have been her height!  La Segunda’s website purports to be “the world’s largest producer of authentic Cuban bread,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is true.  We were both a little distracted by sensory overload in that bakery, and it didn’t occur to me to order one of those giant loaves to go.  Oh well, another time.  I grew up in Miami, so I’ve had A LOT of Cuban bread.  It’s great the first day, but by the second day, Harley Quinn cosplayers could definitely use it as a prop baseball bat.  But I digress!

I don’t eat breakfast and don’t like to eat a heavy meal before a long drive, so I just ordered stuff to enjoy later on.  I ordered two of La Segunda’s sandwiches: the Medianoche and the Patrinostro.  Growing up in Miami, my typically non-adventurous family loved Cuban food, and we had some of the best Cuban food in the country to choose from, all within a small radius of our suburban home.  My mom instilled in me a love of the medianoche (midnight) sandwich over the traditional Cuban sandwich, and I stand by it to this day.  Both contain the same ingredients: roast pork marinated in mojo criollo (with onion, garlic, and sour orange juice), sweet sliced ham, swiss cheese, mustard (typically yellow mustard, one of the only times this mustard aficionado is A-OK with the plain yellow stuff), and sliced pickles.  I’m trying to make myself like pickles more, but one of the rare times I’ve always been a fan is on medianoche and Cuban sandwiches.

Anyway, whether you get the sandwich on Cuban bread or the sweet, yellow medianoche roll (similar to challah), it is then pressed flat (sometimes buttered first), to warm the ingredients, melt the cheese, and get the bread super-crispy.  Miami people may recoil in shock and disappointment (and I know my best friend will be pissed), but I actually love the Tampa version of these sandwiches.  Due to the Italian influence, Tampa Cubans and medianoches also include genoa salami with the roast pork and sweet, smoky ham, and one could argue that anything with genoa salami is better than the same thing without.  Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!  And when I finally tried it at home, it was an excellent example of a medianoche.  Perfect confluence of ingredients on that wonderful sweet, crispy-yet-yielding yellow bread.  La Segunda advertises a “special sauce” instead of mustard.  I couldn’t pick up on what it was (probably a remoulade or some kind of Mustardayonnaise), but it was a great sandwich regardless.

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And since I had to experience La Segunda’s Cuban bread for myself, my second sandwich order was the Patrinostro, an Italian sandwich with ham, capicola, mortadella, pepperoni, provolone cheese, onions, oil, and vinegar.  I asked for it hot because I wanted the pressed Cuban bread, and asked them to leave the lettuce and tomatoes off, since I wouldn’t be eating it for two hours and didn’t want them to get slimy on a hot sandwich.  I was conflicted, because I don’t like my Italian cured meats hot, but everything was still delicious by the time we got home, and the bread was still crispy.  It looked naked without the lettuce and tomatoes, so I added my own tomatoes, as well as hot cherry pepper relish and a drizzle of balsamic glaze at home.  It was good, but it would have been better fully dressed and eaten immediately, with cold ingredients served on bread that had already been pressed and warmed by itself.

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I also ordered two slices of scachatta, which I was delighted to see at La Segunda.  I first read about scachatta on Saveur’s website years ago, a pizza-like bread served only at Tampa’s historic Italian-influenced Cuban bakeries.  It is served cold or at room temperature on soft bread tinted yellow by egg yolks, with a savory-sweet tomato sauce containing very finely-ground beef, and no cheese melted on top like any pizza you’re envisioning.  Alessi’s scachatta has a dusting of parmesan like the lightest snowfall, and La Segunda’s didn’t seem to have any cheese at all.  It might sound weird, and if you’re expecting traditional pizza, you may be a little disappointed.  But think of it as its own delicious hybrid and give it a fair chance.  I love the stuff and wish I could get it anywhere in Orlando, but maybe that’s for the best.  I can’t tell you whose scachatta is better, but they are both damn fine.

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My wife also ordered a selection of cookies that were weighed by the pound.  I think of them as “tea cookies” — little things with sprinkles and powdered sugar coatings and shaped liked red and green leaves.  Bakeries of my Miami youth used to carry those, and my mom loved them too.  They have never really been my thing — if I’m going to eat a cookie, I want it to be soft and chewy… or an Oreo in their latest weird flavors.

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I couldn’t leave this beautiful bakery without getting myself something sweet too, so I gambled and chose a little square of pineapple crumb cake, since I love anything pineappley, as well as crumb cake.  When I finally got home and tried it, it was superb.  Moist, rich cake with the most delicious sticky-sweet pineapple glaze and streusel-esque topping.  It only cost $1.95, and it put any of the extravagant, expensive, and somewhat disappointing desserts from Bern’s to shame.

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So La Segunda was awesome.  Would I go back?  Honestly, I think we’d probably return to Alessi Bakery instead, where you can at least sit down and eat a meal.  But everything we tried was just as good here, don’t get me wrong.

Tampaversary Part 1: Bern’s Steak House

Trigger warning for extreme bougie content: WE DO NOT EAT LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME.

For years, my wife and I have been talking about going to the legendary Bern’s Steak House (https://bernssteakhouse.com/) in Tampa to celebrate a special occasion.  It’s a long way to travel for a meal, but from all accounts, Bern’s is THE meal,  the ultimate destination for foodie high-rollers or one-time wannabes like us.  It doesn’t help that my wife doesn’t fare well on long car rides, but Bern’s actually owns its own hotel right across the street, the Epicurean Hotel (https://epicureanhotel.com/), to help break up the trip and give weary, stuffed travelers a chance to rest and digest.

Neither restaurant nor hotel are cheap, but we’ve been putting this off for years, we both celebrated some milestones at work recently, we had our ninth wedding anniversary to celebrate, and best of all, neither of us ended up hospitalized this year, after we both did in the summer of 2017.  So for the first time ever, I was able to use some saved Marriott points and bought the rest of the points to cover a night at the Epicurean, for far less than it would have cost out of pocket.  (I think I can best describe the regular room rate as “far out of our price range” or “What the hell is this, midtown Manhattan?”)  And two months ago, I made a reservation at Bern’s, which gets booked up almost that far in advance.  I can’t speak for my wife, but I can say I looked forward to it for weeks, fastidiously studying Bern’s voluminous menu in the meantime.

The menu is pretty much a treatise on steaks, which are the house specialty.  Bern’s brags about serving dry-aged steaks, which I had never had before.  With all honesty, I’m not a big steak eater, and I’d always prefer a good burger to a good steak, for reasons of taste, customizability, and value.  But my wife LOVES a good steak, especially after I turned her onto ribeyes.  This menu has pages and pages of steak descriptions, describing cuts of meat, cooking temperatures, thickness, aging, and so forth.  I felt like I was researching engagement rings again!

But I’m jumping ahead.  When we first arrived at Bern’s, the nondescript white building looked like it could have been anything but a fancy steakhouse: maybe an industrial warehouse or a factory.  But stepping inside was like entering a different world, or at least a different century.  The lobby looked like a set from Moulin Rouge: all red walls, dark wood, gold, giant portraits, and dim lighting, giving it all an anachronistic and otherworldly feeling, like 19th Century French brothel meets David Lynch’s Black Lodge.  I was definitely feeling sensory overload, and my eyes had trouble adjusting to the low lights and everything there was to look at.

Our reservation was at 5:00, since we’re the youngest early bird diners you’ll ever meet.  We met our server, Erhan, who was the best guy ever.  He was our wise, patient, helpful guide through this extravagant evening, and we have never experienced better service anywhere.  If we had a question, Erhan was there to answer it like the best reference librarians I’ve ever worked with (and I would know, since I am one).  Apparently servers at Bern’s train for a year before they start out on the floor, and that painstaking training showed. You get the impression the man had seen and heard it all, and knew it all.

The appetizers beckoned.  I love oysters, and I heard Bern’s oysters were among the best you can have anywhere.  Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t care for oysters at all, and it would have felt wrong to order something she couldn’t enjoy too.  Now that our weather is FINALLY getting cool, some $1 oyster nights are going to be on my agenda.

However, there was something even fancier, even rarer, even more celebratory that intrigued us both: CAVIAR.  The menu has a whole page of caviar selections, ranging from semi-reasonable ($25) to ridiculous ($190).  Over a decade ago, we attended the wedding of dear friends we never get to see anymore, and they had a caviar bar at their reception.  I’m not sure how many of the other guests partook, but my wife and I went crazy, like cartoon cats at an all-you-can-eat bird buffet.  We still talk about their storybook-perfect wedding and that caviar bar to this day, and this was our first opportunity to recreate the experience.  Hey, this was a convergence of multiple special occasions, and I don’t think any Orlando restaurants even offer caviar.  None of the places we go, anyway! The closest we get is masago on our spicy poke bowls.

My wife chose the very moderate (for caviar) black hackleback sturgeon, and Bern’s serves it with so many accoutrements, which I love.  It came with the traditional Russian accompaniments of sour cream and the most finely-diced red onions, egg whites, and egg yolks I have ever seen, with the most perfect brioche toast points ever.  It also came with six flavored foams as additional condiments, each one adding its own dimensions to the buttery, briny black pearls.  I wish I could remember each one of the foams, dear Sabo-Squad, but there was definitely an avocado one (the green one), a potato and bacon foam (fourth one down), a curry foam (yellow), and a blue cheese foam (the one on the bottom, with blue cheese crumbles on top).  I’m forgetting the first and third ones.  Now, I am a sucker for any condiments and sauces, and they were neat, but the traditional sour cream, onions, and eggs went much better with the caviar.

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This was so good, our eyes were rolling back in our heads. “Like a sturgeon! Touched for the very first time!”

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What really completed the whole caviar ritual was a plate of six Yukon Gold potato blinis, perfectly soft potato pancakes that are nothing like the crispy, greasy, fried latkes I think of as potato pancakes.  These blinis were lighter than air, soft and creamy, the ideal little pillows to top with a dollop of sour cream and a smaller dollop of black pearls.  I am totally going to recreate them at home.  They were too good, and they’d be great in place of traditional breakfast pancakes too.  Imagine “silver dollar flappies” that just melt away in your mouth, and you have these blinis.

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After we inhaled every single morsel of everything (my wife, to her credit, didn’t indulge in the condiments at all), Erhan returned to counsel us on steaks.  At Bern’s, a party of two can split a larger steak if they want the same cut, which they recommend over each person ordering their own.  We both wanted the Delmonico, which is their ribeye, and we chose a whopping 16-ounce steak to share, that is 1 3/4″ thick.  Luckily, we both like our steaks rare, after a lifetime of restaurants and parents overcooking them.  At Bern’s, they are so exacting that they have varying degrees of rare, but we opted for a warm red center and a slight outer crust.  Erhan said they would even trim the outer fat and serve it on two separate plates, which was nice.  These are all U.S.D.A. Prime steaks, by the way.  You can occasionally find this highest quality meat at Costco, but rarely at supermarkets.

Best of all, all of Bern’s steaks come with a plethora of side orders, which is a million times better than most upscale steakhouses that serve everything a la carte and nickel-and-dime you to death with expensive sides (another reason I’m not a steakhouse fan).  As pricey as Bern’s is (and it is), it is also a bargain if you just want a good steak dinner and some sides.  The included sides are French onion soup, a house salad with a choice of housemade dressings, a baked potato that can be dressed with any combination of butter, sour cream, crumbled bacon, and chives, thin and crispy fried onion straws, and fresh vegetables from Bern’s own farm.  What I didn’t realize was that ordering the larger steak for two meant we would get two of every side.  I honestly thought we’d get one of each side and have to split them or decide who got what.  Rube alert!

I already love French onion soup, and this was easily the best I’ve ever had.  It was so rich and beefy and decadent, and came with garlic toast and spelt toast, a kind of grain we were both unfamiliar with.  My wife really impressed me by digging into her soup.  I love onions (and caramelize them all the time at home), but she really, really doesn’t like them (and hates the smell when I cook them).  I thought it was cool that she not only took a risk by trying it, but that she ended up liking it.  How could you not?  Incredible French onion soup. My wife thought the spelt toast was like “teething biscuits,” and it was quite hard, but softened up nicely when dunked in the soup.

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Next came the colorful house salads, with vegetables from Bern’s farm.  I was very impressed that they peeled the tomatoes.  WHO DOES THAT!?! I am always on a quest for good salad dressings to liven up my own salads, and I was excited by the list of Bern’s housemade dressings.  My wife chose one of my top picks, a macadamia nut vanilla bean vinaigrette.  I asked the ever-patient Erhan if I could sample two different dressings, and he hooked me up.  Grateful, I chose maple dijon (I love mustards and anything mapley) and creamy white balsamic Italian.  The salad was fine, but those three dressings were without a doubt the best salad dressings I’ve ever had, with the creamy white balsamic Italian in first place, then the vanilla bean vinaigrette.  They each came in fancy little metal pitchers, and even when we were finished with our salads, I asked to keep the dressings to dip the forthcoming onion straws into.  I wish Bern’s sold these salad dressings in bottles.  Ken’s Steak House can do it, Bern’s! Why can’t you?

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Finally, the steaks arrived, accompanied by the baked potatoes, onion straws, and two vegetables of the day, the most delicious, rich, buttery green beans and shredded carrots served with almonds.  I’m not a baked potato guy, so I pretty much just ate the top part that was loaded with all the toppings.  The steaks were superb, though.  Cooked to absolute perfection, as you can see.  Like I said, I’ve never had a dry-aged steak before, so I’m not enough of a connoisseur to tell a major difference in taste or texture.  What I can say is that it was one of the finest steaks of my life.  Top two, maybe, with only Christner’s right here in Orlando coming close.

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I’ll also RING THE ALARM, even though the thin onion straws aren’t exactly onion rings.  They were well-seasoned, crispy, not greasy at all, not overly salty, and held up to dipping in the remaining maple dijon dressing.

Well, at this point, we were pretty stuffed, but part of the iconic Bern’s experience is to go upstairs to finish your meal in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, “built in 1985 using redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms.”  I get it — they want to clear tables in the main dining room, so ushering folks upstairs to a separate dessert room is genius.  I paid our check (holy crap!), and we thanked Erhan profusely before heading off.  Observant regular readers already know my wife and I don’t drink, but the bill could easily have been doubled if we did.  As a result, we opted to skip the tour of Bern’s vaunted wine cellar, housing one of the largest collections of wine in the United States. To oenophiles, “cellar tour” might be the most beautiful-sounding phrase in the English language.

That said, we accepted their invitation to take a tour of Bern’s busy, bustling kitchen.  (It’s not like we’re special people; they offer both tours to all diners.)  The kitchen was where my wife really felt sensory overload, but the short behind-the-scenes tour was fascinating to me.  I’ve never worked in restaurants even though so many of my friends did, but I’m fascinated by the process, of peering behind the curtain and seeing how the sausage is made (figuratively, in this case, as there is no sausage on the menu, nor even an awe-inspiring burger made from cuts of Bern’s fabulous steaks.  What’s up with that?).  The kitchen was HUGE — much larger than either of us could have ever imagined — with a gigantic, tireless staff.

Next, we took the elevator up to the Dessert Room, and they really aren’t kidding about the private rooms, except they’re more like booths.  You really feel like you’re eating dessert inside of a phone booth made out of a giant wooden barrel.  The quarters were tight, but intimate, and the dessert menu is also something to behold.  This is where I feel like we both chose poorly (of course, we were no longer under Erhan’s protection up there), and they were the only disappointments of the evening.  We heard so much hype about the housemade macadamia nut ice cream sundae, so that’s what my wife ordered.  It was fine, I guess.  I’m not into nuts or chocolate as much as she is, but I think even she thought it was just okay.

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I guess we had a bit of miscommunication, because I ordered the Taste of Bern’s, a sampler that includes five desserts, expecting my wife would want to try all of them.  It comes with Macadamia Decadence Cake, King Midas (a carrot nut cake topped with more freakin’ macadamia nut ice cream), banana cheese pie, chocolate cheese pie, and vanilla cheesecake.  Little did I know that the five desserts would be literally mouse-sized portions, or that my wife would be too full to care about sampling all of them at that late point in the evening, almost three hours after we arrived.  I liked the banana cheese pie morsel quite a bit (fourth one) and probably would have preferred a full serving of that.  None of the others did much for me, I must admit.  I love cheesecake like crazy, but I’ve had better.  Oh well, we still had the experience.

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Also, the Dessert Room barrel-booths all come equipped with a telephone and a series of buttons that play different music through a speaker: jazz, Broadway standards, pop, and live music from a piano player stationed somewhere on the premises.  The phone is to call the piano player with requests.  Well, most of the buttons didn’t work, and we didn’t want to try playing “stump the piano player” with contemporary requests, although I still wonder if he would have known any Tori Amos (for my wife), Tom Waits (for me), or St. Vincent (for both of us).

We practically rolled back to our hotel across the street, which was a godsend, and crashed for the night much earlier than usual.  Aside from dessert being underwhelming for both of us, we have absolutely no regrets about going, spending the money, and finally getting the full Bern’s Steak House experience.  But I asked my wife if she would ever want to go back, and she said no, it was fine, she had a great time, but she got it out of her system completely.  I have to agree.  I was, and am, content.

We were celebrating being married for nine years, being relatively healthy (especially compared to the last year), and feeling mostly stable and safe at our respective jobs, so it was worth a step out of our comfort zones for a night like this.  I’m so grateful I was in the financial position to treat my wife to this little weekend anniversary getaway, but leaving Bern’s and checking out of the Epicurean Hotel the next morning felt like a return to reality, snapping out of this swanky fantasy and back to real life.

For better and for worse, Bern’s is a real time capsule — a piece of luxurious mid-Century Americana, at once tacky (the decor) and classy (pretty much everything else).  I’m glad they have withstood the test of time and bravely doubled down on what they have always done, rather than submitting to trends, modernizing, and going more casual.  This is the kind of place the Rat Pack would go if they went to Tampa back in the day, or where Henry Hill would have taken his wife (or possibly his mistress) if Goodfellas had a little side story set in Tampa.  I’m imagining the interior monologues, sweeping Steadicam shots, and Scorsese’s swingin’ ’70s song choices even now.  Bern’s does everything with the utmost care and the highest quality, and you get what you pay for.  They certainly go out of their way to put you at ease (even though decadence and luxury make me uncontrollably uncomfortable every time) and give you an unforgettable evening.

But I promise you, fearless readers: my next restaurant review will feel more like classic Saboscrivner, with a trip to one of Tampa’s legendary bakeries that is over a century old.  Stay tuned for TAMPAVERSARY PART 2!

Se7enbites

For many years, I have been a champion of Se7enbites (http://www.se7enbites.com/), the local bakery and restaurant run by the delightful Chef Trina Gregory-Propst, a woman I am honored to call a friend.  Ever since I first tasted her Signature Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Pie at another local establishment, Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I knew she was a master of her craft.  It is, and still remains, the finest pie crust I’ve ever had.  This is praise of the highest order, as I will always choose pie over all other desserts.  Long before The Saboscrivner, long before the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, I used to post about local food on the Florida forum of the website Chowhound.com, and I remember being the first to review her awe-inspiring pie on the entire Internet.  As far as I was concerned, a star was born.

This was several years ago, long before Chef Trina founded her own place, Se7enbites.  It started out in Orlando’s “Milk District” on Primrose and Robinson, in a very small space that regularly had lines out the door, especially for weekend breakfasts and brunches.  Peering over the counter at the array of beautiful baked goods was like looking through a window into Willy Wonka’s factory: a world of pure imagination, crafted from sugar, flour, and love.  We didn’t go as often as we liked, simply due to the crowds, but it was always a feast for the senses, as well as a great place to bring my co-workers and occasional out of town guests to show them one of Orlando’s best independent eateries.

Chef Trina became successful enough to expand to a larger location with much more parking on Primrose, just south of Colonial.  And in 2017, she received a well-deserved accolade that some restauranteurs only dream of: Se7enbites was featured on Guy Fieri’s ubiquitous and beloved Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, which only added to her status as a local legend.  (That was Season 26, episode 10, “Wonder Women,” in case you’re ever lucky enough to catch a replay.)  Once she started serving burgers (which are amazing!), I named her Italian Stallion burger one of my top five dishes of 2017 in a feature I wrote for the Orlando Weekly in their last issue of the year, but I’m no Guy Fieri, I get it. (I spent much of the late ’90s and 2000s wearing shirts straight out of the “hipster doofus collection,” just like his, though.)

Needless to say, it has been a pleasure to watch Chef Trina become a recognized and respected face of Orlando’s culinary community, and my wife and I have been huge fans from the beginning!  Whenever we go to Se7enbites, we always get the friendliest service and some of my favorite food in Orlando.  Whether we choose handmade burgers with ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries, buttermilk garlic breakfast biscuits heaped with bacon and eggs, or meatloaf sandwiches with a mashed potato schmear, we know we’re always in for a treat.  Chef Trina never fails to come out of her bustling kitchen to check on us, and she always asks how my wife is doing when I pop in alone, as I did last Friday.

I was just planning to bring a crack pie home to her, that rich, custardy concoction popularized by another delightful designer of delectable desserts, Chef Christina Tosi of New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar.  It’s a small, individual-sized pie that we ended up splitting into quarters, with a buttery crust and a creamy, sticky center, dusted with powdered sugar.  Like most of Se7enbites’ pies, it is small — just a 5″ diameter, but rich and thick enough for two people to easily share and be satisfied.

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Chef Trina, knowing our mutual love for croissants, strongly recommended I bring home her new lavender honey butter croissants, and how could I refuse that?  They weren’t enormous, so I got one for each of us.  And when we enjoyed them the following morning for breakfast (since we tried to not make this CarbChella Fest ’18), they were definitely fine croissants, hon hon hon!  I wonder how it would be if it was just honey butter, without the lavender.  Still pretty amazing, I have no doubt.

20180720_190410_resized(Pardon the end I ripped off — it was hard to resist the buttery aroma and perfect pastry texture before remembering I need to be documenting this!)

That day, they also had “Beach Bum cheesecake” listed on a chalkboard of daily specials, so I had to ask what that was.  It was a mini-cheesecake with mango, coconut, and something else I’m blanking on at the moment, which instantly became something I couldn’t live without.  I love cheesecake and tropical fruit, so I had to have it!  When I brought it home, my wife was a little skeptical, but she ended up loving it too, and concluded that it was far better cheesecake than the Cheesecake Factory (which I wholeheartedly agree with, because Cheesecake Factory cheesecake is totally overrated).  That one didn’t last long enough for me to take a photo, but it has a nice, moist graham cracker bottom crust, and the whole thing was just about 5″ diameter, like most of Chef Trina’s pies.

As usual, I should have taken more pictures, but this really was just a quick pop-in for one dessert item that ended up becoming four.  We’ll be back to Se7enbites without fail, and I’ll report more on it then.  But for now, I’m so glad it exists here in Orlando.  It’s a real treasure, and so are Chef Trina and her lovely staff.

Baltimore, Part 2: Dangerously Delicious Pies

When you’re a grown-ass person, you can choose to have dessert for dinner if you want to.  Normally that isn’t my ideal meal; I like some sweets, but I’m more likely to crave a good sandwich (almost everything is better in sandwich form), pasta, or salty, crunchy snacks.  But when it comes to desserts, my favorite might be PIE.  I’ll take pie over cake any day; I love pie, and I’m sad that for the most part, pie isn’t hip or cool or popular.  There was a time in the U.S. when pie wasn’t just for Thanksgiving — and true confession time, I think apple and pumpkin may be the most boring, pedestrian pies, and Thanksgiving dinner is boring and bland in general.  But that’s a hot take for another blog entry!

There were times past when you could take a date out for coffee and pie after a movie, or convince more people to attend a voluntary meeting if you promised punch and pie.  Those days are gone, and what desserts are en vogue now?  We’re left with trendy cupcakes, crumbly dry nibbles of cake buried under mounds of sickly-sweet, greasy frosting; macarons, tiny pastel burger-looking things that still look much prettier than they taste; and biscotti, a cruel joke against anyone who likes cookies.

But pie is comfort food, nostalgia, hope — all the good parts of America with none of the bad, the most pastoral of pastries, equally at home cooling on a farmhouse windowsill or resting under a glass dome in a lonely big-city diner straight out of an Edward Hopper painting.  I even fulfilled a lifelong dream I never even knew I had earlier this year, when I volunteered as a judge in the American Pie Championship, right here in Orlando.  That was an experience I’ll never forget or regret, even though I got stuck with the apple pie category and never need to have apple pie again.

So needless to say, I was thrilled when two Facebook friends alerted me to the presence of a pie restaurant right here in Baltimore, where I’m spending the next few days!  Dangerously Delicious Pies (https://www.dangerouspiesbalt.com/) was founded by Rodney Henry, frontman of Baltimore rock band The Glenmont Popes, and apparently quite a baker as well.  The restaurant has two locations in Baltimore, and they specialize in sweet AND savory pies!  The menu is huge, almost to the point of intimidating, but I figured I’d get a piece of savory pie so I could feel like a functional grown-ass person and have more than just dessert for dinner, but follow it with a sweet slice.

I took a Lyft ride to the scenic Canton neighborhood location with an old friend and one of her work colleagues.  It was a cool, funky little restaurant, with walls painted red, some rock ‘n’ roll decor, and a glass case teeming with gorgeous, tempting pies.  All savory pies are $7.50 per slice, and quiches and sweet pies are $6.50 per slice.  Every pie is baked in a 10″ pie pan, and they are cut into six equal, generous slices.

My friend selected the Hot Rod Potato pie: kind of like potatoes au gratin with potatoes, roasted peppers, cream, cheeses, onions, and bacon.  20180714_192934_resized

Her colleague had just flown into Baltimore and was hungry enough to order two slices: the Cannonball (bratwurst, onions, and peppers roasted in Heavy Seas Loose Cannon beer) and the Polka pie (Kielbasa, sauerkraut, potatoes, and cheese).  They were kind enough to let me try theirs, and I did the same.

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I think I panicked from the seemingly-limitless options, because I chose the sausage, tomato, and fennel pie — good, but not as great as all of theirs.  I love tomato-based sauces on pasta, pizza, salsa, you name it, but this had chunks of stewed tomatoes that were a little too large for my liking.  I think it came down to a texture issue for me, as I’d rather have a smoother sauce without huge chunks when it comes to hot, cooked tomatoes.  But my pie included both sweet and hot sausages, and it still tasted really good.  It could have used some cheese, though — either melty mozzarella or provolone, or even a gooey white American or cream cheese to balance out the acidic, chunky tomatoes.

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All these pies had the same crust — fork-tender, flaky, buttery, a little salty, chewy yet also crispy, not really sweet.  It was a really solid pie crust that got thicker and a little dryer toward the back.  Like a lot of dry pizza crusts, I wasn’t too tempted to eat the outer crust pieces, but the tops and bottoms were terrific.

The pies all came with complimentary sides of either a vinegar-based cole slaw with poppy seeds, or a simple side salad.  I opted for the cole slaw, which was great, except for the poppy seeds that got lodged between some of my teeth all night.  I still contend they need to develop an app that warns you about visible food caught between your teeth.

For her sweet pie, my friend went with the house specialty, the Baltimore Bomb, a vanilla-custardy chess pie with Berger cookies, a local delicacy similar to New York’s familiar black and white cookies, melted and swirled into the custard filling.  Berger cookies are smaller than your average black and whites, but they’re comparable “cakey” cookies, covered with rich, thick chocolate icing.  It was in the same kind of flaky, buttery crust as the savory pies, but it was almost a sweetness overload.

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I had a much easier time choosing my sweet pie, especially after studying the menu in advance: the Pineapple Right Side Up pie, white chocolate maple chess pie topped with brown sugar and pineapple.  As I write more on this blog, you will learn that I love anything with pineapple and anything with maple, but it’s very rare for a dessert to include both flavors.  Needless to say, it was delicious, but also ridiculously sweet and rich.  I would have liked a little more of a pineapple upside down cake taste mixed throughout (that’s one cake that I’ll always love) and a little less of the rich custard, which was extremely “eggy”-tasting in both sweet pies.  And normally I love chess pie!

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Anyway, it was an awesome dinner, a unique restaurant, and a great value.  None of us had any regrets, even if I don’t feel like I chose the best savory pie option.  I’m so glad some of my hip friends hipped me to the existence of Dangerously Delicious Pies, because I came across as so cool recommending it to my other friend and her friend.  Now I can say that almost everything is better in sandwich form AND pie form.

This place opens at 10 AM during the week and 9 AM on weekends, and stays open until 10 PM most days, and midnight on Friday and Saturday.  You could literally have pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I strongly recommend you try that at least once.

To quote FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, one of my favorite fictional characters of all time from one of my favorite shows of all time, these were some damn fine pies.