Cafe Madrid

Many years ago, I went to lunch with some co-workers at a Cuban restaurant that was fine.  Not bad, by any means, but I thought it was just okay.  I grew up in Miami, and while my parents didn’t love adventuring all over the city to try new restaurants the way I do in Orlando, they sure appreciated good Cuban food.  We were surrounded by some of the finest Cuban cuisine in the world: the Latin American Cafeteria within walking distance of our little 1950s-era house in the Kendall suburbs, two different La Carreta locations within easy driving distance, and the legendary, iconic Versailles, maybe the most quintessentially “Miami” dining experience there is, still not too far away.

As a result of this, my standards for Cuban food are high, and it is honestly hard to find any Cuban restaurants in Orlando that can compete with the classics in Miami.  So that little Orlando restaurant seemed much saltier and greasier than I was used to, I never found my way back to it, and I hadn’t thought about it in years.

Well, I recently went into work early and had to stay late, so I figured I’d go out to lunch to break up the day.  Believe it or not, dear readers, this is a rare thing for me.  I almost always pack my own lunches, and they are usually boring and relatively healthy — so unlike what I review on The Saboscrivner!  I happened to be driving west on Curry Ford Road, hungry and indecisive, and saw that familiar sign: Cafe Madrid (https://www.cafemadridfl.com/).  It had been so long, I figured I’d give them another chance, because even just okay Cuban food is better than a lot of things.

And to my pleasant surprise, Cafe Madrid was a brand new restaurant.  Same name and location, but new owners, new decor, new menu, new everything that matters.  They had only been open for four months in this new incarnation.  It was a much brighter, open, welcoming space, and instead of a Cuban restaurant, the new owners had reinvented it as a Cuban-Spanish bakery and deli, specializing in sandwiches and beautiful pastries displayed in glass cases, along with some tapas and hot lunch specials.  It ended up being exactly what I… wanted?  NO.  It ended up being exactly what I NEEDED.

DSC01794DSC01795DSC01796DSC01797DSC01798

Again, hungry, indecisive, and expecting a longer night than usual at work, I was torn between two sandwiches and decided to order both: a chorizo sandwich and my old Miami standard, the medianoche, AKA the midnight sandwich.  I figured I’d enjoy one there and save the other for later, possibly even for the next day.

The chorizo sandwich came with thin slices of Spanish chorizo sausage, served warm on fresh pressed Cuban bread, baked in-house.  It included melty provolone cheese and was served with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo.  Due to the lettuce and tomato factor, that’s the sandwich I unwrapped and ate at the restaurant.  It was great!  DSC01800

The wet ingredients made it want to slide apart as I ate, but I am a grown-ass man and didn’t even get any on myself.  I would have liked more chorizo, but no matter the situation in life, it would be safe to say I would always like more chorizo.  You will never catch me saying “Maaaan, I wish I had less chorizo!”dsc01802.jpg

Flash forward to work the next day, I ate the medianoche sandwich straight out of the fridge because the less said about our break room toaster oven, the better.  And you know what?  It was a delicious sandwich, even cold.  I love the sweet, yellow egg bread of a medianoche even more than typical Cuban bread, and it was also pressed like a traditional Cuban sandwich.  The ingredients are the same as a Cuban, otherwise: roast pork (not dry at all, even after being made the day before, refrigerated, and eaten cold), sweet ham, swiss cheese, yellow mustard (I am a mustard aficionado, and Cuban and medianoche sandwiches are the only times I settle for plain yellow), and plenty of crispy pickles (which I am slowly developing an appreciation for).  It was definitely more generously stuffed than the chorizo sandwich.  DSC01806DSC01807

I rarely drink coffee, which is a rarity among librarians and people in general, it seems like.  The two kinds of coffee that tempt me are cool, creamy, sweet Vietnamese iced coffee, served with sweetened condensed milk, and rich, frothy, strong Cuban cafe con leche.  Coffee usually jazzes me up too many hours after I need the extra energy, and I often don’t like the way it makes me feel, with my heart feeling like it’s going to bust out of my chest, preceded by the acrid sadness of acid reflux.  But with that said, I suppose I like my coffee like I like my women: strong, sweet, and thick.

In a moment of weakness, I chugged this cafe con leche at 4 PM, which was ill-advised.  I do wish they had added their own sugar, since I stirred in two packets and it still wasn’t nearly as sweet as the cafe con leche I love from back home.  And I have no doubt the walk-up windows of Miami add a lot more than two packets worth of sugar to their sweet, sweet rocket fuel.dsc01801.jpg

I also ate a crispy fried empanada while I waited for my sandwiches at Cafe Madrid, stuffed with pizza fillings: delicious tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.  I loved that, but to paraphrase comedian Jim Gaffigan, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada.  (Some are certainly better than others, though, and the fried Cuban style is my favorite by far.)dsc01799.jpg

And I selected an assortment of pastries to bring home to share with my wife: a guava and cheese quesito for me, a regular cheese quesito for her, a cannoli, a piece of sweet cornbread (Southerners may not appreciate that, but we did), and a chocolatey rolled cake called braza gitana, or “gypsy’s arm,” which ended up being very moist, and probably my favorite of the group.DSC01803

Braza gitana!dsc01805.jpg

So Cafe Madrid had nothing in common with the restaurant I ate at nearly a decade ago, aside from the name and location.  If you weren’t sold on it before, it might as well be an all-new place.  And if you loved the old Cuban restaurant, give this bakery/deli/sandwich shop a fair chance, and you should be pleasantly surprised like I was.  While none of the Cuban food in Orlando measures up to my Miami favorites, Cafe Madrid totally hit the spot, filling my heart and my stomach with nostalgic tastes of home.

Advertisements

Ring the Alarm! Cooper’s Hawk

My BFF (Best Food Friend) who is actually my lifelong best friend, has been recommending Cooper’s Hawk (https://chwinery.com/) to me for a while.  It’s an upscale chain restaurant, and he has raved about the location in Doral, Florida (near Miami) before.  I’ve been meaning to get back out to Waterford Lakes with my wife so we could try our local location, but between the heavy traffic and the sprawling, Fury Road-invoking parking lot, we typically avoid the east side of Orlando.

But my wife was hungry, and after going through the usual litany of all our regular restaurants, we decided to try something new and treat ourselves a little.  Cooper’s Hawk is a winery on top of being a restaurant, but even though we don’t drink, the menu was huge and intriguing.  If you do like wine (and going through my friends’ Facebook pages, it sure seems like most people love wine!), you should definitely check it out.  It looks like they offer a huge selection, all from their own label, so you wouldn’t find any familiar wine brands there.  But you enter through a wine retail store with a busy bar, and I’m sure oenophiles will find something to love on the way into the restaurant, or even while waiting for a movie at the Waterford Lakes Regal theater.

It was seriously hard to choose.  The menu is close to the legendary Cheesecake Factory with regard to choices.  There are steaks, seafood, chicken, and pork, Italian, Asian, and Mexican-inspired dishes, burgers and sandwiches, and more.  I strongly recommend studying the menu in advance, but I recommend that for most restaurants.

I’ve never been a pork chop fan.  Most of the ones I’ve had are relatively bland and dry, especially compared to all the other wondrous things you can do with pork: a world of sausage, salami, ham, prosciutto, capicola, pulled pork, al pastor, ribs, cochinita pibil, roast pork with crispy skin, pork belly, pancetta, bacon, osso bucco, German eisbein, chicharrones.

But my wife loves a good pork chop because her family used to eat them a lot, so I wasn’t surprised she selected one of the two different pork chop dishes on the menu: a maple-mustard-pretzel-crusted pork chop, served with Mary’s potatoes (whipped with butter and cream), an assortment of oven-roasted vegetables (including mushrooms, my old nemesis), and crispy onion strings I knew I would be eating, because she hates onions and I love them.

When it arrived, the plating was beautiful, and the pork chop was the thickest either of us had ever seen!  She thought it was the tastiest pork chop she had ever eaten, and even I, the pork chop skeptic, was absolutely blown away by the few bites she shared with me.  Pure perfection, dear readers.  She doesn’t even like mustard, but aside from a few bites that really startled her and cleared out her sinuses (she probably bit down on whole mustard seeds), she loved the flavor.  And it was so tender and juicy, despite not being a fatty piece of meat at all.  It was easily the best pork chop I’ve ever tasted, and I would totally order it myself on a future visit, as long as I could substitute the vegetables for another side.  (Our lovely server assured us the kitchen can usually substitute anything, since everything is made from scratch in-house.)ch1.jpg

ch2

As much as my wife is drawn to hearty steaks and chops, my greatest meat loves are usually cured, smoked, braised, or stewed in a sauce until rich and tender.  I always love short ribs, even though I rarely cook them at home (although I should).  Cooper’s Hawk offered a braised short rib dish, as well as another dish with gnocchi pasta in a short rib bolognese sauce that also included pancetta (yes)! and San Marzano tomatoes, the best tomatoes.  When I make my own sauce at home, I use canned San Marzanos.  It makes a difference!  Anyway, they make everything from scratch here, even the pasta, so I was sold.  And even though I was experiencing major cognitive dissonance by choosing that over so many other tasty-sounding dishes I love, I’m so glad I did.  To paraphrase the old knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I chose wisely.

It was a better pasta dish than most that I’ve ordered from Italian restaurants, rich and hearty and extremely well-seasoned, with nice tomato chunks (sometimes I get turned off by huge, slimy tomato chunks in sauce), fork-tender short rib pieces, a bit of additional salty richness from the pancetta (a secret weapon I use in so many good recipes), and wonderfully chewy gnocchi dumplings.  The white stuff on top is creamy burrata dolce, a fresh, buttery cheese made from mozzarella blended with cream.ch3

I saw that a few of the dishes come with buttermilk onion rings, even though they weren’t listed on the menu as a side dish.  I asked our server if I could order onion rings as a side, and she said yes, but they are big, so the order would only come with three of them.  But since I have a little recurring feature I like to call RING THE ALARM! (AIR HOOORRRRRRN!), I had to try them.  And guess what: they were magnificent onion rings.  She wasn’t kidding when she said they were big.  They were the size of sour cream glazed “old-fashioned” doughnuts!  If I’m lyin’, I’m flyin’.

The onion rings (more like onion bracelets!) were battered, not breaded (thank all that’s good in the universe), with a rich, thick, crispy golden crust that stayed in place, with the slightest hint of sweetness and not greasy at all.  I’ve never had such puffy, fluffy onion rings, but they were a marvel to behold.  They weren’t served with any dipping sauces (shame, because I’m sure Cooper’s Hawk has some good ones), just sprinkled with some kind of salty seasoning that I must admit made they way too salty.  I think they’d be damn near perfect if you ask them to hold the salty seasoning.  Normally I enjoy salty fried foods, but it was a little much and took away from how great they were, otherwise.  ch4

Well, we couldn’t go to such a nice new place and not order a dessert!  I was stuffed and didn’t even finish my gnocchi, but my wife loves chocolate and really wanted to try the chocolate cake.  It is made with Valrhona chocolate, with layers of hazelnut ganache and served with vanilla ice cream, all made fresh daily in-house.  I had one bite of ice cream and one bite of cake, and even though I’d probably never order chocolate cake as my dessert, both were great.  The cake was very moist and the ice cream was rich and creamy, not icy at all, and no greasy mouthfeel.  My wife seemed to love it, but she finished the ice cream and brought the majority of the cake home.ch5

A funny thing we do at every single restaurant we visit is for me to ask my wife, usually rhetorically, if her parents would like the place.  Most often, I could answer the question myself with a big fat “no.”  They don’t go out to eat as much as they used to, and her mom is a relatively picky eater.  Great lady, I love her to pieces, but she likes what she likes, and one thing she doesn’t like is trying new foods!  (My own parents and brother read The Saboscrivner, and they often comment on how they probably wouldn’t go where I go or order what I order, but I appreciate them along with all my other readers.  There are dozens of us!  DOZENS!)

But anyway, when I asked if her parents would like Cooper’s Hawk, we both agreed that they probably would.  So a week later, when we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, we were able to wrangle them out of the house for a celebratory dinner there — the first meal the four of us have had out at a restaurant since her birthday the previous year!

My wife doubled down on the masterful pork chop, getting it as one of the Build Your Own Surf and Turf options, pairing it with pistachio-crusted grouper (one of her favorite fish).  She loved both, devouring the grouper on the spot and saving most of the pork chop for the next day.  It came with the same Mary’s potatoes and vegetables as last time.DSC01836

My father in law ordered the same pistachio-crusted grouper and seemed to love his.DSC01834

My mother in law ordered crab cakes, one of her go-to dishes anywhere, and swapped the fries and Asian slaw for Mary’s potatoes and excellent macaroni and cheese.  She has high expectations for her crab cakes, and these did not seem to disappoint.  They were mostly lump crabmeat, with very little filler.  (She asked and they answered!)DSC01835

And after recently reading an article about Nashville hot chicken, which I enjoyed so much on a trip to the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year, I decided to try Cooper’s Hawk’s version, served open-faced on a buttermilk biscuit with blue cheese slaw and a side of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, which was one of the better mac and cheese dishes I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Orlando.  The slaw wasn’t creamy and intense with blue cheese like I was hoping; the multicolored shredded cabbage was mostly dry.

I think the hot chicken was perfectly good, but it didn’t have the intense crunch, flavor, or heat of Hattie B’s, so my quest continues.  It was barely spicy at all, but Hattie B’s hot chicken was practically too spicy for me, so I think it would be a little much for most unsuspecting Cooper’s Hawk diners.  It came with a lot of sliced pickles, and I ate them all.  I’ve traditionally never been a fan of pickles, but I’m trying to develop an appreciation for them by sampling all the different kinds of pickles I can.   I love almost all other pickled vegetables (peppers, onions, giardinera), so I figure it’s only a matter of time.  Readers, feel free to recommend pickles, whether they’re store-bought or from certain restaurants!

I am fully aware this is an awful picture, despite bringing my “good” camera.  Sorry.  Mea culpa.  I think my photography has been better in general lately, but pobody’s nerfect.
DSC01833

My wife and her parents are big dessert people, so we were all psyched to see what Cooper’s Hawk might bring out in honor of my wife’s birthday.  This is what she got: a lovely chocolate-covered strawberry and a white chocolate truffle.  She wasn’t really into either, so I got to enjoy both:DSC01837

After that, they went to town and shared a few desserts:

The same good chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream:
DSC01842

Very good, tart key lime pie in a graham cracker crust (my mother-in-law’s choice, and I only wish I had taken more than one bite):
DSC01841

And banoffee pie, which is a rich pie made with bananas and a gooey toffee filling, all nestled into a graham cracker crust.  Very sweet, rich, and heavy.  I should note that the fresh whipped cream on all these desserts had vanilla bean specks in it, and it was delicious.  I could easily and happily just eat a big ol’ bowl of that whipped cream with a spoon and consider it a swell, satisfying dessert.DSC01840

Trust me, the fact that we got my wife’s parents out to dinner at a new restaurant, and that they liked it,  speaks volumes right there.  Dear readers, if your parents visit Orlando and they balk at anything too unfamiliar, this would be a fantastic place to bring them.  It would be a great date night restaurant, a happy hour spot with friends, or a place to kill time before or after a movie at Waterford Lakes.  It’s not cheap, but every single thing we tasted was remarkable, and the service was superb on both of our visits.  And if you like wine, then face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!  If I had to compare it to anything, it would be the ambiance and upscale feeling of Hillstone with the expansive depth of the Cheesecake Factory menu (but better quality across the board).  My Best Food Friend has never steered me wrong, and he was completely on the money with Cooper’s Hawk.

The Coop

John Rivers has built a successful restaurant empire from right here in the Orlando area, starting with his first, tiny 4 Rivers Smokehouse location in Winter Park that grew into an empire throughout Florida and even beyond.  We love 4 Rivers for barbecue, and I will get around to reviewing it here eventually, even though we’ve been there countless times over the last decade.

Mr. Rivers founded The Coop (https://asouthernaffair.com/), his Southern home-cookin’ restaurant, back in 2014, also in Winter Park.  I made it our goal to be there on opening day, and my wife and I were within the first 20 or so people lined up for lunch that first day.  At some point they started serving breakfast, and one morning a few years back, we met John Rivers, the man himself.  We had to gush a bit over how much we love 4 Rivers and The Coop, and I can tell you he could not have been friendlier, more down-to-Earth, more humble, or more welcoming.  He even treated us to breakfast that morning, which he did NOT have to do.  He does a lot of charitable work with these restaurants as well, and is an all-around mensch.

Anyway, The Coop serves some of the best fried chicken in Orlando and all kinds of down-home Southern sides and other dishes.  Chicken and waffles?  Chicken and dumplings?  Roasted chicken?  Shrimp and grits?  Fried seafood?  Pimento cheese?  Biscuits?  Cornbread?  Delicious breakfasts?  Decadent desserts?  You name it, they have it.

I have lost count of the times we’ve been there since it opened five years ago.  I have also brought my best friend from Miami there, and lots of co-workers as well.  This review is based on our two most recent visits.

Even though I love a good fried chicken thigh, The Coop’s roasted chicken is quite good, so I’ve been ordering it more often.  You can get a quarter- or half-chicken a la carte, or with two or three sides and a biscuit or cornbread.  I always get collard greens at The Coop and 4 Rivers.  Theirs are some of the best greens I’ve ever had.  They are slow-cooked with smoked pork, and I always add some generous dashes of pepper vinegar to them.  I can even drink the juice when I finish those greens, it is that delicious.  That square thing below is actually a biscuit, and it is flaky and rich.  Feel free to add butter, jam, syrup, or dip it in your meat juices or barbecue sauce, but it doesn’t need anything.coop1

Thighs and legs are my favorite parts of any bird, so I always go for the dark meat quarter chicken (or sometimes the half, if I’m hungry enough).  The skin is attached, brushed with barbecue sauce or some kind of sweet glaze but not smoked like the chicken at 4 Rivers.  It is always moist, juicy, and tender.  I asked for it with a side of Alabama white barbecue sauce, which might look like ranch and smell like ranch, but BROTHER, it ain’t ranch.  It is creamy, peppery, tangy, and subtly sweet, so it goes well with any kind of chicken, especially with that skin.  coop2

I also chose the side called “Hoppin’ John,” a Southern stew of rice, black-eyed peas, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and okra.  It is always okay, never quite as good as I think it’s going to be, but some people go gaga over this dish.  coop3

My wife loves fried catfish more than anyone I’ve ever met, so she vacillates between ordering fried chicken and catfish at The Coop.  She ordered catfish both of our last two visits, which comes with grits and hush puppies.  These are grits cooked the real, traditional way, as “NO SELF-RESPECTIN’ SOUTHERNER USES INSTANT GRITS.”  The Coop takes pride in its grits!

This was from one visit:coop4

And this was from a different visit.  This time, the hush puppies came out later, hot, crispy, and fresh.  She’s not so big on hush puppies, which is great, because I ate them, dipping them in the remoulade sauce that came with the catfish.  (She has never been into condiments or sauces or dipping things in other things, whereas I obsess over that.)20190103_125257_resized

As for me, I switched things around and created a new dish.  I’m not wild about grits, believe it or not, which is ironic because I love the way shrimp is prepared in shrimp and grits, that classic Low Country cuisine dish from the Carolinas and Georgia, stewed with salty, smoky andouille sausage and sometimes tasso ham.  Totally kosher, am I right?

I had a crazy idea, but I didn’t know if they would let me get away with it.  I asked if I could get the shrimp with something other than grits, and the patient girl told me that some people get the shrimp ladled over white rice.  I had other plans that day, and asked if I could get the shrimp over macaroni and cheese!  (The Coop has really nice, creamy macaroni and cheese, by the way.  It is never dried-out.)  She indulged me, and this is something they should seriously add to the menu, because it was forking amazing.  In fact, inspired by my bravado and culinary creativity, the older gentleman in line behind me requested the same thing!  Dear readers, have I become a dreaded “influencer”?  Say it ain’t so!20190103_124811_resized

And they always have beautiful cakes there, so my wife got this piece of chocolate cake wrapped up to go, which she loved.coop5

So yeah, come to The Coop for the excellent fried chicken, but stay for everything else!  Just don’t bother showing up on Sundays, because it is closed.  Of course, now I have incepted the idea into your heads that you will crave Coop food on Sundays, as we too often do.

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.

20190107_152141_resized

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.

***

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 tuned, 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.

20190112_133547_resized.jpg

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!

20190112_133537_resized

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.

dsc01767

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.

dsc01761.jpg

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.

dsc01762.jpg

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.

dsc01765

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.

dsc01766

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.

dsc01763

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.

dsc01768

dsc01769

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.

dsc01770

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

dsc01772.jpg

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.

20181022_201954_resized

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.

20181022_203823_resized.jpg

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.

20181022_201724_resized20181022_201739_resized

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

20181022_201732_resized

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.

20181022_201746_resized

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:

20181022_204228_resized

The crawfish banh mi:20181022_204138_resized

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.

20181022_204408_resized

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.

DSC01716.JPG

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.

DSC01715

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.

DSC01714

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.

DSC01711

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.

DSC01713

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.