My Top Five Dishes of 2018 list made the Orlando Weekly!

I’ve been a huge fan of the Orlando Weekly ever since I first moved here in 2004.  Now this city is my home, and if my finger is ever on the pulse of local culture, the Weekly is a major reason why.

In 2017, they offered me my first professional gig as a food writer when they asked me to list my Top Five Dishes of 2017.  It was a huge honor for me, and I’ve been coasting on it all year.

I recently had the opportunity to make a new list for the Orlando Weekly, with my Top Five Dishes of 2018, and they were kind enough to even link to this very blog!  Please check it out, and check out my Saboscrivner reviews of these excellent local restaurants as well:

LaSpada’s Original Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Kai Asian Street Fare

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine

Poke Hana

Orlando Meats

LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Sharp-eyed Saboscrivner readers (Saboscrivnerinos? Can I use that?) know there’s nothing I love as much as a good Italian sub. This year alone, I’ve reviewed two excellent new sub shops in Orlando: Stasio’s Italian Market & Deli (where I enjoyed the namesake Stasio sandwich) and Manzano’s Deli (where I raved about the Rocco). My Orlando Weekly list of the top five dishes I ate in 2017 included the Capone, the excellent Italian sub occasionally offered by Bad As’s Sandwich.

But my first love has always been LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies (http://laspadas.com/), which I’ve been a devoted fan of ever since I first heard about it from a mechanic when I was getting my oil changed, two cars ago. Thank you, Tuffy mechanic, wherever you are! (Probably Tuffy.)

LaSpada’s is a little mom-and-pop establishment on Lee Road, just off I-4, and only ten minutes from Winter Park Village. The website lists other locations in Sanford and Orange City, which I have never been to, but people near them are lucky and should try their local ones. There are some completely unaffiliated LaSpada’s hoagie shops in South Florida, but they have their own website, different (smaller) menus, and are not connected in any way that I can tell.  I went to one in Davie once, and it was good, but not nearly as good as the LaSpada’s we are lucky to have here in Orlando.

Anyway, this might be heresy, but I think cheesesteaks are just okay — I’d rather order almost any other kind of sandwich. They can be tasty, but a lot of the time they’re greasy and boiling lava hot, to the point where your tongue and the inside of your mouth are blistered beyond belief so you don’t get to taste the meat and cheese. That said, if you want a cheesesteak in Orlando, I would be shocked if you could find a better one anywhere else. I know they offer provolone and American cheese as options; I’m not sure if you can get it with the regional favorite of Cheez Whiz.

What I go to LaSpada’s for is a particular Italian hoagie called the LaSpada’s Famous, a gargantuan architectural marvel featuring genoa salami, pepper ham, capicola, sopressata, prosciutto, and sharp provolone on an overstuffed soft roll. It smells like heaven and tastes even better than it smells. Lettuce, tomato, and onion come standard, and if I had one tiny complaint, it’s that the onion is chopped rather than sliced paper-thin. You can add hot or sweet peppers for a slight upcharge, which I usually do, but I forgot to ask for them on my latest visit, when I ordered my LaSpada’s Famous hoagie to go.  Since I took it home, I added my own hot pepper relish, sliced cherry peppers, and a drizzle of balsamic glaze to make a great thing even better.

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This is the large, which costs $12.50 — a bargain at twice the price, given how staggeringly large it is.

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I have a regular feature on The Saboscrivner called Ring the Alarm! whenever I review onion rings. I am always on a quest for good onion rings, as well as Italian subs, and LaSpada’s onion rings are among my favorites anywhere. They have a crispy beer batter coating that imparts a good flavor, doesn’t get soggy with grease, and doesn’t crumble or fall off. Remember I ordered these to go, and even though grease soaked through the bag a bit, they were still crispy and perfect by the time I got them home, 20 minutes later. These are the gold(en brown) standard of onion rings, as far as I’m concerned.

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Because LaSpada’s doesn’t have dinner hours and is far from where I work, I only make it over there two or three times a year.  My little tradition is to go see a movie by myself at the Winter Park Regal theater and then treat myself to a LaSpada’s Famous afterwards (although I only eat half at a time because it’s so huge).  I’m so glad it’s there, and as good as it is.  It’s a real treasure, and definitely one of Orlando’s hidden gems that not enough people know about.

Manzano’s Deli

Anyone who knows me knows I love a few things: my wife, comic books, lounge acts with girl singers, cats, and Italian deli sandwiches.  Here in Orlando, LaSpada’s has always been my favorite spot for an Italian hoagie bursting at the seams with cured Italian meats, sharp provolone cheese, and crispy fresh vegetables and pickled peppers.  In 2017, Bad As’s Sandwich changed the game with their limited-time special, the Capone, which made my list of the year’s top five dishes.  (Yeah, I’m probably gonna be citing that forever.)  Then Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market opened this summer, and I reviewed it right here, on its opening day.

We are lucky to have one more great sub shop in town now: Manzano’s Deli (http://manzanowinterpark.com/), on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, moments from Park Avenue and Rollins College, and directly next door to the Little Blue Donut Co.  Manzano’s already has two beloved locations in DeLand and New Smyrna Beach, which I’ve never been to, but you can bet I checked their menus as soon as I heard one was opening here.  Well, they finally opened for business in September, and my first visit lived up to all the expectations and hype.

You see, most sub shops will offer ONE Italian hoagie-type sandwich if you’re lucky, with salami, ham, and other cured, sliced deli meats, served cold.  (I’ve never been a fan of sandwiches like this served hot, with the meats crispy and greasy.)  Manzano’s has SEVERAL, and they’re all a little bit different.  Looking at their menu, you must choose between the Italian Stallion, the Balboa, the V, the Pauly, the Rocco, and the Goodfella, and their ingredients aren’t listed in any specific order, making it a little difficult to compare and contrast when you’re hungry and in a hurry.

So for the benefit of my Saboscrivner Squad, I have created the Manzano’s Matrix, to help you choose the best possible Italian sandwich at a glance:
manzanos_matrix As you can see, the Rocco is the sandwich with the most ingredients.  The Italian Stallion and the Goodfella are the same, except the Stallion has pepperoni, so I can’t imagine ordering the Goodfella unless you hate pepperoni.  The Balboa and the V are the two with fresh mozzarella, but no overlapping meats, so that presents a difficult choice.  But yeah, I like to maximize my sandwich experience, so I chose the Rocco… and I chose wisely.

Look at this thing!

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Look at it!

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That’s the whole sandwich (15″ for $16.99), and it is enormous.  I think most hungry people can easily make do with a half ($10.49).  Yes, it’s more expensive than Subway, Wawa, and even Jersey Mike’s, but you pay for quality, and this was an extremely high-quality sandwich.  On top of being huge, the crusty bread was very fresh (flown in from New York), and the meats and cheeses were all from Boar’s Head, so you know they’re good.  The Rocco comes with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, roasted red peppers (love ’em!), oil and vinegar, and two ingredients I asked them to hold, because I don’t think they belong on an Italian sub: black olives and mayo.  No thank you!  Mayo has its place, but not here.

I did ask them to add the sun-dried tomato spread that is a option on some of their other sandwiches, and they were kind enough to oblige.  The sun-dried tomatoes are marinated in oil, so by the time I got this sandwich back to our little break room at work, it was quite soggy and messy to eat, but probably even more delicious.  In fact, chilling it in the fridge for a few hours might have made it even better (and probably necessitated eating it with a fork and knife), but it was great as is.

If you aren’t into Italian deli meats, they still have plenty for you, don’t worry: turkey, chicken, roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, tuna salad, egg salad, etc.  Manzano’s also serves paninis in addition to their giant subs, as well as salads and breakfast sandwiches in the morning.  They can even craft you a custom sandwich with your choice of ingredients if their menu options aren’t tempting enough.

I look forward to returning, even though I think I’ve already figured out what their best sandwich is, and I’ll no doubt order it again.  It’s a rough location there on Fairbanks, with very limited parking nearby.  The location used to house Tatame Tea and Sake Lounge, one of the spots I took my wife on our first date back in 2006, but even someplace that cool couldn’t last.  That’s the only drawback I can see, but hopefully Manzano’s will stay busy with lots of walk-in traffic from Rollins students, faculty, and staff.  And if you ever feel like an amazing sandwich and a doughnut, you have this place and the Little Blue Donut Co. right next door.  How can you go wrong with that?  YOU CAN’T.

Teak Neighborhood Grill

Teak Neighborhood Grill (http://teakorlando.com/) is an underrated gem of a restaurant that opened near us in 2017. Teak already had a location across town in the MetroWest area, but the second location in Maitland is much more convenient for us.

We especially like going for an early lunch on weekends, right when they open at 11 AM.  That’s when they have their brunch menu as an alternative to the regular menu, and my wife loves their chicken and waffles.  The waffles are thick, Belgian-style, with the slightest bit of caramelization around the edges, making them a perfect consistency of crispy outsides and soft, chewy insides.  The chicken breasts are buttermilk-dipped and hand-breaded, always moist, never dry or greasy.  They also include bacon and some very nice, crispy breakfast potatoes.

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I don’t think I’ve ever gone to Teak and not ordered a burger, though.  They have 18 different burgers listed on their website menu (plus the $45 “Teak Challenge” burger, which is the last thing I need), but if you go, ask for their “secret burger menu,” and you’ll get a long, laminated list of about 20 more varieties.  Their burgers are among the best in town, and I usually try to pick a different one every time, to keep things from getting stale.  I always ask for them medium-rare, and they always cook them to perfection.

This time, I ordered the caprese burger off the secret menu, which comes with melty provolone cheese, fried mozzarella, pesto sauce, balsamic glaze, spring mix, and tomato on a ciabatta roll.  The only thing that gave me pause was the ciabatta, since I sometimes find those rolls a little too crusty and hard, and I’d much rather have a burger on a potato bun, brioche, or pretzel roll.  But I’m glad I put my faith in Teak’s system, as it was  a very good roll that held everything together.  It looks hard to eat, but I was able to squish it down pretty flat, and all the flavors worked very well together.  I really love balsamic glaze, and I’m a sucker for fried mozzarella — when my students ask me if I can recommend any apps, I will go into dad mode and blurt out “Mozzarella sticks!”  Every.  Time.

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You get a choice of sides, including good fries and decent onion rings, but since I discovered Teak has excellent chili, I always get a cup of chili as my side.  Hey, it cuts the carbs a little, plus I love chili, and everyone always has a completely unique version that is worth trying.  (See also: meatloaf, pimiento cheese, and of course onion rings.)  Theirs is a thick, beanless, red chili that has a lot of flavor, but not much in the way of heat.  I actually brought it home and ate it the next day mixed with a little bit of leftover pasta shells.  Yes, my family ate chili over pasta long before we learned it was a whole thing in Cincinnati.  We called it “Cowboy Spaghetti,” and I’ll defend it to the death.  But I digress.

That caprese burger again:

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Looking through the starters (appetizers), we have tried Teak’s OMG Chips before (housemade potato chips topped with blue cheese crumbles and maple bacon drizzled with balsamic reduction), as well as their soft pretzel rolls, and both are great.  But this time, we inquired about ordering a mysterious-sounding side item called Sidewinders as an app, and our server assured us we would love them.  Hey, we’re fun, daring people who live on the edge!  Why not?  I’ll try anything once, and usually twice, just to be sure.

The Sidewinders were twisty potato slices, fried until they had crispy outsides and soft insides, like really great steak fries, but almost as thin as kettle chips.  They were tossed in a “garlic bistro” seasoning with lots of herbs, and the seasoning really made them.  I’m a big weirdo who can take or leave a lot of fries, but these were delicious, and I’m glad we gave them a chance.

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As you can see, they came with a sauce that, to quote Homer Simpson, “It looks like ketchup, it tastes like ketchup, but brother, it ain’t ketchup!”  I thought it was some kind of fancy barbecue sauce, so when I asked, our server told us it was…

Wait for it…

Their housemade ketchup.

Normally it’s Heinz or the highway for me, as I’ve sampled some weird ketchups that taste too much like Christmas, but this was really good.  Make sure you order something you can dip in ketchup when you go to Teak!

The restaurant is a huge dining room with ample seating on the outside patio, with a welcoming, casual vibe.  For weekend brunches, they put out a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar, which I suspect is a huge selling point for most people.  You can add all kinds of marinated and pickled vegetables (pickles, banana pepper rings, cocktail onions), cheese cubes, over a dozen different hot sauces, and more to your Bloody Mary, but some of us don’t need any help with getting acid reflux.

I suspect not enough people are aware of Teak, but it’s a fantastic option if you’re in Maitland, Winter Park, Casselberry, or anywhere near the MetroWest location, which is nowhere near us.  Especially if you like a tasty burger, I’d say they serve some of the better burgers in Orlando.  Service is always great, prices are reasonable, and the menu has something for everyone.  I asked them once if they served their burgers as veggie burgers, and they confirmed that they can make anything as a black bean burger, so that may also help some of you come to a decision.

Bosphorous

On Sunday evening, I met a friend at Bosphorous, the beautiful Turkish restaurant on Park Avenue in Winter Park.  (https://www.bosphorousrestaurant.com/)  It is one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando, and it never disappoints.  This time was no exception.

My friend had never been there before; I suggested it because she is vegetarian, and other vegetarian friends I’ve brought there thought they died and went to heaven, with all the delicious options to choose from.

We shared the mixed appetizer platter with puffy lavas bread, which is almost a requirement when you eat there.  The soft, pita-like bread will arrive at your table puffed up with hot air, and you need to pierce it with fork tines to deflate it to avoid being burned.  Then rip off pieces and go to town with the cool, refreshing dips in the platter.  I have said that everything tastes better in sandwich or dip form, and these dips are among the finest around.  The platter also comes with one of Bosphorous’ stuffed grape leaves, sliced in two, and a few kalamata olives and cornichons (tiny pickles, which I love, even though I’m normally not big on pickles).  You have to order the lavas bread separately, but you’ll regret it if you don’t!

One of my favorites is the savory tomato and sauteed eggplant dip called soslu patlican.  I could eat a whole jar of that stuff in no time.  I should really learn how to make it myself!  The platter also includes babaganoush (smoked eggplant dip), tabbuli (similar to couscous), ezme (a spicy salsa-like dip with tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and other peppers, and walnuts), and haydari (a thick, creamy yogurt dip with walnuts).

My absolute favorite, which my wife loves too, is taramosalata, which is a creamy, salty, fish roe concoction.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t included this time, replaced with a thin, creamy dip called cacik, with yogurt, cucumber, mint, and dill.   (My brilliant brother, one of my most loyal readers, suggested cacik might be etymologically related to the similar Greek yogurt sauce tzatziki, and he’s probably right!)  I guess without the taramosalata, the whole platter is vegetarian, so that makes some sense.  It doesn’t even seem to be on the menu anymore!

If you don’t want to spring for the whole platter, you can always order any of these dips separately, but for first-time diners, I strongly recommend trying them all, so you can pick out the ones you like best.  My least-favorite is the hummus, because it’s just plain hummus, which I eat all the time.  I wonder if they let you mix and match.  It never occurred to me to ask!

While my wife and I usually share the mixed appetizer platter and an order of doner kebap (similar to gyro meat, and served on a bed of rich and buttery rice pilaf, perfect for wrapping up in the lavas bread), this time I tried something new to me: the lahmacun, which is like Turkish pizza — flatbreads that were at once both crispy and soft, covered with ground lamb in a piquant sauce.  It comes accompanied by shredded, pickled red cabbage, beets, and red onions (love it!), plus some mixed greens and sliced tomatoes.  You put the vegetables on the lahmacun half-moons, pour on a little of the incredible vinaigrette dressing, fold it, and eat it like a sandwich.  I loved it.

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My friend ordered the spinach and feta pide, a pastry “boat” that was warm and soft, stuffed with sauteed spinach and melty, cheesy goodness, topped with sliced tomatoes.  She was suitably impressed.

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Unfortunately, my wife was down for the count with a migraine to end all migraines, which is the only reason she didn’t join us for dinner.  But I ordered another mixed appetizer platter and a whole lavas bread to bring home to her, which she appreciated.  (Except they forgot the stuffed grape leaves on this one — First World Problems Alert!)  This is one of the ways you make a marriage work, you guys.

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Buttermilk Bakery

This morning, my wife wanted croissants, and I agreed they sounded good.  But we couldn’t get ourselves out of bed at a reasonable time to go out, and I was plagued by nightmares about vacationing with friends to an unfamiliar beach that turned out to be a dystopian hellscape, with crumbling, graffiti-strewn hotels and roving gangs of punks straight out of an ’80s movie, daring vacationers to pass their flaming barricades and swinging chains to catch a glimpse of the ocean.  But enough about my inner turmoil!

By the time I got up and dressed, I figured most bakeries would be slammed by the brunch crowd, so I went off to bring home croissants from Buttermilk Bakery, a newish Winter Park bakery we’ve only been to once before, but I never reviewed.  (http://www.buttermilk-bakery.com/)

I was lucky to find the last parking space in the back, since they were doing bang-up business, with every table full and a line almost out the door.  But once I got up front, I was greeted by friendly bakers and a dazzling array of croissants and other pastries:

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Since we rarely make it out there, I ended up bringing home two plain croissants (although there is nothing “plain” about them), a morning bun, a monkey bread croissant, and a cinnamon sugar brioche doughnut.  They definitely made my wife’s morning, especially after I brewed up some cafe con leche for her.  After dreaming of seaside terrors and a fight for survival amid Art Deco ruins, the flaky, buttery, rich croissant and vaguely floral-accented morning bun helped me find my center as well.

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We are so lucky to have access to a plethora of awe-inspiring bakeries here in Orlando.  At this point, I don’t even mess with anything from the Publix bakery.  We have so many better local options, for the rare times I indulge in sweets.  (My wife is the one with the sweet tooth!)  We’re the hugest fans of Se7enbites, especially for pie, and we’ve had great experiences at Benjamin French Bakery and now Buttermilk Bakery for croissants.  Heartsong Cookies and Gideon’s Bakehouse both make some of the best cookies I’ve ever had, and The Gourmet Muffin specializes in… well, you can guess.  These are all baked goods — no baked bads among them!

The Hangry Bison

We tried the new Hangry Bison (https://thehangrybison.com/) in Winter Park Village for lunch this past Wednesday.  Directly across from my favorite movie theater in town, parking is usually at a premium there, so it seemed like a great off-time to go.  That space has been a few different restaurants, and I can’t imagine how high the rent is there.  The Hangry Bison has been open for less than a month at this point.  The location is great, the space is nice (lots of mason jar lights, which I guess are a thing now), and I wish them the best there.  Love their name, too!

We ordered the pretzels and beer cheese as an app, and the pretzels were awesome.  Very rich, buttery, and soft, with the slightest crispness from their shiny exterior, they reminded me of my mall guilty pleasure, Auntie Anne’s pretzels.  The beer cheese had the slightest tangy bite.  Very good stuff.hangrybison_pretzelbites

They have several different burger options on the menu, including bison, short rib, spicy Italian sausage, and vegan Impossible burger patties to choose from.  My wife chose the short rib burger on a pretzel bun.  I couldn’t decide between the bison, short rib, and sausage, so I went with the Haymaker for $25, a monstrosity with one of each patty.  The best of all possible worlds!  It is meant as a challenge meal, so huge that you win a T-shirt if you can conquer it in one sitting.  But I’m too old for that shit, to quote Roger Murtaugh.  I knew I could get three meals out of it, and I’m already at four meals!

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Yes, the Haymaker comes with two grilled cheese sandwiches on thick Texas toast in place of a standard bun, with lettuce and tomato, jalapenos, onion straws, bacon, pepper jack cheese, “bourbon sauce,” and a vast field of fries.  Ridiculous.  At the restaurant, we focused on sharing the fries, and I deconstructed it and took a couple of bites out of each patty.

The menu says you can get them cooked medium, medium-well, or well done, so we opted for medium, but we both wished we had asked for ours medium-rare.  They were all on the dry side, with a strong char-grilled taste to the meat.  Medium-rare would have been a lot juicier and better.  I gotta be honest: I didn’t notice the bourbon sauce or the pepper jack cheese, although it did come with a lot more of the beer cheese on it.  Not complaining, just giving my assessment.  Also, the cheese in the grilled cheese sandwiches was cheddar, and it didn’t melt very well, as you can see.  There’s no shame in using American cheese, folks — especially on a burger or in a grilled cheese sandwich.  Few cheeses melt better.

Since hauling our leftovers home, I’ve had the rest of the bison patty on one of the grilled cheeses, the rest of the short rib patty on the other grilled cheese, reheated the enviable amount of bacon in the toaster oven and served it to my wife with a homemade blueberry pancake the next morning, and chopped up the sausage patty and cooked it with some onions and roasted red peppers to serve over pasta last night.  So I definitely got my money’s worth!

Remember: get the pretzels, and ask for medium-rare!