Saturday, December 27, 2014

Salamanders Sports Grill

I went to Salamanders Sports Grill to meet a cousin who was passing through town. It was a good choice, and I can't wait to go back again. 

I ordered a burger--a friend had told me they were great--and it was indeed very good. The burger was cooked will and served with cheese with lettuce, tomato, and onion on the side. I had coleslaw for a go-with. Everything was very good. The burger was cooked properly. Above all, our server was excellent. We'd met to chat and talk and sat there for a few hours, yet she cheerfully kept refilling our iced tea and kept track of us throughout the afternoon. It was a great experience and I'll go back again, for sure. I know now why this place is so popular! 
Salamanders Sports Grill on Urbanspoon

Pig Floyd's Urban Barbakoa

I think I've "finally" found it--the best BBQ in Central Florida! Sure, there are a few good places, but my recent visit to Pig Floyd's Urban Barbakoa with friends left us talking about it and wanting a return visit--even later the same night! 

I'd heard about Pig Floyd's Urban Barbakoa from a co-worker, and so when some friends were in town and looking for a place to eat in the Orlando area, I suggested it. They were sure glad I did--and so was I. I'd like to tell you the names of what we all had, but their web site does not have a menu yet--I guess they've been too busy taking care of their customers, and they sure took good care of us.

I ordered a "take two" dish, two types of meat, pulled pork and brisket. OMG, both were very good with a great smoke ring. The brisket was moist and juicy and tender and the pulled pork as well. I had the house "hot" BBQ sauce and it was absolutely divine.  My sides were equally excellent. The apple fennel slaw was as good as any slaw I've ever had. And the black beans and rice had an outstanding flavor, nicely seasoned. There was nothing about this dish that I'd complain about, and I ate every last bit of it.

My friend Billhad a sandwich and it was piled high with meat. He said it was excellent in every regard and I've no reason to doubt that since he ate every last bit of it. The fries were done just right as well.

Tommy had a sandwich with brisket as well, and one of it's best attributes was the onion relish--it was sweet and flavorful, a real winner. 

Finally, bill had the pulled pork plate with plantains. It too was excellent.

We all enjoyed our meal a lot, and talked about it a few times over the weekend. We all agreed, we'd go here again in a heartbeat. On the way out I spied a guy and girl who'd just been served a full rack of ribs, I imagine they were going to split them. They looked out of this world great. When we left, the place was really packed, and I can see why. I know i'll be back, and sooner rather than later. I suggest you give it a try as well. You will not go away hungry and you will go away immensely satisfied, I'm sure of it! 

Pig Floyd's Urban Barbakoa on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Sanford's Best

A few months ago, i was hanging out in my friend Tommy's studio at Gallery on First in Sanford during the 4th Friday of the month Sanford Art Walk. Some folks came into the gallery to film. Their project is for the River of Lakes Heritage Corridor, and they are filming in various locations all along the St. Johns River and that area.  Well, we got to talking about food and they asked me about food in the Sanford area, something I am very passionate about, and so I told them what I thought. I guess they liked what I had to say enough that they asked me to say it on camera, which I did. This is the result: Yes, I've been renamed a bit, but the name does fit. Sanford has some great local restaurants and I highly recommend you visit us there some time. Enjoy! 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

LongHorn Steakhouse

A new LongHorn Steakhouse opened recently in Sanford, and so we were anxious to give it a try. I've generally had a good, consistent experience at the Lake Mary location, and this new location boasts being a "new concept" in decor. Indeed, it is very nice inside with lots of brick and wood in dark tones, very warm. But we were there for the food.

We arrived on a Friday night and quickly put in our name for a table. We were told it'd be a 25 minute wait but it was less than that, probably just under 20 minutes, before we were seated. We started off with a drink order and then studied the menu. We decided to begin with the Wild West Shrimp, crispy hand-battered shrimp that were fried and served with some spicy peppers (I counted pickled cherry, banana/pepperocini, and jalapeno) and ranch dressing. It as pretty good. The shrimp were cooked well, not rubbery. They were just a bit on the greasy side, though, and as we ate them, the oil left behind on the serving dish was apparent. Still, they were mighty good and we polished them off. One minor point about the ranch dressing container: it looks messy!  Why didn't then clean that up a bit before serving it. Attention to detail is needed.

We both had salads and they were pretty good. I had a house salad and thankfully ordered the raspberry vinaigrette on the side. It was not the most appealing salad i've ever eaten, visually, because it seemed to me the lettuce, tomato, and cucumber were all sort of tossed together with the requisite single onion ring and a few croutons and a few bits of cheese thrown on top. But, that said, it was a very tasty salad, and the raspberry vinaigrette was very nice.

Tommy ordered the house salad with Blue Cheese Dressing. Now, he likes Blue Cheese dressing, but to me it seemed a bit overdressed. But he liked it so that's all that matters. 

For his entree, Tommy had the Chop Steak, a grilled ground filet smothered with grilled mushrooms in a red wine reduction and topped with onion straws. He ordered it medium but in reality it came out between medium well and well done, maybe closer to well done. It was flavorful, but you can see very little "juice" on the plate, because it was not that juicy, a victim of a bit of overcooking. He had it with a loaded baked potato that was just that.

For my main course, I chose the Blackened Salmon & Cheddar Grits from the "Chef's Showcase" menu. It was a 10 oz. portion of hand-cut Atlantic salmon that was blackened and seared to perfection, served on a bed of creamy cheddar grits and topped with a citrus butter sauce. First of all, it was indeed seared to perfection. I cannot recall ever having a piece of salmon that was this perfectly cooked. A few degrees less and it would have been a bit raw, but this was not. As a result, the fish was tender, flavorful and delicious. Now, as for the "blackened" part--well, I did not really get that. "Blackened" should at least have some bit of good heat. I could see it, but not really taste it. The grits were good but they lacked something. Maybe it was the citrus butter sauce because i was left thinking that the dish needed a bit more acid--I did not get that in the "citrus" part of the butter sauce. I had the green beans as a side and they were nice and delicious, crisp and flavorful. Overall, I liked my dish. It was indeed good. I do, however, think that it needed just a few more tweak in order to be great, not just good. 

Overall, we had a generally good experience here. The wait was not long, the waiting areas, inside and out, were comfy and not crowded. The service was decent and the food was fair. Not outstanding, but good. I guess that I eat in too many local places where food is not an assembly line, and so I often find chains a bit lacking--they have the corporate recipes and formularies and stick to them, whereas a local place can taste, season, and adjust better. Still, would I go back to LongHorn? Yes, I would. But they have a lot of competition out there!
LongHorn Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Celery Ball Cakes

On Saturday March 8th, 2014 Creative Sanford hosted their 6th annual Celery Ball at a gorgeous hangar at the Southeast Ramp of the Sanford Orlando International Airport. About 300 people enjoyed the "Great Gatsby" theme in a wonderful setting surrounded by old cars, airplanes and airplane memorabilia, and great music and dancing--not to mention the wonderful food. But one of the highlights of the evening was the cakes!  Yes--cake. 
Creative Sanford is the umbrella organization that sponsors Celery Soup, Florida's Folk Play. If you've never seen a Celery Soup production, you don't know what you're missing. The Celery Ball is an annual fundraiser and has many, many contributors to the effort, people and groups who contribute, time, money, and materials. 
So what does this have to do about a food blog--and about cakes? Well, one of the most delicious culinary treats at the Celery Ball was the cake table. All the cakes were hand made and decorated by Patty Mahany, who is also a Sanford City Commissioner. She made, decorated, and served up well over three dozen delicious cakes in at least sever different flavors. I admit to having sampled several, including the Red Velvet, Kahlua, Amaretto, and Lemoncello. All were tender, moist, flavorful and delicious. No one left the ball without getting their fill of cakes. 
And so, first of all, hats off to Patty for all her hard work and the donation of her time and materials and talent--both culinary and artistic. Hats off to not only the culinary masterpieces she created, but also for the decorating job she did with real flowers. These were just as wonderful to eat as they look. Enjoy, and let your mouth water!

 And last but not least, a view of the presentation. Patty and all the rest did a wonderful job. Yumm!
And, in case you missed it but are curious about all the fun, check out their Facebook page and some of the photos there. And while you're there, click "like" and consider joining us for some of the fun next year. It's a great cause and a lot of fun!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers in Sanford (near the Seminole Town Center Mall) opens on March 3rd, 2014. I was fortunate to be a part of a test run for them a few days prior to their opening. It was a good experience, and I'm sure I'll return during regular business hours.

We were part of a "reserved/invite-only" pre-opening event, and as such we were able to order limited free food from their menu (entrees, burgers, etc., but no appetizers). We did have to pay for our wine, but other drinks, including a milkshake, were also gratis. We had a great experience here, beginning with our waitress. We later learned that she had worked for another Red Robin in the past and it showed, she sure knew here stuff.

I ordered a signature burger, the Smoke & Pepper. It was a 1/2-pound Angus Beef patty with black-pepper bacon, and extra sharp cheddar cheese on a toasted ciabatta bun. It was served with a smoke and pepper ketchup on the side. When I asked for medium-rare I was informed that they only cook them to a medium-well, just a bit of pink in the center. Though a bit disappointed at that, I agreed. And it arrived at a medium-well, though I must admit that it was plenty juicy and tasty and so I was satisfied with that. The burger itself was very good. I only used a bit of the smoke/pepper ketchup on the burger itself, preferring to dip a few fries in it--they were great. The burger was good, a nice bit of pepper taste from the pepper bacon. Underneath the burger itself there were some planks of nice and crispy pickles. They added a nice tang and a nice crunch to the burger and that's what really made it a good burger. The extra-sharp cheddar was a bit lost in it all, but still, it was one of the better burgers I've had. My side was the mac n cheese, and it was all it should be, nice cavatappi that was just a bit al dente--as it should be--and very rich and cheesy. It was a very good burger and I'd order it again.

My friend Tommy had the Guacamole Burger. Besides the obvious guacamole, it had bacon, swiss cheese, mayo, onions, and tomato. It too was a very good burger, nice and juicy. The red onion and lettuce gave it a bit of crunch, and the guac made it very smooth and creamy.  It was a very good burger. For a side he had the bottomless fries. They were good, especially when dipped in my smoke/pepper ketchup. I think they could have been cooked just a bit more, ore maybe it was just the new oil as they were not very browned. But still they were a decent fry with a nice potato flavor.

Tommy also had a Salted Caramel Milkshake which was very good as well.

We had a great experience here. The place was packed yet our waitress (Maria) was prompt and attentive, very friendly, and definitely knew the food. We managed to speak to a manager on the way out and again, were impressed. A good burger is hard to find and we both had good burgers here. I'm sure we'll be back again!
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Alive After 5 Chili Cook-off

On the Second Thursday of the month, Sanford hosts Alive After 5 in beautiful, historic, downtown Sanford from 5-8 PM. Every second Thursday of the month, First Street is closed to traffic and lined with various vendors and food samples, as well as artists showing their wares, entertainment, and other fun events. However, the AA5 every January is special--it's time for the annual chili cook-off. Various purveyors, individual and restaurants hand out samples of their chili and the attendees vote for the best. 

This year, it was a popular vote that determined the winner. But no worry, I sampled about half or so of the 25 varieties there--there is only so much chili one can eat. Here's my rundown of what I had and what I thought was the best.

First of all, the best: there were three top contenders and an honorable mention in my book. Any of these were worthy of the top award, but I'll give my choices and reasons:

In First Place: In my humble opinion, the top chili this year was from Shantell's Grill & Oyster Bar, the "3 Sons and 7 Daughters Chili" (yes, that's her family--it does make you wonder where she had time to learn such great cooking skills!).  Why was it the top? Depth of flavor. Shantell's chili had a depth of flavor unlike any others there, I could tell there was layer upon layer. Yes, it was a bit hot, and I liked that. But just by the tiniest nose--and even though it had beans in it--I'd give it top billing. Shantell's restaurant is located just a block or two south of First Street on Sanford Avenue. It's well worth a visit, I just ate there last night!

Second Place: And a very, very close second, was last year's winner, the chili from La Sirena Gorda Cabana (the "Fat Mermaid," as everyone know it), they had their "WhoopAss Chili." By far, this was the most authentic (Texan style) chili. Chuck was cut and slowly roasted, chorizo was also used, the flavor was rich and deep, and the addition of Mexican chocolate (the secret but necessary ingredient for a really rich chili) was use. I was hard put to pick a winner, as it was a very close race. This chili was also on top for me, outstanding. La Sirena Gorda is just off First Street on Palmetto. I ate there last week and was there last night for happy hour. It's really great food and a fun place. You should give it a try as well. 

Third Place: A close third was the chili from Hollerbach's Willow Tree Cafe, "Chicken Scratch Chili." It was unique and unusual in that it also included some root vegetables such as rutabaga, parsnip, and etc. Owner Theo Hollerbach is a constant and star supporter of downtown Sanford, the attend every Alive After 5 and hand out samples each time. I've never found anything they've fed me to be anything less than top notch. The restaurant is located right on First Street, you can't miss it, there's always a bit of a line, and for good reason. I ate there just before the holidays and it was good as always. And, by the way, you owe it to yourself to visit their nearby Magnolia Market, just off First Street on Magnolia Square. You can find lots of authentic German and central European food there. Give them both a try, the restaurant and market. 

Honorable mention #1: Dexter's from Lake Mary put on a very decent showing with their chili, it was very good, assembled and garnished right as you waited. It was also very good and was the people's choice, the winner of the chili cook-off. They, too, had a very Texas-style with the "Texas Smokehouse Beef Brisket Chili." 

Honorable Mention #2: Buck's Catering had a "Turkey Chili" that was surprising because it's use of poultry seasoning and sage reminded me of a turkey and dressing dinner. It was actually pretty good.

Honorable Mention #3 was the chili from Gail Williams Insurance Agency, "White Chili." Her chili was second place in the voting overall. Her's was great in that you could tell that it was made with real, homemade chicken broth--it had that lip-smacking, mouth-feel that only gelatin can give. So it was also very good and I can see why it was so popular. 

Honorable Mention #4 has to go to Angel's Soul Food & BBQ, "Kickin' Lickin Chili." I would be remiss if I did not mention their chili. It was unusual and "outside the box." While a lot of the other chilis had beans in them, Angel's was unique because they used lentils! Yep, lentils. The chili was served over some rice and with a nice, crisp cracker that was extra-tasty. It really was a delight. Angel's is located just around the corner, a few steps south of First Street on Sanford Avenue. There is a reason they are so highly rated on do Soul Food and BBQ right. I've eaten there in the past and will again, and they, too are a great supporter of Sanford events, including AA5. You owe it to yourself to give them a try sometime. It may look like a dive inside, but the food is awesome!

People's Choice Third Place was from Dreams & Destinations Travel, their "Chili Chili Bang Bang." I'm sorry to say I did not sample their chili, but apparently it was pretty good to come in third among 25 entries. Good job!  

Also rans and misses:  There were a number of other chili offerings that I sampled as well, but those listed above were the best. Some of the others were OK. Some tasted like a can of tomatoes with ground beef. One of them had a burnt taste (you know who you are), and a few of them were cold. I was sorry that I could not sample all of them. I tried to hit the restaurants and local businesses first, and those who are frequent supporters of AA5 and other Sanford events. I congratulate all who turned out on a somewhat dreary evening to provide a lot of fun and good eats to all who were. there. It was another awesome time. A lot of people put a lot of hard work into their chili. Some spent days on it, and you could taste that depth of flavor. Some were more afterthoughts, but still, it's good that the spent the time (and their own $$) to support Sanford and this great, fun event. Kudos to all the participants for being there.

If you'd like to know more about Alive After 5, I suggest you find them and friend them on Facebook:

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Carrabba's Italian Grill

A new Carrabba's Italian Grill opened recently in Sanford, near the Seminole Towne Center Mall. We first went there on opening night, because they were donating a portion of their proceeds to the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center. That was a busy night but we were lucky to snag one of a very few chairs that are right by the kitchen, and we were well entertained (plus had delicious food). We did have a small "hiccup" where our waitress said, "hey, it's still happy hour" but when she brought our drinks said "so sorry, we missed it by just a minute." Well, a manager later and we were square away and so was the waitress--heck it was a learning lesson for her as well. And the food and service were awesome.

Our next visit, and the subject of this blog post, was for my friend Tommy's birthday. We had an excellent experience and meal. We started out with our waiter telling us, "hey you just missed happy hour but i can squeeze you in!" And he did. Now that's what I call great service. I'd like to think our opening night experience helped train their staff a bit. We started off with some wine and had a coupon for a free appetizer, so we tried the Mussels. All I can say is wow. They were wonderful, very buttery with a hint of the tartness of a good white wine and garlic. There had to be a good two dozen of them and we devoured them. As you can see from the picture, we were mostly through them before I was even able to take a picture. Wonderful!

We both decided to start our meals with a cup of their Tomato Basil Soup. It was a good choice. The soup was wonderful. It had the great flavor of roasted tomatoes complimented by a bit of tang from some red wine vinegar, and then a bit of sharpness of parmigiano-reggiano. It was truly outstanding. The finish with the cheese and fresh basil julienne gave it a wonderful aroma. It looked great, smelled great, and, most of all, tasted great! 

For his main course, Tommy ordered a steak, the Filet Fiorentina. It was a nice tenderloin steak cooked on the wood grill, covered with a wonderful mushroom gravy, and accompanied by garlic roasted mashed potatoes. First of all the potatoes were excellent. Little lumps and some red skins all made it very rustic, and the taste was wonderful, smooth, and creamy. The steak was also very good, perfectly cooked, and had a nice aroma from the wood fire. 

For my main course, since I could not make up my mind, I had the Chicken Trio. This was a great combination, smaller portions of three different dishes, the Chicken Bryan, Chicken Marsala, and Chicken Rosa Maria. All somewhat different, yet each absolutely delicious. Mine was accompanied by some fresh green beans which were lightly sauteed but still a bit crisp--just the way I like them. Each of the Chicken dishes was wonderful in its own regard and I'd be hard-pressed to chose a favorite. I guess that's the reason for the trio, you don't have to choose.

Throughout our dining experience, our waiter was very attentive. The food was excellent. We are both fans of Carabbas and will be back, for sure. I suggest you give them a try as well.
Carrabba's Italian Grill on Urbanspoon

K Burgers Food Truck

We were at a recent First Wednesday Wine-Art event in downtown Lake Mary. One of the food trucks there was K Burgers Food Truck and so i decided to give them a try. They sure make a decent, delicious sandwich. I had the Black Russian Special.  It was thinly sliced pastrami served on black russian rye bread. The pastrami was piled high, topped with a chipotle slaw and swiss cheese, and then grilled to perfection. It was served with some homemade pickles on the side. And "how was it" you may ask? It was absolutely delicious. The presentation (inside a waxed carry-out box) was pretty good as well. The black russian rye was hearty and delicious, all that a good black russian rye should be. The pastrami was excellent, and the crunch of the coleslaw added great texture, along with the creaminess of the swiss cheese. Would I order it again? Yes, in a heartbeat!
K Burgers Food Truck on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Jimmy Hula's

We heard that there was a new restaurant that had just opened in Lake Mary, a chain, and so we decided to give Jimmy Hula's a try shortly before Christmas. I am always a bit wary of visiting a new place until they've had some "burn in" time, time to get things in order and smoothed out. This visit proved me right. The actual food itself was quite good, only the timing suffered a bit. Let me explain.

We walked in and were a bit confused about what to do, but the person at the counter was helpful and we soon had a menu in hand.  You order at the counter, then you get a number and they bring the food out to you. We placed our order and took a seat. It's a nice place and newly remodelled. Originally the site of our then-favorite Italian Restaurant, that had changed hands and went downhill. So Jimmy Hula's took over the space and gave it an extensive remodel. It feels a bit "Jimmy Buffet" and  bit "Key West." With garage doors that open it to the outside, i can imagine it'll be a great place to hang out when the weather improves a bit. Anyway, we placed our order and found a place to sit.

It was not a long wait before my burger came out. I ordered the Hulu's Burger, swiss cheese, bacon, BBQ sauce, and ceasar salad. It was quite good, actually. Yes, a bit on the messy side, but a decent burger. They did not ask me how i wanted it cooked and it came out medium well. I'd prefer closer to medium or medium rare, but it was decent. Well, now I had my burger, but my friend Tommy did not yet have his food. In a few minutes (maybe one or two) when someone came to check on us, we asked about it, they said they'd check. In another minute or two, someone else asked how it was and we again asked about Tommy's meal--they said they'd check. Now someone did come back and tell us they had a problem in the kitchen, then came back again and said they were remaking the order, and apologized for the wait.

Eventually the food did arrive, along with their apologies. Though we were just happy to have the food, the waitress was insistent that they'd refund the cost of it. I was glad they offered but was willing to pay for what we got, but she was insistent, so they did take it off the bill plus made the tacos.

Now, a word about the food: Tommy had two fish tacos, each different, and each good. They were pretty decent fish tacos. The fish was fresh, the salsa (especially the mango salsa) very good, and all the ingredients fresh. They were good and I'd order them again, for sure. They were accompanied by some chips which seemed a bit out of place, but so it goes.

Later on, as we were nearing the end of our meal, a manager came out and brought us a complimentary dessert and again apologize for the mix up and delay with our order. I was quite pleased with the customer service. Yes, it's a new place and you can expect some issues while they work out the kinks. I thought the food was good and decent and that they really outdid themselves in trying to make their mistake right. I will return, I'm sure. It looks like a fun place and a nice addition to the Lake Mary food scene.
Jimmy Hula's on Urbanspoon

Shantell's Cafe & Oyster Bar

We have known Shantell Williams, the genius behind her restaurant, 
Shantell's Cafe & Oyster Bar, for a while now. I first met her and her delicious food at Sanford's Alive After 5, where she'd often set up, hand out samples, and promote her catering business. Later we got to know her and Eric as the did karaoke at La Sirena Gorda Cantina, a favorite hangout of ours. And eventually, she took over that restaurant on Mondays, providing a buffet of great caribbean food. So it was with great joy that we heard she was opening a restaurant next to Fat Rats, a local watering hole. 

Since She's opened we've eaten there a few times. Above you can see a picture of the huge, 1 pound burger. Yes, it is huge. We've only had it once. Personally, I wish it was smaller, but then i can imagine that at two in the morning it looks awful good to someone who's been drinking all night. I was surprised by the first thing I ordered, the fish n chips, at left. The cornmeal based breading on the tilapia was excellent, and they were cooked perfectly. The only improvement I'd like to see is to use catfish, then this dish would be a home run. As it was, it was wonderful.

On another visit I had the Philly CheeseSteak (sans green peppers). I watched as Shantell herself prepared this and it was masterful. It was a very good cheesesteak and I'd order it again. The portion of fries, as with all the portions there, was more than generous. I could not eat them all, but managed to clean up every speck of the cheesesteak--it was that good.

Tommy has enjoyed the Jerk Chicken Ceasar Salad on more than one visit there, and rightly so. The jerk chicken is to die for, and a hallmark of Shantell's caribbean cuisine--she sure knows now to cook. I've also had a bit of her stewed cabbage--OMG, it was wonderful, i did not know you could make cabbage taste like that--like "not cabbage." I've even learned a few tricks from here, like when to pick my collards.

We've been to Shantell's a number of times now, and will certainly be back time and time again. The food is fantastic, the atmosphere wonderful, and all the employees are very helpful and pleasant. It's more like eating out with family than eating at a restaurant--that's how they treat you. We'll be back again and again until they get a restraining order!
Shantell's Cafe & Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon