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More than the Mouse: Dining in Orlando

Iris M. McCarthy
Food Writer/Author

attracting the attention of serious food enthusiastsAt the mere mention of Orlando, it’s nearly impossible to not think of Mickey Mouse and his Disney Empire. After all, the famous theme park and the city are practically synonymous, but what many do not know is Orlando is home to a burgeoning dining scene and attracting the attention of serious food enthusiasts everywhere. In fact, there are plenty of people who bypass the major attractions, gator farms and citrus groves altogether in favor of going on a culinary adventure instead. The city has the dubious honor of being the fast food chain restaurant capital of the world and, in the past, that distinction has sent diners searching elsewhere for good eats.

Given the city’s large Latin American, Caribbean and Asian immigrant population, Orlando’s culinary landscape can best be summed up as a tropical paradise of vibrant flavors. Situated in the heart of central Florida, Orlando may not receive the accolades of more well-known dining destinations but if you know where to look, there are plenty of restaurants offering bold, innovative fare.

The Old Spanish Sugar Mill (601 Ponce Deleon Blvd.)
Technically, this decades-old DeLeon Springs State Park restaurant is not within Orlando city limits but it’s within a stone’s throw and has become a legend because of its unusual serving style. If you aren’t in the mood to cook your own breakfast, you may want to skip this place. Each table is outfitted with its own personal griddle and guests can order pancake batter and all the trimmings (think apples, bananas, peanut butter, chocolate chips and blueberries) to create your own short stack. Don’t worry—you’re not expected to cook the rest of your breakfast; the kitchen staff handles that part. Accompanying items like bacon, sausage and the like are cooked to order.

Prato (124 N. Park Ave.)
This hotspot is definitely enjoying time in the newcomer spotlight; since its recent opening, the Winter Park eatery has quickly become a fan favorite. Its menu is best described as modern Italian with an emphasis on hearty, rustic cuisine—fresh, house made pasta, locally-sourced meats and a selection of wood-fired pizzas have made this place a real foodie hangout.

Cocina 214 (151 E. Welbourne Ave.)
orlando2 Florida may be a long way from Texas, but the owners—a pair of Lone Star State transplants—decided to bring the big, in-your-face flavors of their home state to this Tex-Mex haven. The real focus here is on fresh, made-to-order food with the tamales being a huge draw; handmade tortillas and guacamole made tableside add to the rustic authenticity. Try the street tacos or the camerones brochette—cheese-stuffed shrimp served with fiery jalapenos and wrapped in bacon; a side of warm tortillas makes a robust meal.

Cask & Larder (565 W. Fairbanks Ave.)
Billing itself as a Southern public house, the owners of the über-popular spot known as The Ravenous Pig have struck gold again with their latest venture. This homey gastropub has become a neighborhood gathering spot as diners clamor for the simple yet well-executed farm-to-table food. Specializing in whole cookery, it should come as no surprise that the restaurant’s chef is known to present a whole roasted pig to a dining room of eager foodies. This is the best of down home cooking and diners are invited to take their palates on a tour of the South and feast on handpies, smoked meats, seafood and a selection of toothsome fixin’s.

The Ravenous Pig (1234 N. Orange Ave.)
For most gastronomes, any place with the word ‘pig’ in it automatically deserves a gold star and this eatery is no different. Touting itself as an American gastropub, its menu focuses on locally-sourced ingredients and in-house charcuterie. The beauty of a place like this is that the carefully crafted menu appeals to everyone from locavores to food snobs to people just looking for a great meal. Don’t bypass the charcuterie board—terrines, country pates, and a host of cured meats are wonderfully spiced and flavored. Snack-y starters like warm, toasty house made pretzels and Gruyère biscuits (that are more akin to French gougerès) are perfectly at home with a menu of more substantial offerings like a hearty pork porterhouse and a rubbed short rib with gnocchi.

4 Rivers Smokehouse (1600 W. Fairbanks Ave.)
orlando3 This isn’t your typical ‘cue joint—4 Rivers is a sophisticated Texas-style smokehouse that is redefining the smoking process. People are willing to wait for pitmaster John Rivers’ spareribs and brisket which are considered among some to be the best in the area. In addition to heaping platters of the smokehouse’s finest meats, there is a long list of gut-busting sandwiches, or stackers as they are known here, piled high with all sorts of toppings like onion rings, smoked tomato chimichurri, jalapenos and homemade horseradish. Clearly no visit to the city is complete without a taste of this barbecue.

deep blu seafood grille (14651 Chelonia Pkwy.)
Some people cringe at the thought of dining in a hotel restaurant and it could be the fear of the dreaded buffet or skimpy continental breakfasts, but the food at deep blu seafood grille (lowercase intentional) dispels all notions about hotel dining. Located in the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort, the kitchen team—under the direction of Chef Cory York—takes diners on a distinct culinary journey with an extensive menu of original cocktails, ocean-fresh seafood and hand-rolled sushi. The emphasis here is on local, sustainable food and showcasing the best of what Florida has to offer.

Goodrich Seafood Restaurant & Oyster House (253 River Rd.)
This little waterside shack abuts the Canaveral National Seashore and owes its super fresh seafood offerings to that fortunate proximity. Keeping it local and fresh is the name of the game here and the popular foodie destination has regional delicacies like Florida mullet and Apalachicola oysters on the menu. While the gator po’boys are quite popular with locals, diners should take advantage of the catch of the day and grab a fish po’boy instead.

Kasa Tapas & Raw Bar (189 S. Orange Ave.)
orlando4 Helmed by chefs Sean Kaplan and Food Network Star alum Josh Lyons, this eatery serves small plates that are big on global flavors. A raw bar heavily stocked with meaty, briny oysters and dishes like tamarind-glazed lamb chops, saffron couscous paella and shrimp a la plancha showcase the around-the-world influences. The chic, contemporary setting, late-night menu and extensive menu of amped up, in-your-face cocktails have put this jewel on foodies’ must-visit list.

Avenue Gastrobar (13 S. Orange Ave.)
Combining industrial-chic design and a sleek bar that accentuates the cavernous space, this upscale comfort food haven enjoys its reputation as being a food lover’s hangout. Given the short distance to popular entertainment venues like the Amway Center, this gastrobar is a convenient place to take a little noshing detour. For a truly rewarding and filling meal, order the grilled fish tacos, slow-braised pork belly or steak frites. As a sweet ending, indulge in the croissant donut and ice cream.

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