Where to eat, drink in Orlando

Friday June 30th, 2017

Heading to Orlando or the Kissimmee area soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for barbecue fused with Vietnamese, Indian and Argentinian flavors or a heavenly peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town. 

Pig Floyd's Urban Barbakoa

1326 N Mills Ave, Orlando, FL 32803
This review of Pig Floyd's originally appeared Feb. 22, 2016.

I parked behind Pig Floyd’s Urban Barbakoa and considered the red flags—starting with that name.

It’s too precious. Barbecue joints are supposed to have simple names. Not one-word hipster restaurant names like Grease or Swine or Cattle but utilitarian names that might honor the pitmaster or a close relative. Pig Floyd’s is in the Mills 50 district of Orlando. It’s about 20 minutes from where a teenaged Andy devoured ribs, pork and chicken at a place called Uncle Jones BBQ. That’s a barbecue joint name, and it has followed its cooks from a truck to a brick-and-mortar restaurant to, according to recent reports, a Chevron station. This new place’s name had so much going on. So did the menu. Butter chicken tacos? Barbecue Bahn Mi? Were the proprietors dressing their meat up in the culinary garb of other cultures to hide some inadequacy?

But Pig Floyd’s has stationed something behind the restaurant to calm any such fears. It has a wood pile.

Smoking with real wood instead of charcoal or gas or pellets doesn’t guarantee great barbecue—it’s basically the price of admission in Texas and the Carolinas—but it does signal that the owners care deeply about the meat. Dress it up however you like, but nothing can save a place with lousy meat.

So before I tried any of the internationally-inspired dishes, I ate a half rack of ribs. Pig Floyd’s uses ribs trimmed St. Louis-style. These can be confused for babyback ribs, but they’re spare ribs—meatier and more marbled than babyback—that have had the sternum and flap removed. Those pieces probably became rib tips at another restaurant. Pig Floyd’s sauces the ribs before serving, but not in the way that I have decried in this space before. Instead of drowning the meat the meat in sauce after it’s cooked like terrible barbecue restaurants do, Pig Floyd’s applies a thin layer of sauce in the final stages of the cook to create what amounts to a candied glaze. This would still be too much for a true barbecue purist, but it produces a sweet-savory combo that doesn’t overpower the meat. The meat, meanwhile, was perfect. It pulled clean off the bone with a gentle tug. It was moist and smoky. Any qualms I had before tasting those ribs had dissolved and been replaced by excitement. At a place like this, the meat is the equivalent of the offensive line. If it’s terrible, it doesn’t matter how good the skill players are. They’re going nowhere. But if the line is great, it elevates everyone else. Those ribs suggested Pig Floyd’s had the equivalent of the 2011 Alabama offensive line blowing open holes for the other dishes.

The places fuses that meat with Vietnamese (Bahn Mi) or Indian (butter chicken) or Argentinian (the Matahambre sandwich features chimichurri) flavors. I’ve written before that my dream lunch spot would be a Cuban barbecue joint. Pig Floyd’s has maduros (fried ripe plantains) and yuca fries as sides. All it’s missing is the pulled pork Cuban sandwich, but the idea of sending good barbecue on a world tour laps my far less ambitious idea.

I’ve never eaten butter chicken in India, so I can’t guarantee the authenticity of the butter chicken in the butter chicken taco. What I can guarantee is that Pink Floyd’s version is delicious. The depth of the butter cuts the bite of the spices, and it melds wonderfully with the smoky chicken. I’ve also never eaten pork belly in southeast Asia, but I can recommend the flavor of the pork belly taco and its lively citrus peanut slaw.

I have, however, eaten good barbecue across this country, so I’m quite comfortable vouching for the authenticity of the meat at Pig Floyd’s. While most of those places are content to get the meat right, Pig Floyd’s uses that meat as the foundation for a rou​nd-the-world vacation. 

Pom Pom's Teahouse and Sandwicheria 

67 N. Bumby Ave, Orlando, FL. 32803
This review of Pom Pom's originally appeared March 14, 2017 

I’ve always hoped that the souls who get past the Pearly Gates will get a customized experience in heaven. After all, we each have a different idea of paradise. Yours might be a morning at the lake where every cast lands a lunker. It might be quiet summer evening in a hammock staring at the stars.

I’ve always had a specific vision of paradise. It’s a cool fall Saturday morning at the beach. The temperature will hit 78 later. (Because it’s heaven, the water temperature remains fixed at 90.) College football games kick off in a few hours, and the world brims with possibility. Before me is a loaf of Merita bread*, a knife, a jar of peanut butter and a selection of jellies and jams. There’s strawberry and grape, of course. There’s apple, which was my go-to in elementary school. We have blueberry and apricot from the preserves family. My only task on this glorious morning? Finish this loaf. That’s paradise.

*Why Merita? I lived in suburban Orlando from age 11 until I left for college. In the ’90s, Orlando had a huge Merita bakery, and the bread we got in the grocery store was gloriously soft and fresh. I can only assume that’s what the sandwich bread in heaven is like.

After a recent lunch, I may have to adjust my expectations of heaven. First, St. Peter needs to hit the pantry and grab some sourdough. Second, he needs to visit the big Wal-Mart in the sky—or Williams-Sonoma, if your heaven is an uppity heaven—and grab a sandwich press. The reason for these alterations to the celestial landscape? The Colossal PB&J at Pom Pom’s Tea House and Sandwicheria

The PB&J sandwich from Pom Pom's might just be your version of heaven.
Andy Staples

I never considered a pressed PB&J as an option. I’ve eaten enough Cuban sandwiches and paninis to develop a deep affection for the concept of the pressed sandwich, but the idea of what a PB&J should be was so thoroughly ingrained that my mind refused to imagine any other possibilities. Pom Pom’s disabused me of that sandwich intolerance. Every sandwich at Pom Pom’s can come on either sourdough, pumpernickel, rye or whole wheat. I chose the sourdough because I wanted the blankest canvas for this triple-decker monster. The Colossal PB&J packs creamy peanut butter, strawberry jelly, marshmallow fluff and bananas in dual layers inside three slices of bread. It comes out of the press dripping warm peanut butter, and the first bite tastes like a hug from mom feels.

Some of you probably recoiled in horror at the thought of creamy peanut butter, but I’m not sure crunchy would work as well in this concoction. At different phases of my life, I’ve stood on each side of the eternal struggle between crunchy and creamy. I’ve been on Team Crunchy most of my adult life, but my feelings on the subject aren’t strong enough to diminish my enjoyment of a PB&J just because it’s missing a few nut pieces. I may have plenty of hot barbecue takes, but I’m basically Switzerland when it comes to peanut butter.

The sourdough is so thick that it doesn’t lose its chew to the pressing process. That was my main concern. I didn’t want a PB&J on burnt toast. I should not have worried. The cooks at Pom Pom clearly understand that the best part of eating a PB&J is chewing it and letting the sweetness of the jelly wrap around the solid backbone of the peanut butter. It really is the perfect sandwich, and yet Pom Pom found a way to improve upon perfection.

How good is that Colossal PB&J? I’ve written more than 600 words without mentioning the other sandwich I tried at Pom Pom’s. Opposite any other sandwich, the Mama Ling Ling’s Thanksgiving would have been the star. It features turkey, stuffing, ginger cranberry chutney, mashed potatoes and cream cheese with a cup of gravy for dipping. It’s basically Thanksgiving dinner stuffed between two slices of bread and pressed. Spread the gravy as one would mustard on a pastrami sandwich and the thing might get a tad gratuitous. Instead, dab a corner into the gravy so only a few drops find their way into each bite.

Pom Pom’s is open 24 hours on Friday and Saturday. So those who enjoy a few adult beverages and then Uber over might find themselves staring at a Colossal PB&J at 2:30 a.m. That might be your idea of heaven. If it is, I won’t judge. In that moment, I might feel the same way.'

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen

6068 Universal Blvd, Orlando, FL 32819 
This review of Toothsome Chocolate Emporium originally appeared Aug 7, 2017

ORLANDO, Fla. — I spent a long time reading Yelp reviews Friday while trying to figure out where my family should eat dinner while visiting Universal Studios in Orlando. Having read a few theme park restaurant reviews in my life, these all looked fairly familiar. Typically, theme park restaurant reviews fall into two categories…

The True Believer: THE HONEY CHICKEN AT THE YAK AND YETI IS THE BEST HONEY CHICKEN I’VE EVER EATEN BECAUSE EVERYTHING AT WALT DISNEY WORLD IS SOOOOOO AMAZING. WE’RE ANNUAL PASSHOLDERS AND WE’VE COVERED OUR CAR IN ANNUAL PASSHOLDER STICKERS BECAUSE WE LOVE ALL THE PARKS SOOOOO MUCH. WE WAITED IN LINE THREE HOURS IN 95-DEGREE HEAT TO SEE ALL THE NEW AVATAR STUFF AT ANIMAL KINGDOM, AND WE WORKED UP QUITE AN APPETITE. THAT HONEY CHICKEN HIT THE SPOT. THEY EVEN INCLUDED RICE ON THE SIDE. RICE? WITH HONEY CHICKEN? ONLY PEOPLE AS AMAZING AS DISNEY’S IMAGINEERS WOULD THINK OF THAT. I’D GIVE THIS NINE STARS IF YELP WOULD LET ME.

The Skeptic: They wanted $18.99 for the same honey chicken I can get at the place next to my local grocery store for $6.99. Is it covered in some kind of special fairy farts or something? All I’ve done since I’ve been here is wait in line, sweat and light money on fire. We’re packing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches next time. One star.

Though I don’t broadcast my feelings on Yelp—that’s why I have this column —I typically share the sentiments of the second group. But I have resigned myself to the fact that theme parks make the wife and kids happy, and that makes my life easier. So I go expecting to get ripped off every time we eat. I’ve tried to stop getting mad about it because it does me no good, but I sometimes still seethe. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised Friday when after reading all those reviews, we stumbled onto the place that might offer the best culinary deal of any theme park restaurant in America.

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen is a rather cumbersome name, but this steampunk-themed edifice between the entrances to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure has a lot going on. As the first part of the name suggests, desserts are the main attraction. But the place does serve food, and the bartenders pour some enticing cocktails. Still, you’ll need to avoid the second part and stick to the first if you want to get the deal.

The reviews warned of long waits, and we girded ourselves for an extended delay. But we got lucky. There were plenty of available tables at 6 p.m. on a Friday. We ate dinner, and my wife and I ordered cocktails. This allowed us to get the full lighting-money-on-fire experience, but it didn’t make me that angry. If you do want dinner or lunch, stick to the appetizers. You’ll need to save room for dessert—where you get the real bang for your buck. The coffee and chocolate stout glazed wings ($14.95) were tasty, and so were the bacon-wrapped Harissa spiced pork kabobs ($11.95). The High Fashion (Old Forester 86, brandied cherry, chocolate bitters for $11) was poured strong and didn’t cost much more than it would at a cocktail bar in any medium-sized city. 

But you’re here for the desserts. Specifically, you’re here for the sundaes. The milkshakes get most of the attention at Toothsome, but they are extravagant productions that don’t necessarily deliver. My Key Lime Pie milkshake (sour cream ice cream, sweet condensed milk, lime juice, lime garnish and a sliver of actual key lime pie on top) was an OK dessert for one. The sour cream ice cream was a nice touch, but the best part might have been the actual pie slice. But I wouldn’t pay $12 for it again. What I should have done was split a chocolate brownie bark sundae with my daughter. For $9.50, she was delivered a massive bowl containing chocolate ice cream, chocolate brownies, chocolate whipped cream, chocolate sauce, chocolate brownie bark and chocolate sprinkles. The brownies were soft and decadent, and the ice cream was hard enough to keep from melting right away into a sloppy mess. Three adults could have split this monstrosity and walked away happy. I haven’t been to every major theme park in America, but I feel comfortable saying that there are few food items at any of them that can satisfy for $3.17 a person.

The chocolate bark sundae from Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.
Andy Staples

I also could have split a May Contain Peanuts with my son. That’s a bowl approximately the size of manhole cover filled with peanut butter ice cream, peanut brittle, Reese’s peanut butter cups, a slice of chocolate peanut butter pie, whipped cream, peanut butter sauce and Reese’s pieces. It costs $10.50 and could easily satisfy three adults, so the cost per person jumps to a whopping $3.50.

I wound up eating about half my daughter’s sundae and about half my son’s sundae because I was there for research purposes. I do these things for you, the reader, because I love you. But if you’d like to traverse the park without a wheelbarrow, find a like-minded friend or two and split some sundaes. Your stomach and your wallet will thank you. 

 

Tropico Mofongo 

3160 Vineland Rd, Kissimmee, FL 34746
This review of Tropico Mofongo originally appeared Oct. 26, 2015. 

It sits between a psychic’s strorefront and a smoke shop and in front of a Wal-Mart shopping center. It has a neon OPEN sign and a scrolling LED board in the window. The main gate of Walt Disney World is only minutes away, placing it directly in the center of the seventh circle of chain restaurant hell. Nothing about Tropico Mofongo screams deliciousness.

Except the food.

What’s Mofongo? It’s a Puerto Rican dish in which green plantains are mashed together with broth, garlic, olive oil and pork cracklings. What’s a plantain? It looks like a banana, but how it tastes depends on its level of ripeness. The green ones used in traditional Mofongo also can be fried to make tostones, which taste a lot like potato chips and are a common side dish in Caribbean cuisine. The ripe ones (yellow and black peels) are fried to make maduros, which are soft, alternately sweet and salty and are the second best side dish on the planet behind macaroni and cheese.

As Mofongo, the plantains can be a side dish or part of the main course depending on how you choose to eat it. Eight-year-old Andy would have kept the meat (at Tropico Mofongo, you can choose from chicken, pork or skirt steak) and the Mofongo separate. Old man Andy mashed it all together with his roast pork. Earlier, the waiter had asked if I wanted pork cracklins in my Mofongo. This is the equivalent of going to the bank and having the teller ask this after your withdrawal: “Would you also like this $100 bill I just found on the counter?” Of course I wanted pork cracklins.

The Mofongo looked like skin-on mashed potatoes of a different color, but the more substantial chew made it more satisfying than any potato dish and a better foil for the pork than the yellow rice other Caribbean cultures prefer. The saltiness of the plantains blended beautifully with the garlic and the savory pork. The cracklins added another layer of flavor and some crunch. But as great as the Mofongo was, it couldn’t compete with spending an extra dollar to get what the proprietors of Tropico Mofongo call Trifongo. 

Trifongo has the same basic elements as Mofongo, but the cooks also mash in yucca and sweet plantains. The yucca adds little, but the ripe plantains sweeten the entire concoction just enough without overpowering the other flavors. I had the Trifongo with the skirt steak, and the sweeter mash melded nicely with the heartier beef. 

The portions are huge, so I don’t recommend ordering two Mofongo dishes unless you’re me. Do order the $1 side of maduros because there might not be a better value at any restaurant anywhere. Depending on what you’re drinking, you’re probably going to leave stuffed and happy for less than $17 before the tip.

That should leave plenty of money to go next door for a palm reading.

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