Food for Thought | Other Orlando

  • The “World’s Largest Entertainment” McDonald’s is opening in…where else…Orlando. It is replacing the previous one that formerly had the same distinction.

    In Orlando, of course.

    Mecca of the theme parks. More than any of them anywhere in the world.

    Of course, the new Mickey D does not, repeat not, just have cheese burgers and milk shakes. It has Panini sandwiches and fresh, hand-tossed pasta. Also “gourmet breakfasts.”

    All of which raises the question:

    Could the food here be far better than that you would get at the theme parks?
    Is that possible?

    The answer: maybe.

    Can McDonald’s be Five Stars?

    This news might also make you consider: where are you eating today?

    The subject of food at a theme park is a popular one.

    Not always a happy one.

    “Don’t eat there,” is one blogger suggestion.

    “Don’t eat at a theme park unless you’re desperate,” urges another.

    If you look at customer park ratings, this is a big issue. And even those who give high marks overall too many parks often complain that the food flunks out.

    Even when there is praise for an eatery, it is often not quite enthusiastic.

    Typical was what a blogger said about Universal’s Confisco Grille:

    “Not bad for a theme park” is among the most positive comments you will find.

    This is not always fair, of course.

    Epcot at Disney gets some praise.

    The Sunshine Seasons food court at the Land pavilion offers decent food at generally affordable prices.

    Epcot’s French Pavilion is almost always highly recommended.

    For even more expensive tastes, Jiko at Animal Kingdom has near $50 steaks. But if you’re willing to pay the price, make it medium-rare.

    The simple answer to the food park issue is to bring your own food and drink.

    Bottled water. No problem. Good anywhere. Anytime.

    And peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are loved by everyone. But they do get soggy in the hot sun.

    If you want to leave the park for a meal, there are a lot of negative associations.

    Some say don’t do it at all. The main reason is the high price you are paying to just be in the park. So in a sense, you can’t afford to leave it.

    Face it: frantically scurrying for rides (with or without tugging young ones on a leash) is a tense business.

    So sitting down for a meal is a real break. But if you just rush the occasion, it tends to lose its attraction. No time to relax.

    So if you don’t want to bring your meals, and you still want to keep some enjoyment from eating, here’s your solution: leave the park.

    So where do you go? And if you don’t live here, what ads or internet claims should make you consider?

    Try something else. Locals.

    We asked these amateur critics what they did for meals when they left the theme parks.

    The answer was sometimes no surprise: fast food.

    You want it quick to get back

    But these were not necessarily the fast food places you already know like Mickey D and Burger King.

    Our request also turned up some unusual dining places like bowling alleys and ice cream stands.

    But first, keep in mind we asked for places near the theme parks…you do want to get back quickly.

    One of the most popular chains was one you may not know about unless you live here: Tijuana Flats. Good burritos and Tostitos. Cheap.

    But reasons for its popularity go beyond that.

    It has a feel-food story that is well-known to locals.

    It started with a bar-loving college kid at the University of Central Florida. Back in 1985, he was typical of his breed: low on money.

    When he decided to start a low cost tex-mex place, he turned to his father, of course. Dad loaned him $20,000.

    But the story gets even better when he became successful.

    Dad left a 30-year career at a Fortune 500 company to become CFO of Tijuana Flats.

    It has now grown to more than 100 restaurants.

    But you might want to try it for other reasons: price, quick service, and good taste, locals say.

    CiCi’s is another chain that has grown even faster.

    It is even more of a case where price is king.

    Two Texas men founded it in 1985. Today, it has more than 500 locations. It has been named at times the fastest growing pizza chain in the US.


    It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet with more than a dozen kinds of pizza. Freshly baked pizza with a wide choice of toppings, pastas with hearty marinara or creamy Alfredo sauces. Also, an expansive salad bar with lots of fresh veggies. Gooey cinnamon rolls or other dessert items.

    Warning: not all items offered here are the most healthy, but you are on vacation.

    Prices: sometimes less than $5, or $5-$7. Several locations nearby.

    This has led CiCi’s to win local visitors but also awards from Consumer Choice and other places.

    The champ: Golden Corral

    Locals may like it but they love another place, the Golden Corral chain.

    The chain says its seemingly endless buffet is “legendary.”

    It has just about everything from slow-cooked pot roast and steaks to fried chicken. Many dishes such as mashed potatoes and meat loaf are made-from-scratch. Vegetables are plentiful though overcooked. Kids love the chocolate fountain and cotton candy (yes, also on the item). And desserts are plentiful, also home-made (don’t expect large portions but you can get as many as you want).

    It also serves breakfast.

    And the price? Desserts alone would cost far more than most places.

    Under $10 for most adults.

    Desserts include ice cream.

    Speaking of ice cream, locals know a place you should, too. Twistee Treat. You can’t miss it because the actual stand is a house-size ice cream cone. Soft ice cream. A small chain with locations near you. Unfortunately, no sandwiches, but you did bring those peanut and butter ones, no?

    You may already know about another all-you-can eat chain, Sweet Tomatoes, and Panera’s, which is basically a soup and sandwich place. Sweet Tomatoes prides itself on fresh food, and it is that. But even with several kinds of soup, with salads it’s ok for dieters but lacks the heavier choices hungry tourists need for fuel. Prices are also getting up there. As for Panera’s, it does offer fresh bread and somewhat watery soup, and it is good for a quick stop, so you might consider it.

    Not so with the Ponderosa chain. Getting harder and harder to find. No wonder.

    Both service and quality are poor. If you can even find one, skip it.

    For something more exotic, and less expensive, try the Ararat Euro Food & Bistro on Universal Boulevard. The food is Russian and Polish, but it’s familiar to you as “borscht, pierogi, schnitzel” and “cabbage rolls.”

    Another appealing place to locals is no surprise because it’s a tavern. Marlow's Tavern, which calls itself the 'Best of the Best' in bar food. Its Pointe Orlando location is both warm and modern. There’s comfortable outdoor setting. Lots of TVs. Basic bar or sandwich-oriented food. And a good and inexpensive kids’ menu.

    So go to a tavern or a bowling alley.

    In the latter case…locals say King’s Bowl may be the best meal you will ever get to the surrounding serenade of crashing tenpins. Usual stuff. Pizza. Milkshakes. Fries. But also glazed sea scallops and house-smoked baby back ribs.

    Huge menu, small prices

    A huge menu. But almost all low prices. But come early. It gets crowded.
    Here’s another place you may not have heard of. Café Tu Tu Tango.

    An artsy name, but why not?

    All the art on the walls is for sale.

    Founded in 1991 by three friends who had just returned from a trip together to Barcelona, Spain. They loved seeing poets and artists and just about everyone scribbling notes and sketches while eating small plates of tapas. They brought the idea to Orlando (along with the art). No quick food here, but expect spontaneous entertainment.

    For ribs served outdoor picnic style, try Bubbalou’s Bodacious BBW. He’s a real cook, a big man you can imagine sitting down to a huge meal, and his food is popular throughout the area. Pulled pork and typical BBQ style with down-home collard greens.

    If you want to spend a little more (ok, a lot more) in a quiet place where you can relax and savor a slower meal, here are three choices:

    Maggiano’s Little Italy. Yes, it is also part of a chain. But a small one. Great service. Specialty pastas may be the best anywhere. Try Rigatoni D in a Marsala Cream Sauce.
    Bravo! Few tourists are found here but so what? Wouldn’t you rather dine with locals? More traditional Italian recipes with excellent pasta and flat breads.

    Seasons 52. Just as the Golden Corral is the all-you-can-eat champ, so it this place when it comes to expensive and gourmet dining. But it also has terrific vegetables (you may realize for the first time how good vegetables can be when perfectly cooked). Also very good for dieters, since all dishes come with calorie counts. Some of us might not like to be reminded, but because so many dishes are low in fat, you won’t regret knowing about them.

    There are admittedly only a few examples of alternatives to theme park food. But if you want more choices, do what we did: ask the locals.

    Or wait for McDonald’s. The new one, with that record entertainment level, is due to open next year. ###