Best hangover cure
Big Wheel Provisions' 8-ounce Angus hot dog
Various locations; bigwheeltruck.com
We know what you're thinking: It's a hot dog. How amazing could this thing really be? Well, we'd been hearing about this particular dog from people for weeks. "It's huge," they told us, and it's all Angus beef and it's served with all manner of yummy condiments, all homemade with locally sourced ingredients. Our interest was piqued. But really, it's a hot dog, right?
We headed downtown to one of the Wednesday night food-truck pods in the parking lot behind Firestone Live, where Big Wheel Provisions is usually parked for the evening, serving up ridiculously delicious and decadent fare. On the night we visited, the truck was doling out grass-fed beef meatball sandwiches with local lettuces, pork belly sandwiches with blue cheese from Winter Park Dairy, fried calamari with spicy aioli … and we had committed to ordering … a hot dog. How sad. Until they called our name to let us know the monster dog was ready.
It was about the size of a baby's arm – no kidding – so big that it seemed inappropriate and possibly obscene to take a bite of it in public. But it was topped with a mound of homemade pickle relish and onion jam, and it looked so monumentally delicious that we set our reservations aside and devoured the whole damn thing. Delicious. In fact, we may never be able to eat another hot dog again, now that we know what a hot dog made with real meat actually tastes like.
If you're feeling peckish, we don't advise you order the 8-ounce monster dog – try the crispy, three-cheese fried grit cakes instead. But if you've got a gnawing hunger – the kind you're feeling after a night of downtown drinking, maybe – get the dog. It'll fix you. Seriously.
3006 Edgewater Drive; 407-425-9926
Surrounded by a dozen restaurants that have opened and closed over the years, smack in the middle of the construction of the shopping-plaza-engulfing Edgewater High School expansion, Gabriel’s Sub Shop sits placidly. The unpretentious sandwich store has been putting cold cuts on bread since 1958 on Edgewater Drive in College Park; originally they were located at the corner of Dartmouth and Edgewater, but after 22 years there (!), they moved down to their current address in 1980. Generations of College Parkers have grown up on Gabriel’s spiced ham and sweet pickles, and generations of the Gabriel family have served behind the counter – that’s one way to interpret “eating local.”
Best thing between two slices
Carnivore: ChiMoo at Treehouse Truck
Herbivore: CU Portabella at Greens & Grille
11325 University Blvd.; 407-373-0123; 4104 Millenia Blvd.; 407-770-1407; greensandgrille.com
The Treehouse Truck’s signature sandwich, the ChiMoo, is a pile of sliced chicken breast layered with juicy sliced steak, red cabbage slaw and sweet potato shoestrings – the solution to any omnivore’s dilemma. (Pour on the mango sauce for a pleasantly acidic contrast to the rich meats and dressings.) Catch up with Mikey Freas and the Treehouse Truck at one of the food truck gatherings or by following them on Twitter. For a lighter but no less indulgent sandwich, Greens & Grille has perfected the portobello. It’s a marinated and grilled ’shroom with a generous schmear of goat cheese and creamy avocado, accented by oven-roasted plum tomatoes between two slices of thick, whole-grain focaccia. “Filling” and “vegetarian” are no longer contradictory terms.
Best spice house
102 N. Park Ave., Winter Park; 407-788-7777; penzeys.com
Need dried lavender for those shortbread cookies? Aleppo pepper for Turkish kebabs? Fenugreek for … whatever you use fenugreek for? Penzey’s has it. The place is stocked full of spices you’ll never use more than once, but at least you know where to get them when you need them. There’s an impressive baking section too, with double- and triple-strength vanilla extract, cinnamon-sugar blends and much more. For your favorite chef, Penzey’s offers customizable gift boxes to be stuffed with fresh bay leaves, aromatic cinnamon sticks and whatever else appeals.
Best new fusion
Korean BBQ Taco Box
One of the first new-wave food trucks to hit the Orlando scene was the bright yellow Korean BBQ Taco Box. Serving bulgogi tacos, galbi burritos and Korean-style chicken wings, this truck evokes Los Angeles’ Kogi BBQ Truck, the original mobile Korean-Mexican fusion. First frequented by Asian teenagers in the know, it’s now a favorite of the food truck illuminati, consistently sporting long lines. The Spicy Pork Taco Box is a steal at $5.99 – the sweet-salty taco is accompanied by a chicken wing, a salad with ginger dressing, cream cheese dumplings, two beef-filled rice balls and a crispy spring roll. Follow the truck on Twitter to find its current location, or visit it at the Tuesday-night Lake Lily or Wednesday-night Firestone food-truck pods.
Best fresh pasta
Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek; 14100 Bonnet Creek Resort Ln., 407-597-3675; laluceorlandoweekly.com
The atmosphere is romantic, contemporary, elegant, but the real star of the show at Donna Scala’s Italian food temple is the pasta, freshly made every day. Chef Scala has put together a place where not only are guests respected, but ingredients are the most precious commodity. Paper-thin tagliatelle in puttanesca sauce, fluffy homemade ravioli filled with Bellwether ricotta, garganelli covered in velvety carbonara (the authentic recipe – no cream, no peas); it’s all delicious and available in tasting portions on request. An added hint: The olive fritti, fried manzanilla olives stuffed with anchovy and served alongside piping hot Marcona almonds, is a starter not to pass up.
Best news for gimlet drinkers
Winter Park Distilling Co.
P.O. Box 2878, Winter Park , 321-285-9492; wpdistilling.com
We like drinking and we like vodka, so you can imagine we were pleased as punch when we ran into Winter Park Distilling Co.’s proprietors at the Downtown Pour in Thornton Park in April. The big deal? Orlando has its own distillery – the first and only – that specializes in artisan microdistilling. With grandiose ideas about how their liquor “hearkens back to the days of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate distillery and the founding of our great nation” on their Facebook page, drinkers might expect a snooty, expensive pour. But WPD’s Genius grain vodka and Bear Gully Classic corn whisky recipes are based more on the concepts of the locavore movement. You can try these spirits at fine establishments such as the Ravenous Pig, Stardust Video & Coffee and City Fire, or purchase a bottle of the 40-proof stuff at Mucho Liquors, Knightley Spirits and other local liquor stores.
Best happy hour eats
7335 West Sand Lake Road; 407-608-5190; barlouieamerica.com
After the longest week, a few half-price cocktails and some creative bar food are more than welcome. Bar Louie offers an extensive menu for their 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. happy hour, featuring inexpensive and generous wine pours and half-price appetizers, as well as innovative cocktails made with top-shelf liquor. (Or without: Keep your designated driver alert with the Raging Bull, comprising strawberry puree, Red Bull and ginger ale.) The Bavarian pretzel sticks are our favorite: full-sized pretzel breadsticks served with queso, honey mustard and cinnamon butter. The huge basket of golden-brown tater tots loaded with cheese, giardiniera, bacon and scallions invites sharing … or greediness.
Best root beer on tap
200 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park; 321-274-4045; shipyardemporium.com
OK, it’s almost assuredly the only root beer on tap around these parts, but damn, it’s refreshing. Sweetened with natural cane and brown sugars and flavored with wintergreen oil, anise and vanilla, the Capt’n Eli-brand stuff comes from the Shipyard home base in Maine. A little advice, however: A chilled mug would make the $3.95 price tag go down much easier.
Best hidden Mexican gem
Mi Mexico #2
5214 Satel Drive, 407-296-3388
Driving northbound on Edgewater Drive after crossing the intersection with Lee Road, you notice that just past the weed-eaten carcass of the Worldwide Deliverance Church sits a squat Hispanic market with barred windows flanked by a rusty barbed-wire fence. Usually, you’d drive right on by, but if you’re hungry, we want you to park at that market. Trust us. Enter the building, make an immediate right, pass the pastry display and voilà – you’re at one of the most enjoyable Mexican restaurants in town, Mi Mexico #2. (Numero Uno is in Apopka.) Every dish stands out: the pita-thick tortilla chips, the guacamole tinted with the perfect amount of lime, the shrimp perfectly browned on the skillet, the subtly salted strips of steak. And the sub-$10 prices are great, especially considering that you’ll get at least two meals out of most dishes.
Best late, late night Mexican that isn’t Taco Bell
California Burrito Express
3922 E. Colonial Drive, 407-894-8250
We know the feeling, East Siders – after a night of drinking downtown, you’re meandering home on State Road 50, and suddenly, the urge for warm carbohydrates strikes you. The Taco Bell near Bennett Road is your typical stopping point, but don’t do it. Just before the Bell is a far more authentic Mexican experience called California Burrito Express, a drive-through open 24 hours a day. Everything from the beef tostadas to fish tacos are deftly crafted, considering the circumstances – we’ve only seen two people working at any one time, one taking orders, one cooking. If you’re focused purely on quantity, go inside and help yourself to shovel after shovel of tortilla chips near the salsa bar, which includes pickled carrots.
Best local cooking blog
We’ll admit that our metrics for judging a cooking blog may vary from yours: aesthetics count as much as recipes. Hey, it’s a visual medium, and we look at a lot more recipes than we actually prepare. But when we found Honest Fare, we found the best of both worlds. Gabrielle Arnold is a home chef with a background in advertising – obvious in the site’s smart branding and layout, clean design and typography, and utterly gorgeous photographs. Her interest in eating healthfully but not ascetically means you won’t find a lot of recipes involving bacon, but neither is there a shortage of sweets. Honest Fare is a lovely compendium of easy-to-achieve dishes that showcase the best of the Florida landscape.
Chef Tony Adams in “The Butcher’s Charge”
In this Protein University video, Matt Addington’s camera captures Adams as he strides across the grass with a side of local pork, swathed in white gauze like a bride and slung over his shoulder, and then sets about turning that half-pig into food. Unlike many of the other ProteinU videos, “The Butcher’s Charge” isn’t an instructional video. Watching Adams break down the animal is almost like watching a good carpenter at work – the same reverent care for his tools; the same rapt attention to the materials; the same abstracted middle-distance gaze as he seems almost to listen to the product under his hands, not look at it. It’s three minutes of mesmerizingly beautiful carnage, though: rough viewing if you haven’t reconciled the fact that this is what eating meat means.
Best food fight
“Food Truck Heaven” drama
All new crazes are subject to the Vicious Trend Cycle. Whether you’re jeggings, planking or Bon Iver, immutable laws of the universe state that just after the first rosy flush of popularity reaches its full glow, the backbiting will begin. The food truck scene in Orlando struck lightning-fast; in the space of what seemed like just a few months, there was a full complement of gourmet trucks plying their trade. (Taco, barbecue and ceviche trucks, of course, have been easy to find in East and South Orlando all along.) So it was inevitable that in a discussion about the Plaza Theatre’s Food Truck Heaven event on Yelp, statements like “Are any of the food trucks not expensive for what you get?” and “I don’t care whether you love their truck or hate them, as far as I’m concerned, they have no business operating anything other than a TV remote” were thrown around. The real drama, though swirled around The Daily City’s use of noncompete contracts. Though no one could question his support of and commitment to the scene, thedailycity.com Food Truck Bazaar organizer Mark Baratelli was called “crass,” “cheeky” and “no better than Wal-Mart” for a provocative scheduling move: Allegedly, after getting signed contracts with one-month noncompete buffer from the best-known trucks, Baratelli then set the date for his next event to be two days before the Plaza’s event. The result: Six trucks had to pull out of the Plaza event at the last minute. Hurt feelings, all-caps name-calling and un-Taco-Boxed bellies were forgotten within the week, though, and Orlando’s meals-on-wheels movement rolls on smoothly.
Best Molecular Gastronomy
310 W. Mitchell Hammock Road, Oviedo; 407-542-5975; sushipoprestaurant.com
Celebrity chefs Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal may have taken kitchen chemistry to fanciful heights, but chef Chau Mann at Oviedo’s SushiPop offers a more accessible, and often whimsical, take on the phenomenon known as molecular gastronomy. Who can make a sunny-side-up egg from sweet coconut milk and mango puree? Chau Mann can! Jalapeno noodles to go with your salmon? Not a problem. The big finish comes with the PB&J sorbet: a tableside blast of liquid nitrogen into grape juice finished with “peanut butter” pulverized and powdered by maltodextrin. Who says getting freaky with your food can’t be fun?
Best (or Worst) Restaurant for Indecisive Diners
22 E. Pine St., 407-625-6045; pine22.com
When a restaurant extends 322,200 possible burger permutations and combinations, patrons are sure to: a) delight in the overwhelming number of cheeses, sauces and toppings, and b) take forever deciding what to put on their burger. Processing the myriad options and then envisioning the ideal burger can be a taxing mind-body exercise, particularly on your lunch hour, when the pressure to order quickly can result in a turkey burger with blue cheese, peanut sauce, dried cranberries and guacamole on an English muffin. So take your time. And if you’re not the sort who knows exactly what you want, our advice: Just breathe.
Best Flashback to ’90s Downtown Orlando
2 S. Charles Richard Beall Blvd., DeBary; 386-320-0217; genuinebistro.com
Pining to relive the glory days of downtown Orlando, when such memorable haunts as Yab Yum (later Harold & Maude’s Espresso Bar), Go Lounge, the Globe and the Kit Kat Club (ahh, the impromptu nakedness!) held sway just off Orange Avenue? Then consider a drive up memory lane to DeBary’s Genuine Bistro. If the joint seems philosophically and gastronomically at odds with the town, it’s because the woman behind it, Barrie Freeman, was also responsible for shaping downtown Orlando’s anti-establishment dining and nightlife scene in the early ’90s. You’ll find no shortage of well-executed dishes, tat sleeves and aging revelers reminiscing with Freeman about the heady days of yore.
Best ebb and flow
The rise and fall of Cajun-themed restaurants
The first of our favorite local Cajun grub houses to shut its doors was the late, great Jockamo’s, which went out of business in 2008 (RIP roast beef and gravy po’boy). Last year we also lost another favorite when 15-year-old downtown mainstay Crooked Bayou called it quits just two days before Christmas. But it hasn’t been all bad news for fans of Cajun fare: Mojo Cajun Bar & Grill has been a welcome addition to Church Street, and Winter Park is now home to Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen (which was opened by the folks behind local Tex-Mex chain Tijuana Flats). Here’s hoping these two stick around for a while.
Best fried rice
8255 International Drive, 407-363-7200; hanamizuki.us
Fried rice isn’t something you think about. It’s usually just the accompaniment to your greasy Chinese lunch or a way to use up leftovers at home. This is why Hanamizuki needs a new name for their fried rice; “grains of heaven,” perhaps? Local restaurant blogger Ricky Ly has compared it to crack: strong words, but justified. The chef’s use of fresh (instead of day-old) rice and threads of pickled ginger are where he diverges from the norm; the gently scrambled egg and piquant green onion are familiar enough to accentuate the differences.
Best sugary fluff
Turkish cotton candy
Abumaher International Grocery; 6148 Hanging Moss Road, 407-677-8000
Spun from butter-toasted flour and sugar (sometimes with the addition of pistachio or cocoa powder), pismaniye is a revelation. Unlike the state-fair variety, there’s no lingering taste of chemicals or gritty granules after it melts on the tongue. It looks different, too: like undyed wool yarn. What it lacks in visual excitement, though, it more than makes up for in smooth, rich, rounded sweetness. Find pismaniye in the candy section at Abumaher International Grocery, an excellent source of halal meat and all culinary things Turkish, Egyptian and Iraqi.
Best cheap rolled food
Dosa table at Apna Bazaar
9410 S. Orange Blossom Trail, 407-856-0238
Every ethnic fast food has one, whether it’s a crepe, burrito, mu shu or gyro: some highly flavored and saucy protein or veg wrapped in a starch. South India’s contribution is the masala dosa, a spicy filling of potatoes and onions wrapped in a griddled lentil-flour crepe and served with coconut chutney. On weekends, you can get a dosa made before your eyes at Apna Bazaar, one of the Indian groceries in the South OBT curry corridor. Piping-hot and plopped on a Styrofoam plate, it’s a happy gutful for only $3.
Best furniture store turned bar
The Imperial Wine Bar
1800 N. Orange Ave., 407-228-4992; imperialwinebar.com
This unlikely drinking spot is tucked away in the back of Washburn Imports, a high-end furniture store in Ivanhoe Village. When you step inside the homey living room-esque bar area, you’re hesitant to sit on (or even touch, for that matter) the exquisitely crafted furnishings adorned with steep price tags: an armchair from Indonesia here, an ornately carved Chinese coffee table there. We suggest grabbing a libation from the moderate list of boutique wines and micro-brews, ordering a charcuterie or cheese plate and heading to our favorite nook: the comfortably squished outdoor beer garden embellished with natural cedar loveseats and soft, twinkly lighting.
Still Great Best of Orlando, 2001
212 S. Orange Blossom Trail, 407-286-3421
WE SAID THEN: Housed in what can charitably be described as a shack, Goff's Drive-In is one of the few remaining relics of the days when Orlando was surrounded by cows and orange groves. There's nothing fancy about the ice cream. It's simple – soft and sweet. But Goff's offers an old-time confectionery delight: wet nuts. That's walnuts covered with maple syrup. They taste great on chocolate or strawberry sundaes, banana splits or a cup of vanilla. The best gauge that Goff's is unique comes from its customers: At least one loyal consumer drives 25 minutes to get there – from all the way up in Altamonte Springs – just for that one sundae delight.
WE SAY NOW: Goff's is still in that shack, but the surroundings are considerably, let's say, more urban these days. In our 2007 write-up, our reviewer noted that "there isn't any place to sit except maybe the hood of your car or the tarmac, surrounded by industrial blight, but I've always had good service and some interesting conversations while waiting in line. Last time I was there, a hooker who was walking by started bickering with one of the guys waiting in line." Regardless of the lack of seating, there's still a line every Sunday after church for Goff's bestseller: vanilla sundaes. And yes, they still have wet nuts.