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Orlando foodie district face-off: Mills 50 vs. I-Drive

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Both neighborhoods are packed with restaurants, but which you choose has a lot to do with what you’re craving – hyperlocal flavor on the cheap or cha-ching! pampering. To the north, there’s Mills 50, a haven for mom-and-pop ventures, international eats and the hottest spots to find nom-nom-nirvana on a dime. To the south, International Drive has transformed itself from a tourist trap to avoid into a restaurant hub worth frequenting, especially on an expense account.

MILLS 50

BAO CHICKA WOW You can eat an amazing dinner for less than $10 at King Bao. Two pillowy rice-flour buns stuffed with Korean fried chicken, braised pork belly or lobster plus a soft drink will only set you back about seven bucks.

NEW + OLD If there's one place on the Mills 50 strip for a fancy dinner, it's The Strand. The pocket-sized restaurant and bar specializes in small-batch classic comfort food with a contemporary twist, so it's not too far outside the comfort zone for less adventurous diners. The waitstaff will steer you to a killer bottle of wine within your budget.

PHO SHO' Sometimes only soup will do. Good thing Pho 88 has 40 different ones to choose from, all served in giant bowls with your choice of accoutrement – thai basil, bean sprouts, jalapeño slices and lime wedges. Vietnamese parents all swear by a big bowl of bun bo hue, a steaming, lava-red bowl of beef and noodles, for whatever ails you.

A LITTLE OF A LOT When chef and TV host Andrew Zimmern came to Orlando, he couldn't say enough good things about Hawkers Asian Street Fare. Same goes for the small plates at Mamak Asian Street Food. At these two Mills 50 restos, it's encouraged to order a bunch of things and order progressively from the menu until you've reached your desired satiety.

BANGIN' BANH CUON It's a tiny, tucked-away Southeast Asian spot on the south side of the street, but Vietnam Cuisine has killer banh cuon – slippery rice crepes folded over pork and shrimp – that belie the humble digs. Get you some with a Vietnamese iced coffee to shake off that hangover.

SUM-THING GOOD There's no rule that says Saturday and Sunday mornings are just for bacon and eggs; Mills 50 folk go for dim sum instead. Sit down at Lam's Garden, Chan's Chinese Cuisine or Ming's Bistro – after you've waited in line a bit – to feast on dumplings, chicken feet and roasted pork.

HOT, HOT HEAT Orlando's only authentic Sichuan-style restaurant, Chuan Lu Garden, started out as a run-of-the-mill hibachi hut, but soon the owners learned we couldn't get enough of those numbing peppercorns and turned the whole place into a veritable sweat lodge where patrons slurp dan-dan noodles and spicy hot pots.

TWO IN ONE Noodles, be they hot, cold, soupy or stir-fried, are the, ahem, mein attraction at this Mills Avenue resto – whether it's ramen, udon, soba, pad thai, chow fun or lo mein that bubbles your bowl, you'll find it all at Noodles & Rice. Or try the Hong Kong style barbecue (duck is surprisingly absent), or snag a hot pot table.

COUPLE'S COOKING John and Juliana Calloway created Black Rooster Taqueria to fill a need for an elevated, authentic Mexican taco stand. Since the storefront opened in 2015, it's become a neighborhood must-visit. Come for the tacos, but stay for the pork pozole verde and chocolate-chipotle flan.

QUEENS OF CANTON If you've ever walked Main Street in Flushing, Queens, you'll recognize the roast whole ducks and five-spice aroma wafting from Tasty Wok. You can still find kung pao and orange chicken here (done better than most NY-style spots, too), but the stars are the whole sole with black bean sauce and beef with pickled vegetables.

DIY DINNER Shin Jung Korean Restaurant has been through several updates, but we think the most recent one, which added Korean BBQ grills to each and every table, is just the tops. After you've wrapped your last bulgogi or slurped the last of your kimchi jjigae, don't forget dessert: the epic patbingsu.

MMMMMM ... MUDBUGS A large number of Vietnamese refugees made the Southern states their home during the 1960s and '70s, and adopted Cajun seafood as part of their culture. King Crawfish and L.A. Boiling Seafood are two spots to get your hands really, really dirty in Mills 50, elbows deep in crawfish, corn and melted butter.

THE TAO OF TACOS Tako Cheena, a bustling Latin-Asian burrito and taco spot, has reached certified local must-eat status. We can't wait for it to move into new digs just down the street in the former Forbidden City building.

DON'T-MISS MEATS Until recently, when the Lake Nona outpost opened, Pig Floyd's Urban Barbakoa on Mills Avenue was the only place to find the pork belly bánh mì – a Latin-Asian sammy that's an ode to the 'hood – or the Matahambre, translated as the "hunger killer," a monster layered with smoked brisket, chimichurri, mayonnaise, picked vegetables and an egg on toasted baguette.

Tapa Toro - PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett
  • Tapa Toro

I-DRIVE

PAELLA PARTY Group dining isn't a difficult sell on the I-Drive strip; conventions and family vacationers pack private dining rooms and long tables in restaurants. But for a fun and interactive chef's table, sit around the half-moon paella "pit" at Tapa Toro, where executive chef Wendy Lopez and her crew fill pans with shellfish, seasoned short-grain rice and saffron. Bonus: free parking at the I-Drive 360 garage.

LAVISH & LEGENDARY There are only a few temples of haute cuisine left in New York City, and one of them has made its way down to Orlando to set up shop on a new parking garage going up on Sand Lake Road and International Drive. Circo, the little sister of NYC legend Le Cirque, will open later this year between the neon Orlando Eye to the east and Universal fireworks to the west (though you won't be able to see the show from the restaurant).

TURNING TABLES The food at Taverna Opa at Pointe Orlando, the street's original dining and shopping destination, is beyond reproach – lemony grilled lamb ribs and braised lamb shanks are favorite plates – but it's the nightly belly-dancing and napkin-throwing that have us coming back for seconds.

THROW A BONE Carnivores will cheer for the prime steak list at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse on the west side of I-Drive. Oenophiles will adore dining in the private cellar dining room with wine "elevator" that plucks bottles from the two-story tower.

WINE DOWN The menu at Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant is lengthy, but not even as extensive as its wine list. Locals love the Waterford Lakes and Sanford locations, but the I-Drive version is walking distance to the Orlando Eye. If you loved your bottle, pick it up at the in-house wine shop for at-home imbibing.

PROTEIN-PALOOZA Orlando gets enough Brazilian tourist traffic to justify an all-you-can-eat churrascaria chain on every corner. Texas de Brazil, on the north end of International Drive might be the go-to with its NASCAR-regulation oval buffet, but Fogo de Chão is equally delicious, and their gauchos ask (and remember!) what temperature you prefer your steak when they come around to slice.

EAT AT TONY'S Don't roll your eyes just yet. This ain't the 1970s rib joint you remember. Tony Roma's parent company is based right here in Orlando, and they've made the I-Drive location a flagship and testing ground for new recipes and craft cocktails. The fare is still crowd-pleasing; just think less Brady Bunch and more Modern Family.

MEET AT THE MONKEY The last remaining vestige of the formerly vast Funky Monkey empire is located at Pointe Orlando, and has been the proving ground for many of Orlando's top chefs, including Hell's Kitchen alum Ashley Nickell.

SEE FOOD Throw on your most elegant frock, order a chilly dry martini and prepare yourself for classic seafood preparations at present-day prices at Oceanaire Seafood Room. The oyster bar features 10 different oysters from around the globe, flown in fresh daily. We're almost certain the Oceanaire is the only place where baked Alaska is still a regular on the dessert menu.

MAMBO ITALIANO For plates piled high with pasta, you'll want to head to Maggiano's Little Italy at Pointe Orlando. Just north of Buca di Beppo's price point, this carbo-chain is famous for family-style dishes of eggplant parmigiana and flash-fried calamari. These guys are used to crowds, too, so for a big party, service will be a cinch. Just call ahead.

DEEP SOUTH DISHES She-crab soup is what you should start with when you sit down in the upscale-rustic digs at Itta Bena Food & Spirits on Pointe Orlando's upper level. Get there early to taste your pick of dozens of bourbons at the bar while the pianist takes requests. Once you've dined, head across the sidewalk to Lafayette's for live Dixieland, rock and jazz until the wee hours.

BEACH BITES The seafood-centric Tommy Bahama restaurant is a themed restaurant that tries really hard not to be a themed restaurant. But you just can't get around the khaki-clad, island-shirted "adventure casual" crowd here. The Maui-inspired menu is anything but casual, though, sporting Kona coffee-crusted ribeye and macadamia-crusted red snapper.

CHOP CHOP What you won't get at Spencer's for Steaks and Chops at the Hilton Orlando: frills. What you will get: a damn good steak. The minimalist chophouse is favored for its aged, hand-cut Florida beef, but also flaunts lamb, pork and elk chops on its one-page menu. Steak sides are à la carte, and the celeriac au gratin shouldn't be overlooked.

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