Recall the last time you were in Orlando. Did you hardly leave the grounds of a theme park? If the answer is yes, it’s time to go back. One of the South’s emerging food destinations, this Central Florida city has several surprises up its sleeve—from the bustling Mills 50 neighborhood that’s home to vibrant murals and a major Asian-American community to a string of restaurants racking up accolades as they answer the question “just what is the cuisine of modern Florida?” one plate at a time.
You’ll want to set aside an afternoon to take an eating tour of Mills 50, an expanding enclave of Asian restaurants, grocers, and shops that’s home to one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in Florida. Stop at Chuan Lu Garden for Sichuan-style Chinese, modestly named Vietnam Cuisine, and Bánh Mì Nha Trang Subs—a tiny joint tucked away in a nondescript plaza that builds twenty two different bánh mì. Another can’t-miss is King Cajun Crawfish, which chef Ha Nguyen opened after leaving Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit. Order a pound of mudbugs “sha bang”-style and don’t plan to share.
Come dinnertime, the forty-minute drive to Mount Dora is worth it for a taste of the Father of Florida Cuisine’s cooking at 1921 by Norman Van Aken. The menu is crafted around the flavors of modern Florida, whose influences range from the Caribbean to Latin America to the Middle East. Expect the likes of conch fritters and merguez-stuffed dates.
Or, make dinner plans in nearby Winter Park, a lake-dotted urban village. A decade ago, James and Julie Petrakis kickstarted the small town’s now lively food scene when they opened the Ravenous Pig. Start with a charcuterie board before moving to the collard green ravioli with rock shrimp, braised ham hock, and turnips. Nearby, Italian-inspired Prato is a solid choice for wood-fired pizzas and pastas made in house.
For after-dinner drinks, you’re headed to Hanson’s Shoe Repair, a downtown speakeasy that requires a nightly passcode for entry. (Check the bar’s Twitter page.) Once inside, admire the 1880s-era building (thought to be Orlando’s oldest) that formerly housed—you guessed it—a shoe repair shop. If you err on the side of dive bars, make your way to local institution Wally’s Mills Avenue Liquors. The sixty-plus-year-old watering hole predates Disney World and is known for its cheap prices, heavy pours, and colorful clientele.
Central Florida is no stranger to the South’s growing craft beer and spirits scene. Check out Ten10 Brewing, Crooked Can Brewing, and Redlight, Redlight as well as Winter Park Distillery and Bear and Peacock Brewery.
Boutique hotel the Alfond Inn at Rollins offers elegant yet comfortable digs in Winter Park. Owned by Rollins College, the inn is an extension of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum and directs its net operating income to the school’s scholarship fund.