My trip to Orlando last weekend wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with food: My husband wanted to cheer on his Miami Hurricanes in a bowl game (it didn’t help) and spend a day at Disney. Since neither football games nor theme parks are known for their culinary achievements, I figured I’d give my taste buds a few days off.
But I ate surprisingly well over the course of the trip. Here, five dishes which I’d seek out again if headed south on Interstate 95.
Beach Road Chicken Dinners, 4132 Atlantic Blvd., Jacksonville
Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, Beach Road Chicken Dinners is the rare road food institution which hasn’t let its standards slip. The crisp-skinned chicken brims with flavor that’s sure not to fade when the meat’s cooled for a picnic lunch, and the terrific creamed peas are earthier than creamed corn, the creamed vegetable most familiar to contemporary eaters. But the star of the table, set family-style, is the peppery, thick brown gravy.
Taverna Opa, 9101 International Dr., Orlando
Since I’ve been a fan of themes since I chaired my high school prom committee, I was dead set on themed eating in Orlando. But it’s oddly difficult to find a themed restaurant beyond Disney gates, unless you’re willing to settle for the Hard Rock Café. We ended up at Taverna Opa, which is both a send-up and genuine celebration of traditional Hellenic culture: The gimmick is diners are invited to dance on their tables. I definitely didn’t choose Opa for the food, but the garlicky hummus – served in a wooden mortar, for added thematic fun points – was fresh and smartly seasoned.
Lacomka Bakery, 2050 Semoran Blvd., Winter Park
Most of the pastries at Lacomka, the lone Russian bakery in the Orlando area, are freighted with custard and cream. The apple-stuffed bulochki, reminiscent of a kolache, is a subtly sweet yeast roll. By eastern European standards, it’s almost light.
Lechonera El Barrio, 435 N. Semoran Blvd., Orlando
The pork and fried plantains on my Puerto Rican lunch plate were excellent, but I couldn’t stop eating the soft yellow rice and pigeon peas with a hint of chile pepper and garlic. I’m not sure exactly which dish on the cafeteria buffet inspired the out-the-door line which drew me to El Barrio, but arroz con gandules tasted like a strong contender.
Datil pepper sauce
Barnacle Bill’s, 14 Castillo Dr., St. Augustine
The online reviews of Barnacle Bill’s aren’t great, mostly because diners sometimes insist on straying from the menu page devoted to shrimp: The family-friendly seafood restaurant clearly isn’t the place to go for Caesar salad and white wine. The butterflied fired shrimp, though, are sweet and thoughtfully breaded. Best of all, they’re served with snowball-sized hush puppies ready for dipping in the housemade hot sauce, featuring St. Augustine’s signature datil pepper. The syrupy sauce is fairly vinegary, but the pleasant afterburn is pure datil.