Finding Food Outside Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida

This fall, a business trip took me to the Magic Kingdom in Florida for a conference. As I arrived at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, it was disturbing enough to see the feral kids (prodded by their fruitful parents) running and screaming all over the place. But, worse, the hotel was hosting the Republican Party of Florida’s 2012 “Victory Dinner” that night, with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell serving as the keynote speaker. (Last year it was Sarah Palin.) At one point, Congressman Allen West (last month voted out of office) stood outside my elevator. I invited him in, explaining that it was the elevator of the 99%, to which he waved me off.

The hotel was a nightmare, with numerous problems making it the unhappiest place on earth. (Adding to the misery: Every phone call for help starts with “Hope you are having a magical day.”) And if you’re looking for good food, I suggest you go far away. It’s worth the price of a car rental to not be stranded in Culinary Wasteland—which sounds like an actual park on the property.

Luckily, there is loveable food to be found, especially if you think “Winter.” Let’s start with the best, and work our way down.

The Ravenous Pig: Consult the food message boards, and this is easily the most recommended restaurant in the area for those seeking quality cooking. From Disney, you’ll have to travel through Orlando to Winter Park, but it’s worth the trip. Sitting solo? There’s a chef’s counter where you can strike up conversation with your neighbors, or just enjoy watching the food come out of the kitchen. The Ravenous Pig has a great list of craft beer by the glass and bottle, and lots of bold dishes on a frequently changing menu. Sardines and pork belly were my savory choices (I also enjoyed dessert) for the first of a two-part dinner.

Grilled Monterey sardine at The Ravenous Pig. The sardine is lardo-wrapped (!), comes on a toasted ciabatta crouton with arugula puree, and is served with grilled shishito peppers. A nice starter. With it: a Green Room & Ron Raike Ravenous Ruby Red Ale (brewed with local orange and grapefruit juice and peels and spiced with coriander).

Ravenous Pig’s vanilla-glazed pork belly with espresso-date jam, heirloom apples, and 18th century stone-cut oat granola. Delicious!

Ravenous Pig’s milk chocolate-cherry bread pudding served with pecan brittle, cherry beer caramel, and Winter Park Reserve Whisky ice cream. The pudding was just a tad on the dry side, but the ice cream and caramel took care of that.

Cask & Larder: This is the new, sister restaurant of The Ravenous Pig, just up the road in Winter Park. Calling itself a “Southern Public House,” the restaurant features an on-site brewery, oyster bar, ham-slicing station, and an incredibly eclectic menu. As good as The Ravenous Pig was, I might find myself more interested in returning here to explore more of the menu. For part two of my dinner (post-Pig), I enjoyed pickled beef tongue, grilled lamb heart, a southern type of poutine, and yet another dessert.

Cask & Larder’s pickled beef tongue with crispy shallots and a beautiful egg. Great preparation.

Cask & Larder’s waffle fries with chicken liver gravy, buttermilk cheese curds, and pickled scallions. Addictive.

Grilled lamb heart at Cask & Larder, smokey and slightly salty. I liked all the elements of the dish, especially the contrast of the cold plums.

Cask & Larder’s chocolate turtle cake. It’s a classic Devil’s food cake, with dark chocolate icing, a thin layer of dulce de leche in the cake and on top, along with toasted pecans and a sprinkling of sel gris. Served on a cake pedestal, this is a head-turning dessert.

Sitting at the counter, I watched a lot of ham plates getting prepped at Cask & Larder.

Ingredient sourcing on display at Cask & Larder.

The Tasting Room at The Chef’s Table: Another recommendation I received from food message boards was The Tasting Room at The Chef’s Table in Winter Garden. Located in the historic Edgewater Hotel (definitely explore around), The Tasting Room is a casual place for drinks and small plates. I sat at the bar, but unlike The Ravenous Pig and Cask & Larder, service was a little less friendly (not cold, but not the most inviting). The food had hits and misses, with Rita’s fried chicken livers a highlight, Chef Kevin’s famous boudain’s balls decent, and roasted beet salad a miss. And then there were the candied collard greens.

My favorite dish at The Tasting Room at The Chef’s Table was Rita’s fried chicken livers, crispy while bathing in creamy Cajun andouille sausage gravy.

Chef Kevin’s famous boudain’s balls at The Tasting Room. It’s house-made pork sausage rolled in panko and then fried, topped with an egg and served with Cajun mayo. Good texture, but a little over-salty to my taste.

The Tasting Room’s candied collard greens. Sweet but addictive. I called and texted to get more information about the recipe, but never a reply. In fact, according to others, no one ever seems to answer the phone at the restaurant!

The Tasting Room’s roasted beet salad. I liked the ricotta, toasted almond, and roasted shallot dressing, but the strawberries didn’t work in the dish. Bigger problem: beets lacked any depth of flavor. Biggest problem: all of the dishes for my dinner came at one time.

Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria: It sounds like a place you’d find in the Magic Kingdom, but this little hangout is actually by the Executive Airport in Orlando. I love that you can get sandwiches (and all kinds of tea, including milk tea) until 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, until 5 a.m. on Thursday night/Friday morning, and then all night long on Friday and Saturday nights, when the shop doesn’t close until 6 p.m. on Sunday for its only evening off. You can customize any of the standard sandwiches to your desires, or create one from scratch. My order: the Fu Man Chu Sandwich.

The Fu Man Chu at Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria. Good sandwich with the slight spiciness of Asian pulled pork, the bitterness and peppery notes of watercress, the tanginess of goat cheese, and the sweetness of red onions (along with ginger cranberry chutney) inside pumpernickel bread.

Back at Disney: Stuck in the hotel while the staff tried to work out my Internet connectivity problems, I took one meal at Disney, hoping for that so-called “magical” experience. It didn’t happen. At a place called The Wave…of American Flavors (what kind of name is that for a restaurant?) I ate a grilled chicken breast sandwich that was a bit baffling. And at the bottom of the receipt: “Have a Magical Day.”

An unmagical sandwich at Disney’s “Wave” restaurant: grilled chicken breast atop a house-made onion roll with sun-dried tomato spread and Zellwood sweet corn relish. Fourteen dollars of “blah,” complete with three potato wedge things, and feral kids running around the dining room.