With sincere apologies to December 2018 and its stellar parade of meals – including a damn-near revelatory experience at Kadence – we present our top-12 countdown of Orlando Eats’ Best Bites of 2019.
Although 2019 was the Year of the Pig in China, it was Year of the Octopus in Orlando. Reliable haunts like Hunger Street Tacos, Bem Bom, Reyes, Ravenous Pig and Pizza Bruno were all waving their fat tentacles at us – giving entirely new meaning to the ‘O’ in O-Town and resulting in three list mentions.
We can also count 2019 as the year that Central Florida realized that izakayas exist, seeing the rollout of several Japanese-tapas-bar newbies and retrobranding of some staid sushi standbys. Finally, we continued to be besotted by fancy donuts and fried chicken – specifically Nashville Hot and KFC.
Surprisingly, it’s the fast-casual bites that really stood out to us this year. We’re finding much of Orlando’s best food is being slung from counter order eateries. Evidence? Hunger Street Tacos managed to leverage three different venues to score three of our best bite shout-outs.
In the rarer air, Orlando fared far more poorly where we struggled to find food commensurate with cost. If you demand a premium price you should deliver a premium experience. We often left costlier, more varnished eateries feeling an imbalance between expectation, value and results.
For what it’s worth, there are no popups or food trucks on the list although several deserve to be. It’s the price of maintaining our focus on brick and mortar restaurants.
Finally? It’s a list limited by time, budget, waistline and the laws of physics. Meaning, we’re only four eaters and it was impossible for us to get to many of the city’s best and buzziest. Orlando Meats, Soco, Susuru, Kaizen, Sushi Pop, Wine Bar George, Tori Tori, etc. – we’re coming for you in 2020!
Here we go.
#12 – Hillbilly Chili Dawgs with Buffalo Mac n’ Cheese at Dixie Dharma
Vegan dining has changed and the change is good. Very good. Spearheading Orlando’s veggie vanguard along with the likes of Proper & Wild and The Sanctum, Shaun Noonan and his munchie brand of vegan eats stand out as indulgently satisfying. There’s a lot to like on Noonan’s menu, but nothing quite as I’m-getting-away-with-something tasty as this combo. Holy hell. Meat who? Meat what? (Top-tip: You must upgrade to Beyond Meat sausage. You must.)
Read our full review of Dixie Dharma here.
#11 – Khao Soi at Orchid Thai
Winter Park mainstay, Orchid Thai, knocked it out of the park with its off-menu Khao Soi – as good as we’ve had anywhere on planet Earth. For starters, the bowl of egg noodles with chili, pickled mustard greens, and chicken drum was just lovely to ponder. Topped with an edible purple orchid and a prawn wrapped in crunchy fried noodles, it was a visually inventive take on the time tested Northern Thai staple. The flavor of the broth was so unbelievably deep I thought it would start quoting Kant. A single sip and all brain activity ceased for 30 seconds. Lots of grunting and nods of approval. Khao Soi is a dish that takes time to make and a great deal of time to make well. We were told that owner, Sue Manatad, had personally overseen the fairly laborious process – the results were well worth it.
Read our full review of the Orchid Thai Chef’s Table here.
#10 – Octopus & Shrimp at Ravenous Pig
When you book at Ravenous Pig you’re volunteering for the experiment. The revered Winter Park resto is continually evolving – trying new things – and we love them for it. However, while quality of ingredients is reliably top notch, they don’t always come together in the tastiest of ways. Consider it the cost of blazing trails. But, when Ravenous is on, it’s on fire – creating beautifully balanced dishes like this Tampa Bay octopus w/ Ponce Inlet white shrimp, crispy cauliflower, charcuterie x.o., fish sauce vinaigrette, cilantro and mint.
#9 – Octopus Aguachile from Hunger Street Tacos
More octopus. Aguachile is a Sinaloense style of ceviche, the most standard version incorporating shrimp, lime, cucumber, red onion and chilies that are mashed into water in a molcajete — whence, aguachile. Hunger Street twisted the traditional and took it over the top by making octopus the focus and sidekicking it with avocado. This was a private table taste – and a lot of work went into it. Tentacles were marinated in what we believe was mole negro and finished on the robata before being introduced to a bath that had our mouths dancing in bright acidity and smoky char.
#8 – Bacalhau com Batata à Murro at Bem Bom
Congrats, Chef Chico. The Azorean dynamo has a critical hit on his hands. His 12-ounce cod special at Audubon Park’s Bem Bom has received praise from multiple publications and is one of the better fish dishes we’ve eaten in Central Florida. Served with punched potatoes and topped with peppers, onions, and garlic it’s the straightforward type of plate typically only found on the Iberian. Important to note that it’s incomplete without the wonderful Portuguese bread served alongside for soaking up the pool of fruity olive oil in which the fish rests. We’ve had it several times and although it occasionally arrives a tad salty from its cure, it remains one of our favorite bites in town (along with many other Bem Bom dishes).
#7 – Spicy Lobster at Taste of Chengdu
Owner Tiger Tang auditioned this behemoth of a lobster for us tableside before returning with the meat hacked to oblivion and artfully displayed in the shell with dried chili and peppercorn, garlic and spring onion. Easily – easily – one of the better dishes we had last year in Orlando. I mean, lobster, spicy stuff and a man named Tiger? How – please tell us, how – could this be anything but GRRREAT?!
Read our full review of Taste of Chengdu here.
#6 – Octopus at Pizza Bruno
Yes. Even more octopus. At this point it should be readily evident that we’re crazy odd for octopods. We’re serious about our pulpo. Octopus (as with most seafood) is 99.9% execution and nobody in Orlando does it better than Pizza Bruno – it’s wine-braised, wood roasted version is textural perfection. It features a significant hunk of fork-tender meat surrounded by a crispy outer char that seems to elude almost every other O-town eatery. This is the finest example of properly cooked octopus we’ve had in Orlando. We’ve had it served simply with a salad of olive oil, celery, tomatoes and red onion and a bit more cheffed up with jalapeño pesto, almonds and fennel. Oh, we hear they also make pizza (and pasta, and bagels, and…).
#5 – Tasting Board at Hinckley’s Fancy Meats
We struggled between choosing one of Matt Hinckley’s amazing sandwiches (his banh mi is fantastic), spot-on duck rillettes, or the charcuterie board pictured here. They’re all equally delicious, but the board is more representative of what Matt does best and makes for an absolute killer of a meal when paired with a cold local. Our last featured a lean tasso, smoked headcheese, duck liver terrine, and smoked antelope sausage.
Read our full review of Hinckley’s Fancy Meats here.
#4 – Whole Striped Bass with Green Sichuan Peppercorn at Taste of Chengdu
One taste and we knew this would be one of our best bites of 2019. It was wonderful – a destination dining dish. It also wasn’t a striped bass. It was two striped bass. Absolutely melt in your mouth delicious with a heady broth buoyed by the piquancy and perfume of fresh green Sichuan peppercorn, the less encountered cousin of dried Sichuan red peppercorn (hua jiao) – just a big ole’ bowl of rock star.
#3 – Sope de Huachinango de Talla from Hunger Street Tacos
Joe Creech and crew absolutely killed it with this bite at Beard in Baldwin. Hunger Street Taco’s Sope de Huachinango de Talla – masa cake, wood fired yellowtail snapper, black beans, queso fresco, roasted tomatillo salsa and various crispy, freshy bits – was far and away our festival favorite. We ate gobs of these little beauties. The light smokiness of the snapper combined with the deep corniness of the masa cake? Damn, Sam.
#2 – Lemongrass Beef Jerky at Sticky Rice Lao Street Food
We recently joked on ye olde instagramme that the Kevin’s (Kel and Phanhvilay) Lemongrass Beef Jerky has become its own food group here at Orlando Eats. In retrospect, it wasn’t a joke. We now need a weekly dose to survive. In a testament to it being one of the tastiest bites of jerky to have ever graced a taste bud – this $6 cardboard boat of beef (and not, say, Victoria & Albert’s Glacier 51 Tooth Fish with Dill and Potato Glass) – is our second-best bite of 2019. It should come as no surprise: Sticky Rice Lao Street Food has become an established foodie favorite here in town for its high flavor, low-commitment grub and seems to be adding to its army of fans by the second.
#1 – Rib Taco with Mole Verde at Hunger Street Tacos
The brothers Creech (Joe and David) do it again, hitting our list a record three times (yes, it’s our first list). Without further ado, our #1 bite of 2019 – and an oft-appearing special – Hunger Street Tacos’ Rib Taco with Mole Verde. This taco (with pepitas and red onion) has taken on mythical status at Orlando Eats – we’ve been annoying friends, family and random passerby with stories of how it heals, enlightens, and transforms the lives of those who taste it. We’re fully converted. Don’t be surprised if we show up on your doorstep with pamphlets. “Would you like to know the Truth?” It’s wrapped in a tortilla on Fairbanks Avenue.