Great Dining Deals, No Dollar Menus: Best Value Venues in Orlando
By A.D. Thompson
Orlando Local Expert
Who’s to say what “best value” really means? Price may be a factor but doesn’t what you get for your money figure in? With that in mind, 10Best presents a list of eateries – food truck to fine dining – we believe deliver on that promise, though not all in precisely the same way. Take Bem Bom, for example, which proffers exquisite Portuguese cuisine – right down to its delicate custards – for a very reasonable price, and all out the window of a food truck. Santiago's Bodega on the other hand, is a well known tapas venue that generally comes with a higher tab, but its happy hour and weekend brunch options offers hungry gourmands an excellent opportunity to fill plates and bellies with its fine fare. Orlando has more than a few great Vietnamese options in town, and Banh Mi Nha Trang barely has chairs, let alone a dining room – but its friendly staff and truly unbeatable $3 sandwiches earn it a place on the list. And down at the theme parks, Moroccan masters do their due diligence at EPCOT’s Tangierine Cafe, where Disney-goers' plates are piled seriously high with flavorful Middle Eastern fast-casual fare that will easily sustain them as they make their way through the World Showcase.
Thai Purple Orchid Cafe & Grocery
Lots of restaurants say they've got a family vibe but the mother-daughter proprietresses at Thai Purple Orchid Cafe, a modest little gem in an aging Colonial Drive strip center, serve it up with just the right amount of eastern spice. Sonia (a UCF grad) and mom, Nisa (a former pharmacist) welcome all walks of customers -- UCF students and well beyond, who come for very reasonably priced and authentic fare in a clean, cute place that feels sort of like your friend's mom's kitchen. Which it sort of is, we suppose. A small attached grocery (about an aisle's worth of foodstuffs) sells Thai staples. Feel free to ask questions about goods or dishes; staffers here are affable and the food is first-rate. ((407) 203-3891)
Thought tucked into the confines of an unremarkable shopping center, for Venezuelan comfort food, Q'Kenan is tops. Cachapas, arepas and empanadas are just three of the stars on a vast menu that's drizzled with smooth crema and dressed with rice, beans and plantains (green or sweet). Unfamiliar with the cuisine? Don't be shy. Staffers are happy to walk you through the Comida Venezolana 101 crash course and breakfast, lunch or dinner. The impressive arepa menu alone, most under $5, loaded with an array of ingredients such as beans and cheese, shredded chicken, ham or pork, might make decision-making tough. If you're in a group, you'll hope it's made up of sharing types. ((407) 238.0014)
A fixture in the ground-zero area of Mills50 for more than a decade now, Pho 88 is family-run with a truly vast menu of Vietnamese dishes from appetizers to sizzling entrees to the brothy-delicious delicacy for which it is named: pho. Don't know pho? It's noodle soup! Giant, steaming, noodle-filled bowls for the novice or traditionalist (chicken, beef) or the adventurer (tendon, tripe, squid) -- take your pick. In addition, Pho 88 slings banh-mi -- traditional Vietnamese sandwiches -- simmering hot pots, sauce laden fish, left whole on the platter. It would take you ages to go through the entire menu. But you may want to try. ((407) 897-3488)
Relax Grill at Lake Eola
The Relax Grill is casual, comfortable and nothing fancy, but with nightly drink specials (all-day Happy Hour on "Mad Mondays") and a gorgeous location on the shores of Lake Eola, you can't beat it. Menu is a mixed bag of American and quasi-Mexican offerings with a surprising and quite fresh selection of traditional Greek and Middle Eastern dishes, as well. The location alone warrants its mention, as views like this generally come with a heftier price tag at the end of your meal. Trivia night on Wednesdays. Live music, weather permitting, on Sunday evenings. Bonus for dog lovers: Fido is most certainly welcome! ((407) 425-8440)
Generous portions of lamb, chicken, falafel and more fill the reinforced paper plates at the Tangierine Cafe, a fast-casual dining option in "Morocco" at Epcot's World showcase. You'll definitely want a tray for your order. Tabouli and lentils and hummus -- along with hearty bread for wrapping and dipping -- round out the ample plate. Disney isn't known for its drive-through $1 menus, but you'll get plenty of bang for your buck here and quite a bit of flavor to boot. This is one of the best fast-casual venues for vegetarians in the Disney realm, as well. Meat abstainers won't be limited to sides and/or salads while everyone else fills up. (407-939-6244)
Bem Bom Food Truck
Orlando has a vibrant food truck scene and among its many jewels is Bem Bom, which specializes in Portuguese cuisine with gourmet tacos and some delightful pastries, to boot. It's friendly proprietor, whose childhood was spent in the archipelago of the Azores, has traveled quite a bit in the pursuit of his craft -- in the process creating the amalgam that became Bem Bom. Salted fish croquettes with black-eyed pea salad, popular Portuguese piri piri chicken and a host of other alluring items stud the menu. By the way, "Bem Bom" translates to "Good Good." When was the last time your food-truck slider was marinated filet mignon topped with a quail egg? We rest our case. Check their website, Facebook and Twitter to find them. ((321) 236-2660)
To be fair, this tony tapas outpost is well known for many things, but being a one-dollar-sign venue is not one of them. On Saturdays and Sundays, however, Santiago's Bodega offers a brunch option. For $40 per person, you can partake of its excellent fare ad nauseum. Just how "nauseum" will depend on your own self-control. Mimosas and sangria are included in the price, which allows diners to test drive the place before deciding to come back for tapas. Prime rib, crab, custom omelets and an array of delightful eats clog the menu. And your arteries. Enjoy some sangria and offset the effects; red wine is heart smart. ((407) 412-6979)
Banh Mi Nha Trang
This shop is nestled into the far reaches of a tiny, aging plaza near the Mills 50 intersection. There are no tables save the folding plastic one, on which might find a few errant catalogs or Vietnamese newspapers. Several chairs for waiting or eating are crammed around the periphery of the miniscule standing area on the customers' side of the lunch counter. They don't take credit cards and the friendly woman who will take your order and make your $3 sandwich speaks very limited English. But guess what? No one cares. In fact, it's all part of the Banh Mi Nha Trang charm. When the traditional Vietnamese sandwiches are this good, right down to the cheerful, "See you tomorrow!" farewell that regulars have come to expect from this talented banh mi artisan, what's a little language barrier between new friends. Buy five, get one free! (407-346-4549, 407-595-6998)
We listed $9 as an average price because that's what a two or three tacos and a drink will run you at Tako Cheena, but you'll want to spend a little more. Why? Because it's freakin' delicious, that's why. This place is small, friendly and exceedingly local in vibe (it's proprietress is also the talent behind Pom-Pom's, an excellent tea house/sandwich shop in the nearby Milk District), but its food is a wonderful amalgam of Thai and Cuban, Filipino and Mexican, and unlike so many late-night taco shops, it's as good sober as it is...er, on those rare and random occasions when you're not. In fact, check it out for lunch and see! Panko-crusted cod takos, Thai peanut chicken takos, Indian butter burritos, banh-mi hot dogs, Asian braised beef on arepas -- it's a culinary world's fair on one small, colorful chalkboard menu -- everything reasonably priced and served with a smile. ((321) 236-7457)
About A.D. Thompson
A.D. Thompson has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and roughly 15 as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum. A roller coaster enthusiast, A.D. readily admits there is fun to be had amid the madness of the theme parks, but has found there is magic, as well, in the outer-lying reaches of Mickey’s long shadow. She is delighted to share with you the spoils of her adopted city. Visit her colorful compendium at www.amydrewthompson.com.
Read more about A.D. Thompson here.