It turned out that my conference in Orlando earlier this month wasn’t actually in Orlando proper but about a half hour drive away from downtown in Buena Vista, close to many of the theme parks. There wasn’t much around our hotel and everything close to the conference hotel (a resort) was overpriced and mediocre. We had to take taxis to get anywhere decent.
We struck out the first night at a restaurant close to the hotel, Landry’s Seafood, where portions were overly generous and most of the seafood came with superfluous toppings consisting of butter, cream, and more seafood.
My “starter” of crispy onion strings and jalapeños came out looking ridiculously bigger than pictured on the menu. My colleague (R) and I struggled to finish even a quarter of that pile.
My combination plate of fish (topped with a cream sauce, fried mushrooms and crab meat), devilled crab (a crab shell filled with a generic crab mixture) and shrimp 3-ways (grilled, fried in garlic butter on toast and um…. wrapped in that generic crab micture) was insane. While everything was certainly fresh, it was all very over the top and at the same time, all very dull. I can’t say I was terribly surprised though – it was very clearly one of those quantity over quality places one tends to find in this kind of vacation area.
8800 Vineland Ave.
Orlando, FL 32821
We did much better the second night. I’ve been a big fan of Cuban food since I first tried it in Miami a number of years ago and I was glad to find a Cuban restaurant, Havana’s Cafe, not too far from our hotel (not too far means not too expensive in a taxi – walking around here was near impossible). It’s a plain little place, no frills, but we didn’t mind. We skipped starters and went directly to mains. R’s Camaguey was a mixed grill of skirt steak, spiced chicken and pork chunks, all served with white rice, black beans and maduros (fried sweet plantains).
My Montuno Havanero was a combination of fried pork chunks, congri (rice and beans), maduros, cassava and a Cuban tamale. It was all so so delicious and loathe as I am to use this adjective, it was all good honest cooking. Service too was very friendly.
We actually had a bit of room for a dessert and R and I split a tres leches cake – three milks. Wow – this sponge cake was just amazing, all thoroughly soaked in a creamy caramel sauce that was indeed made of three types of milk (Wikipedia says evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream). It tasted like the caramel of a flan but with the creaminess of the milk and the texture of wet cake – that description doesn’t sound great but it was wonderful.
8544 Palm Parkway
Orlando, FL 32836
We had no idea where to go the third night and with instructions to find a seafood restaurant, we started asking the locals at our conference. We went with the advice of our sports-loving security guard (ok, she wasn’t our security guard but we loved chatting with her. She taught me about pickleball.) who suggested her favourite restaurant in Orlando – Sunset Sam’s at the Gaylord Palms. The Gaylord Palms?! Turns out it’s yet another resort hotel but possibly the most fancy pants resort hotel in the area. The centre of the resort, bordered by the hotel buildings, is covered in a big glass dome and within that dome are three separate regions mimicking those in Florida. In the “Everglades” were a few reptile tanks; at the Gator Pond, yup, alligators!
Sunset Sam’s was located at the far end of the dome where there was a huge pond with giant fish. Sam’s was on a ship! We dined on that ship.
My colleagues started with mussels (disappointing) and a prawn cocktail (spicier than expected but good). I think I had the winner with tempura oysters with a mango basil salsa. The tempura batter was a little thicker than it should have been but the dish was still quite tasty.
For mains, my jumbo lump crab cakes with spinach and arugula salad, guava mustard vinaigrette and tropical fruit relish was actually quite delicious though visually intimidating. Luckily, that giant pile was all just leaves.
Our dessert of a key lime tart (split three ways) wasn’t very good though. Overall, the experience was all a bit kitsch but it was a bit of fun. The food may not have been the best we had on the trip but it was still miles above that from Landry’s Seafood.
6000 W Osceola Parkway
Kissimmee, FL 34746
For our final night in Orlando (well, Buena Vista), we pushed the boat out and went to Charley’s Steakhouse, a well respected steakhouse chain in Florida. Well, R had already been his first night in Orlando and had been hoping to return again and I sure didn’t mind a steak. Off we went.
Just in case you didn’t know what they served, there was a display of almost everything available right at the entrance. Those cakes were life-sized. And can you see the lobster tails on the bottom left? They were ginormous.
There were printed menus, of course, but the weights of all the steaks were in ounces and I had no idea how to picture an ounce. Not to worry, to help you order, the waiters come around with a tray of each of the raw steaks and a flashlight to help with the presentation. I skipped the first course (my colleagues did not) and went for the 24oz (680g) bone-in USDA Prime Porter House steak, grilled on an open pit. The waiter kindly served me my side salad alongside my colleague’s starters.
My steak was pretty hefty with a generous portion of melt-in-the-mouth fillet steak on one side of the T-bone and a flavourful strip steak on the other. Despite its size, it went down surprisingly easily.
No need for menus again after as the waiter came around again, this time with a tray of each of their desserts. I filled the leftover space in my stomach with a shared slice of Turtle cheesecake (caramel, chocolate and nuts); their cheesecakes were all a manageable size, unlike their humongous layer cakes. It was excellent, just as you imagine a calorific slice of fatty, cheesy goodness to be.
8255 International Drive
Orlando, FL 32819
What a mixed bag it all was. It felt all too easy to eat badly in Buena Vista but with a bit of looking and asking, one can do alright. I think we did.