Savory Bites on the Sanford Food Tour

Just about a month ago, rainy season in Orlando began with a vengeance. It poured for days, the sun was nowhere to be seen, and I felt a twinge of seasonal depression as I looked out my window and saw nothing but doom and gloom.

Coincidentally, this was the same week I’d booked my ticket for the Sanford Food Tour, an experience I’d been looking forward to for a few weeks.

Miraculously, the day of the food tour arrived, the skies parted, and it was absolutely beautiful. I barely broke a sweat traipsing around Sanford for the three-hour duration of the tour (a miracle, considering it was June in Florida). It would seem the food gods were smiling on me that day, and for that, I’m eternally thankful.

Like Orlando’s popular Main Street Districts, Sanford has a distinct vibe and culinary scene of its own. Local businesses have set up shop on every corner, fun events occur monthly, and there’s an impressive culinary scene just begging to be explored. Yet even from Orlando, it’s a bit of a drive to get there. Instead of making the journey for just one restaurant, get much more bang for your buck on the Sanford Food Tour.

The tour visits several of Sanford’s top restaurants, including The Tennessee Truffle, The Smiling Bison, and Wondermade. The other restaurants on the tour were ones I hadn’t heard of before and both turned out to be very pleasant surprises.

In addition to the food, our tour guide Steve (who is also the owner), shared his extensive knowledge of Sanford — both historically and culturally.

When the three-hour tour was up, a few things really stuck with me about the experience:

1. The owners and chefs came to our table to talk to us at almost every single restaurant.
This doesn’t always happen on food tours, but it makes such a difference when it does. I loved meeting the faces behind each restaurant, hearing the bite-sized version of their “how we got here” story, and getting that extra experience you may not get during a regular restaurant visit. To all the owners and chefs who took the time to come chat with us, thank you!

Hanging out with chef Nat Russell at The Tennessee Truffle

2. The food was all phenomenal.
Yes, this should be expected since it’s a food tour, but the food wasn’t just good. It was above and beyond. We savored house-made biscuits and gravy and chatted with Chef Nat Russell at The Tennessee Truffle, then visited Fuel for burnt ends (which the owners have affectionately nicknamed “meat candy” for good reason), cornbread and baked beans. That meal was good old fashioned BBQ at its finest. My friend Brooke told me the mac n’ cheese is incredible, so I’ll be back.

Other eats included a bite-sized tasting of Carolina-style pulled pork (the recipe tied for first place in a local BBQ competition) on a tartine with mayo and raw onion, accompanied by a refreshing Bison watermelon margarita (not on the tour, but worth ordering) at The Smiling Bison.

The competition-winning Carolina style pulled pork from The Smiling Bison
While not included in the food tour, I opted to sip on a Bison watermelon margarita made with house-infused jalapeno and cilantro tequila, house sour, and watermelon

Then there was the visit to Magnolia Square Market, a traditional German marketplace. We got VIP access to the kitchen where Chef Patrick cooked up a German pasta dish. The kitchen is connected to Hollerbach’s Willowtree Cafe, a spot that’s on my bucket list to return to for a meal.

Lastly, as luck would have it (thank you again food gods), we wound up at Wondermade on the exact day they were celebrating their grand reopening/renovation. We roasted marshmallows and made s’mores, met Nathan who owns the shop with his wife, and I doubled up on dessert by ordering the s’mores popsicle, one of their newest treats.

Strawberry marshmallows from Wondermade change the s’mores game!

3. The history and culture were fascinating.
I-4 ghost stories, a huge bank vault that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, art galleries that double as artist studios, quirky shops, and haunted buildings…it’s all touched upon during the tour. And don’t forget to look for some painted Sanford Rocks! Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the area.

Overall, the tour was a fantastic experience I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone, especially fellow foodies. The $49 ticket price is an amazing value for the food, history, and crazy fun time you’ll have. Go eat!

Burnt ends aka “meat candy”, cornbread, and baked beans at Fuel BBQ

A few tidbits…

I took the SunRail to get to Sanford and highly recommend it if you’re able to do the food tour on a Friday. It’s a fun, convenient, and cheap way to travel and the train was way nicer than I expected. There’s even a bathroom! To make things even more convenient, there’s a free shuttle that runs from the SunRail station to downtown Sanford, just steps from where the food tour starts.

The beautiful interior of The Smiling Bison

Don’t eat before the tour. I had a moment of weakness halfway through where I got super full and thought I wouldn’t be able to go on, but thankfully I got my second wind. There’s a ton of food on the tour and you’re going to want to taste it all.

Speaking of eating, do eat AFTER the tour. Whatever you have to do to work up a bit of an appetite, do it. Then walk yourself over to Wops Hops, get a beer, and order a wopsicle. It’s a magical meatball on a stick. That’s all you need to know.

Wopsicle at Wops Hops Brewing in Sanford
If you still have room after the food tour, head over to Wops Hops for a wopsicle — you won’t be sorry

Stay for the day after your tour. There’s so much to see and do in Sanford, and if you’re going to make the journey there you might as well stay for the day. Do some shopping, visit craft breweries and bars, grab some coffee, go to the zoo, or just wander.

Also go: Limo Cycle Craft Beer Tour

Sanford has an incredible food scene worthy of exploring, but several passionate craft brewers have laid down roots here with more on the way. The Limo Cycle craft beer tour is the perfect way to sip your way through the brewery scene. Instead of walking to each brewery, you pedal the limo cycle, which is basically a giant human-powered bicycle. It’s a pretty goofy looking “vehicle” but a fun way to get around.

On the tour, you’ll visit three craft beer hot spots, each with their own vibe. A beer flight is served at each stop, and you get face time with head brewers, owners, and fellow beer enthusiasts. Several of the breweries are on the Central Florida Ale Trail too, so you can get your stamps! I checked out the craft beer tour for an article in Lake Mary Life Magazine, so check that out HERE if you’d like more info. The tour is run by the same people who own Sanford Food Tours.


The Great Orlando Food Staycation

When my boyfriend, John, and I decided on a weekend staycation in downtown Orlando as our Christmas gift to one another, I didn’t really plan on spending the majority of our weekend together gorging on tacos, craft cocktails, steaks, brunch, and farmer’s market stand food. But who am I kidding? If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that food is one of the great joys of my life.

Some people are happy jumping out of airplanes (looking at you, mom) and some people prefer to see how many tacos they can eat in a day (more than I thought).

Food is the gateway to wonderful things: local culture, a love and appreciation for culinary talent, an exercise in expanding your comfort zone, a passion for cooking, art, and creativity. Visiting a new restaurant with no expectations, only to take the first bite and experience that magical moment of foodie euphoria, is incredibly satisfying to me.

It’s the melt in your mouth good food, or a combination of flavors that creates a lingering zing sensation on your tastebuds, or realizing something you assumed you’d hate is actually remarkable (hi, octopus) that makes eating great food so pleasurable for me.

I’m sorry…are you hungry?

One of the easiest ways to experience the local culture and literal flavor of any destination is through food, even if you can only explore what’s in your own city. So we chose to brave I-4 and dedicate a weekend to a city that’s close, but far enough away that we rarely get the chance to explore in depth.

We chose to stay at the EO Inn, a super cute boutique hotel that felt much more like a city studio apartment than a hotel. (The bed…so comfy and perfect for curing food baby pains.) It was also conveniently located, allowing us to explore exclusively on foot or on our bikes, which served as justification for all of the eating that followed. Here’s a recap of our unintentional food vacation.

Day 1: Late everything

Late (late late) dinner at Frank & Steins
John and I continuously try to convince ourselves we can be on time to things. So while we had the best intentions of making it to Orlando Friday night in time to have a sit down dinner before the Orlando Solar Bears hockey game we were attending, in reality we checked into our hotel 10 minutes after the game started. I scarfed down an overpriced hotdog at the arena, then fantasized about the much better hot dog I knew I’d be eating after the game.

Frank & Steins - Orlando, FL

I love Frank & Steins for its mastery of the simplest of American fare: the beloved hot dog. But these are no ordinary hot dogs. No, these ones come loaded with goodness like mac and cheese, sriracha, bacon, corn salsa, and the like. They even have pretzel buns! This is also the place to unleash your inner carb lover by ordering the giant pretzel, which comes with queso and 3 dreamy mustard dipping sauces. Don’t forget a pint or two of craft beer — the menu is so extensive its borderline overwhelming.

Day 2: The day of eating way too much and biking around to justify it

On Saturday morning, we set out on the Urban Trail with the best of intentions. While we did bike all the way to Mead Gardens in Winter Park and did a short hike, we mostly spent the day eating at the following establishments. The threat of a rainstorm led to day drinking, and at that point, eating more was a necessity. Or so I tell myself.

Dragon bowl from Juice’d Orlando

The Dragon Bowl from Juice’d was the only healthy thing I consumed all weekend. The granola was crunchy and sweet, the serving generous. The bowl was so loaded with fruit it was practically overflowing. But really, I just chose this for the vibrant purple color and dragonfruit. As much as I love indulgent food, every foodie needs a detox meal once in a while, and this one certainly fit the bill.

Pig Floyd’s Urban Barbakoa

Pig Floyd’s Urban Barbakoa
Tacos know no boundaries. You can eat them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They can be Mexican, American, Latin, Asian. Or they can be a little bit of everything, like they are at Pig Floyd’s. I took a mix and match approach to the tacos, ordering 3: pork belly, pork al pastor, and a crazy one named “la vaca tahkaw”. Each was delicious in its own right, but my favorite thing was the plantains with their crispy, charred, sugary coating and warm, gooey, ripe insides. Even after eating street corn, three tacos, and some nibbles of John’s BBQ, I still ate them all. This was also my first experience with Mexican Coca Cola and seriously, have I been living under a rock?

The Guesthouse craft cocktail bar Orlando, FL
The Guesthouse

The Guesthouse
Craft cocktail bars can be intimidating. And I do get a slight vibe of that at The Guesthouse sometimes. But once John and I began expressing interest in learning about the drinks, wanted to try new things, and just kind of let the bartenders do their thing…the whole feeling changed. Thus our world was opened to smooth whiskey concoctions and citrus cocktails made for day drinking. Thanks to The Guesthouse, I discovered a new favorite craft cocktail (acceptable for drinking before noon) called the Corpse Reviver. The glass is rinsed with Absinthe…so tread carefully.

The Guesthouse craft cocktail bar Orlando, FL
Corpse Reviver from The Guesthouse

King Bao
True to form, my hunger returned promptly after the consumption of two citrusy craft cocktails. I was hoping for a taco from Black Rooster Taqueria next door (a favorite spot for tacos in Orlando), but they were closed for their midday break. Cue tears. But I wasn’t too upset. A 5-minute bike ride down Mills landed us at King Bao for kind-of tacos. Bao are bite-sized delights served in featherlight steamed buns and stuffed with everything from coconut shrimp to pork belly. They’re also cheap. If you’re hungry, order 2-3 plus a side of the truffle tots.

King Bao - Mills50 District Orlando FL
Coco Loco bao from King Bao

Kres Chophouse
One thing I’ve learned from my grandpa in recent years is the art of savoring a meal. But why is it so hard? John and I are both on the move constantly, and as nice as slowing down sounds, its often hard to put into practice. But dinner at Kres is the exception. Each time we dine here, phones are put away for the evening (I don’t even take pictures of my food – this is serious) and we focus on the experience of not only being together, but also enjoying the exceptional food. This time, we went even slower than usual, savoring each sip and bite along the way. Our belated Valentine’s feast was complete with strawberry basil and whiskey cocktails, refreshing caprese salads, savory mac and cheese, and a filet mignon I look forward to each year. This is one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando for a classy night out, and we return over and over.

Day 3: Quintessential Sunday in the city

Our last day was reserved for pretending to be locals before we packed up the car to head home. And what do locals do on a Sunday in Thornton Park? Wandering around Lake Eola Park, followed by brunch is one of many possibilities. It also gave us an opportunity to squeeze in some much needed exercise.

Lake Eola Farmer’s Market
If you want quick insight into the local culture of Orlando, head to the weekly Orlando Farmer’s Market at Lake Eola Park. Orlando is the “City Beautiful” for a reason. From the rainbow painted bandstand and community yoga class, to the hustle and bustle of market-goers and plethora of brunch options lining the picturesque lake, the energy of this park reaches it peak each Sunday morning. While you can certainly pick up some weekly produce, there are also food vendors and artists, lending a more street festival feel. I love getting a fresh coconut, or a brunch appetizer, aka pierogi, while wandering through and taking in all the sights.

Fine Herb Omelette from DoveCote, Orlando FL
Fine Herb Omelette from DoveCote

Orlando knows how to do brunch, and unique options are at your disposal no matter which pocket of Orlando you visit. For offerings outside the standard chicken and waffles and eggs benedict, DoveCote is our new brunch go-to. I assumed the restaurant was super fancy and out of my depth, but after checking it out for a brunch piece on Orlando Date Night Guide it became a fast favorite. The croque madame, crab quiche, and fine herb omelet (so creamy and light, what I imagine a cloud would taste like) are all incredible. I was excited to see my new favorite cocktail on the menu too; Corpse Reviver two days in a row is allowed if it’s “vacation” right? I ended the weekend on a high note, taking brunch to new levels of indulgence by ordering creme brûlée. It’s the best I’ve had anywhere!

Cocktail Hopping on Anna Maria Island: Where to Go

The beach and cocktails go hand in hand, and on Anna Maria Island there’s no shortage of places to stop and drink a tropical concoction while taking in the ocean views and relishing in the gentle sea breeze. I’ve rounded up a few of my favorite stops below for the perfect beach day spent soaking up the sun and cocktail hopping.

Note: All of these suggestions are restaurants, but all have bar areas if you’re just stopping in for a drink. Although if you’re hungry, I gladly recommend any of these stops for food as well. Read more about food options on Anna Maria Island here.

Pro tip: Park your car in any of the public parking areas, then ride the trolley to all of these stops. I recommend parking near the Cortez bridge, as that’s where the Kokonut Hut is.

Stop 1: The Kokonut Hut

This was one of the first places I discovered on the island – the large palapa and beachfront tiki tables were practically screaming my name. Now it’s one of my favorite spots to grab a drink (pictured in the above image) and watch the world go by. If you want the ultimate beach experience, definitely stop in for a drink at the very least, and stay for lunch if they aren’t too busy. Service can be spotty but I’ve never had bad food, and the vibe is awesome! Tip: Definitely check in inside with a hostess and get seated if you’d like full service or aren’t just sitting at the bar.

Vibe: Quintessential tiki bar
Drink to try: Key Lime Colada, or the Island Mule
Happy hour: Monday – Thursday from 3-6pm in the bar area only. $3 domestic drafts, $4 margaritas, well cocktails, and house wine.

Cocktail Hopping on Anna Maria Island: Where to Go
Frozen Mango Margarita at Wicked Cantina

Stop 2: Wicked Cantina

You all already known how much I love Wicked Cantina (I just can’t shut up about it — go visit them). While they serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner I always end up here around lunch time. After an early afternoon drink at Kokonut Hut, all you have to do is walk across the street to this cozy tex-mex spot. If it’s a nice day, definitely sit outside to enjoy lunch and drinks. The mango margaritas are out of this world – not too sweet, price point is right (under $8), and they’re just boozy enough.

Vibe: Tacos & chill
Drink to try: Frozen Mango Margarita
Happy hour: 12-6pm daily. They also have a great bar snacks menu!

Cocktail Hopping on Anna Maria Island: Where to Go
Mango mojito at Sandbar

Stop 3: Sandbar Restaurant

There are several places to dine directly on the beach on the island, but Sandbar Restaurant is my favorite so far. Out back, you can snag a table in the sand and kick your shoes off while watching the sunset and enjoying your meal. And when it comes to drinks, each is well-crafted and delicious. I especially love the mojitos.

Vibe: Toes in the sand
Drink to try: Mango Mojito or Dark n’ Stormy (made as it should be with Gosling’s)
Happy hour: n/a

Cocktail Hopping on Anna Maria Island: Where to Go
The Waterfront Restaurant

Stop 4: Waterfront Restaurant

Upon first glance, the Waterfront Restaurant may look a bit fancy. But don’t be fooled. While the setting is noticeably more upscale than your typical waterfront eatery, it’s far from snooty. If you’re hungry, the food is great and there’s plenty of outdoor seating. The much coveted front deck fills up quickly! This stop is conveniently located near the City Pier, so you can walk off some of the calories afterwards. Now – on to drinks. This is one of the few places on the island where I’ve seen an actual craft cocktail menu. Sure, most have a tropical twist, but still…it’s a nice change up if you’ve been drinking sweet and fruity concoctions all day. They also have a great craft beer selection featuring some local breweries.

Vibe: Unstuffy upscale
Drink to try: 1944 Mai Tai
Happy hour: n/a, but you can check out the drink menu here.

Cocktail Hopping on Anna Maria Island: Where to Go
Homemade grapefruit mojito

Stop 5: Make your own!

Beach cocktails don’t come cheap, and while I’m willing to pay the price, there’s nothing wrong with a little pre-gaming (or post) at your own place. On my most recent visit, my grandma, sister, and I went to work in the kitchen and made our own mojitos. After a little sleuthing online for a good recipe and a few test runs, we ended up with some pretty perfect grapefruit mojitos, which paired wonderfully with watching the sunset. Here’s a link to a good recipe, but if you’d like to make it know that we chose to double the juices and used simple syrup instead of sugar.

Vibe: Save dat money (link goes to my favorite music video, but fyi – it’s NSFW)
Drink to try: Whatever you can dream up with the ingredients you’ve got on hand
Happy hour: Whenever you want!

Other places to consider:
• The Beach House – Located close to the Kokonut Hut. They’re doing some major deck renovations, but the food and drinks are great!
• Freckled Fin – I haven’t been yet, but it’s on my list. I hear they have a decent beer selection.
• Bridge Tender Inn – This spot is tucked away on Bridge St. and service can be slow if they’re busy, but they have a great outdoor bar right by the water.
• City Pier – For a cheap beer while people-watching and dolphin spotting.

11 Reasons You’ll Fall in Love with Anna Maria Island

The first time I hopped out of the car, walked through a sand dune, and onto a beach on Anna Maria Island, I knew I had found something truly special. The small stretch of sand was dotted with a handful colorful beach umbrellas, the water was calm — a bright, clear shade of turquoise reminiscent of the Caribbean — and a gentle breeze was coming off the gulf water.

Since that first visit several years ago, I’ve visited numerous Florida beaches, but none quite match the charm or magic of Anna Maria Island.

While I’d love to keep my paradise a secret, that’s just not my style. I love this beach and want to share it! Here are 11 reasons I fell in love with Anna Maria Island, and why you most certainly will too. Continue reading “11 Reasons You’ll Fall in Love with Anna Maria Island”

Steph’s Taco Blog: Tako Cheena in Mills50 (Orlando)

Admittedly, I kind of have some beef with fast casual taco joints. In my experience, they can be super hit or miss. It’s a disappointment to go running for a taco stand only to end up with a sad, floppy taco with too much sauce and not enough filling in a sloppy flour tortilla. But then there are true hits, where fast meets fresh, and counter ordering doesn’t translate to depressing tacos. Tako Cheena in the Mills50 district is firmly in the latter category; a true hit and one I’ll return to next time I’m in the area.

The Mills50 district is one of my favorite nooks of Orlando. It’s the perfect mix of hip and urban, with street art adorning the buildings and affordable, quality eats found at every turn. Locals describe this area, among others, as the real Orlando, and I tend to agree. Venture slightly away from the theme parks and tourist hot spots, and you’ll find a community-oriented culinary scene thriving in and around the heart of downtown Orlando.

Tako Cheena is located amidst all the action. While the current location can be easily missed the first time you drive by, it’s worth locating this hole-in-the-wall taco spot best described as Latin-Asian fusion. Continue reading “Steph’s Taco Blog: Tako Cheena in Mills50 (Orlando)”