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

Juice’d
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

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)”

2017: Travel Plans and Ambitions

The general theme of 2016 for most seemed to be “the worst year ever.” I had my fair share of bad days and challenging circumstances, but there were also a lot of amazing things that happened.

I started the year unemployed, and ended it with immense personal growth. I expanded my comfort zone by leaps and bounds, started my own business, launched this blog, and built a budding career as a freelance travel writer and photographer. I spent an amazing week with John in Belize, went on a handful of fun day trips with my mom, traveled solo to Miami, and discovered new corners of Florida. I witnessed two of my best friends get engaged on Anna Maria Island, ate a LOT of delicious food, spent more time with family and friends, and grew tremendously in my personal and professional life.

While it’s been enlightening reflecting on 2016, I’m ready to look ahead to what’s in store for the new year. This time of year always has me feeling extra inspired and ambitious, and while so much is unknown I’m excited for the journey ahead. Especially the parts of that journey that include travel. Continue reading “2017: Travel Plans and Ambitions”