ORLANDO, Fla. – News 6 producer Thomas Mates moved to Orlando in August from Portland, Oregon. He's been on a journey to find some of Orlando's best eats around. Here's what he's learned.
It was going to be difficult to be a foodie in Orlando. Find any chain, but a good mom-and-pop restaurant or hole-in-the-wall eatery is hard to come by, at least that's what I was told.
However, in the few short months I've been here, I've been to excellent independent restaurants and also have a growing list of places to try.
To get to the bottom of this seemingly unearned reputation that Orlando has as a bad food town, I decided to ask the chefs who feed hungry Orlandoans every day.
Like many people who call Central Florida home, Pom Moongauklang, owner of Pom Pom's Teahouse and Sandwicheria on Bumby Avenue, is not from the area originally. Born in Thailand, she moved to California with her family before ending up in Orlando.
Thirteen years ago, she opened Pom Pom’s and, at first, it did not go well.
“When I first opened … having brie on a sandwich with watercress was unheard of. Nobody could grasp the concept that I didn’t feature American cheese, lettuce, mayo on my menu,” Moongauklang said.
The customers didn't always take kindly to her unique take.
“I definitely had a few sandwiches that were thrown at me,” she said.
Eventually, people caught on to what she was serving up. Moongauklang credits word of mouth with her continued success.
In the 13 years since, Moongauklang has seen Orlando's food scene evolve.
“Orlando is growing in a great way, really fast,” she said.
Moongauklang notes that Orlando is still a very young city. It’s changing rapidly and that can mean growing pains. In a lot of ways, the food scene is playing catch-up to other parts of the country, and it’s not just Moongauklang who feels that way.
Henry Moso is the owner and chef of Kabooki Sushi. The contemporary Japanese restaurant is hard to miss along East Colonial Drive. It's a strip mall building with a mural of a man with chopsticks, trying to eat a tiger.
“Orlando, it has improved so much. I’m sure through the years there will be more opportunity for talented chefs and a lot of opportunity for newer restaurants,” Moso said.
Moso and his family came to the Orlando area from Laos in the early 2000s, when he was 15. He opened Kabooki at the age of 22.
“Orlando had a lack of a food scene, in general. They were only used to what they’d seen,” Moso said, recalling his early days in business. “When you think of sushi, the first thing that the majority of people or a customer will think is ‘OK, sushi roll, spicy mayonnaise, roll, roll, roll.’ But when guests get to experience the Kabooki experience, they’ll be like, ‘Wow, I don’t need soy sauce for my sushi.’ Now, they appreciate more traditional nigiri.”
It’s not just locals impressed by what Moso is offering up. He says he often has people comparing his dishes to those they might get in New York or other cities with more established food scenes.
“They will say pretty similar things… ‘Your quality, your creativity is right up there or even better.’ I’m really shocked. I’m really grateful,” Moso said.
Chef Elek Kovacs, of The Osprey Tavern, actually came to Orlando to become a chef. Kovacs, a Michigan native, studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando 10 years ago. When it came time to jump into the workforce, Kovacs knew he wanted to stay right here in Central Florida.
“There was a very tight-knit community, a culinary community, even at that point,” Kovacs said.
Like Moongauklang and Moso, Kovacs has seen growth in Orlando’s culinary scene.
“Even now within just the last year or two, we’re able to put more interesting things on the menu, and guests not only enjoy it but they kind of crave that kind of stuff,” Kovacs said.
When asked for an example of one of the “more interesting” dishes he’s been able to get on the menu, he pointed to a squid ink and black garlic pasta dish that comes with an uni (sea urchin) cream sauce.
Certainly not your typical chain restaurant fare, but Kovacs said it’s been well received nonetheless.
Orlando is a tourism destination and chefs are finding that even the tourists are starting to get away from the chains and seeking out the local flavors.
“I have guests reaching out to us to do tastings, kind of setting up their trip to Orlando, curating destination dinners for themselves,” Kovacs said.
Moongauklang said she gets many people coming up from the theme parks on the recommendation of their servers and bartenders at the various resorts.
“I think that everyone has grown their knowledge and their palate of food… (restaurants) can’t get away with half-assing it,” Moongauklang said.
Orlando is growing and changing quickly and so is the way food is offered.
Food trucks are becoming a more established part of the culinary landscape, as evidenced by the opening of A La Carte late last month. It’s a location with indoor and outdoor seating where food trucks can congregate to sell their food in a centralized location.
Need more proof? Search for the #orlandofoodie on Instagram and find a wealth of pictures of delicious-looking food from all across the city. It’s a great way to find something new and unexpected.
The chefs seem to maintain a “if you build it, they will come” attitude toward their craft. People just need to recognize what’s right in front of them.
In our conversation, Moso said, “I strongly believe that great food and craft and passion will attract customers from all over the town. No matter where you’re at, they’ll find you.”