By Susan and Simon Veness
Orlando is a city that likes to eat, and everyone knows holidays here mean throwing the diet out the window and indulging in some seriously decadent dining. When it comes to new restaurants, Universal Orlando’s CityWalk has gone into hyper-drive, opening not one, but five (!) tantalising experiences, with two more on the way.
We recently attended a media event showcasing CityWalk’s new restaurants, a belly-busting tour of two distinctly American eateries, the Italian style of Vivo Italian Kitchen, plus Antojito’s Mexican and Menchie’s frozen yoghurt. Come along with us on a tasting tour…
1. Hot Dog Hall of Fame
This counter service option with outdoor seating takes hot dogs seriously, and it isn’t content to stick with the standard toppings of ketchup, mustard and relish. In fact, the Hall of Fame doesn’t want you to put ketchup on your dog at all. And why would you when you’ve got a choice of 9 of the most popular gourmet dogs from baseball parks around the country? Try Michigan’s world-famous Coney dogs (Koegel hot dog covered in chili, with chopped onion and mustard); Chicago’s all-beef Viennas with sliced tomato, pickle spears, onion, celery salt and a chili pepper; or Kansas City’s Vienna with pulled pork, coleslaw, pickles and barbeque sauce. Big fan of bacon? Try Arizona’s Sonoran, with bacon, pinto beans, grilled onion and green pepper.
The Rocky takes the concept even further, featuring a Nathan’s hot dog topped with grilled onion and peppers and a big helping of sauerkraut. Too scary for you? Minimalists can have their hot dog plain (in normal sized Little League, or foot-long and two-foot-long sizes), then add a bit of zip with a variety of gourmet mustards. Susan recommends the Coney Dog (she would; she grew up on them) while Simon can’t get enough of the Sonoran.
At $6.50 per hot dog, we think the Hot Dog Hall of Fame is a good choice for lunch or a light dinner. Add a packet of roasted peanuts or Cracker Jacks (caramel-covered popcorn) for dessert and you’ve got the All-American ballpark experience.
2. Red Oven Pizza Bakery
Most pizza places probably stay in business due to the number of college kids and harried parents who make it their go-to choice for a quick meal after a long day (or a long night!), but Red Oven found fame in offering pizza with a twist.
A major feature here is that the oven is set to a temperature that allows the pies to bake to a crispy done-ness in under 2 minutes. And what’s not to love about pizza made with filtered water, extra virgin olive oil and tomatoes imported from Italy?
In true flamboyant style, dough is thrown into the air to shape the crust, and, while you can still get a pepperoni pizza, most combinations are of the artisanal variety, such as the Funghi, with mushroom medley, red onion, Fontina, mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, thyme, Portobello mushrooms and white truffle oil emulsion and the Melanzane, which features roasted aubergine, tomatoes, Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil and ricotta.
Like the ingredients but not the combinations? Feel free to personalise your pizza. And, if you’re watching your waistline, Caesar, Arugula and Caprese salads are also available, as are beer and a small selection of wines. A friendly server will bring you your pie when it’s ready, so place your order, head to the covered outdoor seating area and do as we do: kick back with a brew and enjoy an evening of people-watching.
3. Vivo Italian Kitchen
This, for us, is the stand-out dining venue. True, you don’t have to go very far to find a decent Italian restaurant in Orlando (or anywhere in the U.S., to be honest), but Vivo has a panache that’s hard to beat and we love the open-kitchen concept. The atmosphere is stylish and elegant, but shorts and that Minion t-shirt you just bought are perfectly acceptable.
Serious foodies will appreciate the made-from-scratch quality of each dish, and, if you really want to brag to your friends about how fresh your food was, you can tell them Vivo’s chefs pull their own mozzarella. The sample we tried was still warm, and oh, so creamy, and being able to watch the chef as he or she makes it is a nice touch. We also tasted the Fiochetti pasta with gorgonzola, pear, walnuts and warm browned butter, which was heavenly; a pleasingly rich Risotto with braised short ribs in a barro wine sauce; Razor clams with red chili, garlic and white wine; and the highlight of the evening, a spectacular Gnocchi with tomato in a fennel cream sauce. We don’t eat pasta often, but when we do you can bet we’re heading to Vivo.
4. Antojito’s Authentic Mexican Food
Taco Tuesday is for wimps. Instead, Antojito’s goes for the full-blown fiesta, with two separate menus featuring casual Mexican fare in the lower level dining area (burritos, enchiladas, and yes, even tacos) and more extensive options upstairs, such as braised short ribs, paella and roasted pork loin. There is a full bar with an emphasis on high-quality tequilas, and the margaritas are powerful (ask for light ice).
You wouldn’t trust us if we weren’t completely honest, so we’re going to come right out and say it: we are reluctant to put Antojito’s on our ‘favourites’ list due to the hit-or-miss nature of the food, the chaotic atmosphere, and the surprisingly slow service. The dual nature of the upstairs and downstairs menus has twice led to poor communication on the part of the hosts, so if you visit be sure you know which menu you prefer. In spite of the problems we’ve encountered there is enough here to give a guarded recommendation, and we’re willing to see if these issues are corrected in time.
Okay, so it’s frozen yoghurt. But after a hot day in the parks it makes a refreshing finale, and we love the creative flavours, such as cinnayumm bun, harvest pumpkin and mudslide pie. Menchie’s offers a selection of nonfat, low fat, low carb, tart, sorbet, no sugar and low carb/no fat frozen yoghurts (but if you’re going low carb/no fat you may as well have fruit). If you spot us, Susan is likely to be indulging in the Uber Fudgy Brownie Batter and Simon goes for the Rockin’ Salted Caramel. Don’t get too close to our Menchie’s or you may lose a finger!
Still to come are Bread Box sandwich shop and Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar. Until then, we’d love to hear your thoughts on CityWalk’s new restaurants (or answer your questions!), so join us on the ATD forums!
If you're heading over to Universal Orlando Resort for your Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley experience, why not hang out at Universal's amazing entertainment strip in the evenings and indulge in these delicious treats new to Universal Orlando's Citywalk!