Orlando’s best ethnic eats outside of Epcot


By Sarah Sekula, Published on usatoday.com

On the fringes of downtown Orlando’s trendy urban scene is a thriving Vietnamese district that not only serves up traditional treats, but packs a wallop of authentic personality, too. In other words, you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the neon signs and posters of Asian rock stars. It’s a lovable mishmash of Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese and Korean shops and eateries stretching about 10 blocks. Here, you’ll find everything from pho to Boba tea to sake flasks. But this is just one example of Orlando’s diverse dining scene. The City Beautiful and its surrounding area is home to Russian bakeries, British pubs and even a bustling German restaurant that seems to celebrate Oktoberfest year round. Suffice it to say, there’s much more to Orlando than shiny theme parks.

Greek at Mediterranean Blue

Growing up, siblings Bob and Gail Givoglu, owners of Mediterranean Blue, were treated to Northern Greece’s delicacies by “one of the best chefs in the world,” their mother. They continue the legacy with tasty menu items like the falafel marinara sub and the Mediterranean fish wrap (baked mahi mahi served on warm pita bread with kalamata tapenade and summer slaw). Not to mention, the Greek feta fries (which require a fork) are addicting, and the baclava cheesecake is to die for. mediterraneanblue.net

Cuban at Black Bean Deli

Outside: It’s an oddly shaped building that served as a Phillips 66 gas station in the ’50s. Inside: Lively servers sporting skinny jeans and handlebar mustaches serve up overflowing plates of classic Cuban dishes like pressed Cuban sandwiches, fried plantains, papas rellenas (aka stuffed potato balls) and mango-flavored flan (a secret recipe held close by the owner’s mom, Mami C). Just be sure to dip everything in the avocado vinaigrette salad dressing and wash it all down with a cafecito (Cuban espresso) or a Hatuey, a Cuban beer from Miami that no one else in Orlando carries. Note: Parking is sparse around the building, but there is street parking nearby. blackbeandeli.yolasite.com

German at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café

Husband-and-wife team Theo and Linda Hollerbach put their hearts and heritage into this 300-seat restaurant. Festooned with alpine paintings and cuckoo clocks, it not only looks the part of a German food hall, it smells and sounds like it, too. Originally from Kyllburg, they aim to provide guests with gemuetlichkeit (read: warm fuzzies); not hard to do when you are serving up Bavarian comfort foods like Himmel und Erde, mashed potatoes made with granny smith apples, bacon and onions; and Eisbein, smoked pork shank served with a special sauerkraut. Here’s a tip: Plan ahead if your heart’s set on accordion music and Schunkel Abend, a joyous sing-along; the music nights sell out a month ahead of time. willowtreecafe.com

Ethiopian at Nile Ethiopian

This award-winning Ethiopian restaurant, located on International Drive, is a treat. Greeted by servers dressed in traditional Ethiopian garb, guests are ushered to their seats and served meals on large, round platters. Saucy wats, stews that make the base of Ethiopian cuisine, are popular dishes, as well as the sambusa, little triangular pastries. The best part is: No utensils are needed; the injera, a spongy bread, works well as a food shovel. If you like coffee, you’re in for a treat: There’s a ceremony, where the beans are roasted in a pan, hand-ground, then served in a clay pot known as a jabena. The third round of coffee even invokes a blessing from the server. nile07.com

Asian at Hawkers

In Southeast Asia it’s common to stand in line for street vendor foods for hours to snag a char kway teo or pad thai. So, Hawkers, located in Orlando’s Vietnamese District, plays up that concept by giving guests the chance to “eat the streets.” Thus, shareable plates of food come out as they are prepared, not as they are ordered. And since the owners hail from Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and Vietnam, you’ll find a unique fusion of bold flavors. The most popular dish, hands down, is the roti canai, a flaky Malaysian flatbread served with curry dipping sauce. The stir-fried noodle dishes, cooked in a small wok, are also crowd-pleasers. facebook.com/hawkersstreetfare

Lebanese at Cedar’s of Orlando

This family-owned restaurant offers a slew of sublime Lebanese favorites from lamb kabobs, to tabbouleh to baba ghannouj. But the most talked about item is the freshly baked pita bread. The dough, prepared in the back kitchen, is brought to the front of the house where it is cooked in front of guests, then goes into the oven and straight to the tables. Mark your calendar for Friday and Saturday nights when belly dancing and hookah are the main draw. cedarsoforlando.com