Dine: Fast-Casual Finds
Grab your appetite and pop over to these 9 informal eateries boasting a diverse selection of cuisines.
The Holy Fried Chicken Sandwich (foreground) is a must-try at Big Time Street Food in Thornton Park.
On a tour of new and exciting fast-casual eateries, we’re toying with the very definition of the term, invented to cover outlets that are not quite cloth napkin sit-down but a step above fast-food burgers. In our book, anything that combines “fast” and “casual,” whether it’s table service or counter pickup, fits the bill. And adding the word “street” seems to enhance the FC street cred. The joy of these hyperfocused little restaurants lies in the vast, world-spanning variety—Cuban sandwiches to Vietnamese soup, Korean fried chicken to kofte burgers, chicharrons to chả giò to croquettas, from both chains and talented independents.
Big Time Street Food
805 E. Washington St., bigtimestreetfood.co
The owners of the Gnarly Barley beer house and Ivanhoe area GB’s Bottle Shop package store have revived the idea of the short-order cook. Food here is fast, and if the place were any more casual, patrons would be arriving in their pajamas. Smack in the middle of residential Thornton Park, Big Time is attached by wall and swinging door to the revamped Burton’s Bar—in fact, they will deliver to the tables in Burton’s, probably a good idea because there are only four window-facing stools in Big Time. Perhaps a beer accompanied by an Olde Hearth spent grains pretzel and dipping cheese, or a pound of crispy Korean fried chicken wings is perfect for lunch. The Holy Fried Chicken Sandwich, an extra large chicken thigh topped with dill pickle, spicy gochu-mayonnaise on a sweet potato roll and an order of waffle fries is as good as their version of a classic Cubano, with roasted pork, ham, swiss, pickled jalapeños and spicy mustard.
(COURTESY OF BONCHON CHICKEN)
5475 Gateway Village Circle, off South Semoran Boulevard; 504 N Alafaya Trail, bonchon.com
Fried chicken is fried chicken, whether it’s from the American South or South Korea, and at Bonchon it’s all about the KFC (yangnyeom dak, or Korean fried chicken to you). The crispy, crunchy, sticky, saucy, twice-fried bar staple has become an American craze. Bonchon’s wing, drumstick or strip version comes basted in spicy, sweet or soy garlic sauce, and we love the crystalline snap of that brittle crust. The menu offers classic glass noodle stir-fry japchae, sautéed beef bulgogi, and rice bowl bibimbap. But it’s the fusion street food focus that makes Bonchon shine: spicy rice cake tteokbokki mixed with fish cakes, mozzarella and fried seaweed rolls; fried octopus dumplings with Japanese mayo; bulgogi ribeye tacos; and salmon avocado balls. With 300 worldwide locations, this isn’t a fly-by-night operation, although its location near Orlando International Airport can bring crunchy comfort to an overnight flight.
(COURTESY OF CLAUDIO CASTANHOLA)
Florida Mall, 8001 S. Orange Blossom Trail, hoccaorlando.com
Hocca Bar, opened in 1952, is a tradition in Sao Paulo, serving Brazilian sandwiches, handhelds and steak. The Orlando branch opened this year, helmed by Chef Horácio Gabriel. Fried pastels, a kind of flattened, meat-filled empanada, are a legendary specialty, crispy crust enveloping fillings of shrimp, beef or shredded cod in various permutations. A cut of sirloin cap called picanha holds a place of pride on the grill, along with extra tender pork ribs and a variety of signature burgers designed by Chef Gabriel. The standout is the “HB Kraken,” with five burger patties, American cheese, fried egg, bacon, tomatoes, and fries. Sandwiches tread the fascinating line between Italian and South American that permeates Brazilian culture, and overstuffed is the best descriptor. Pork, ribs, brisket, pastrami, Italian sausage and chicken are just some of the fillings: a sampler plate of fatty mortadella, ham, “American” ribs, and salty dried carne seca beef sammies is a manageable way of trying them out.
(COURTESY OF FRESH KITCHEN)
2855 S. Orange Ave.; 851 N. Alafaya Trail, eatfreshkitchen.com
The hot theme right now in the fast-casual field seems to be bowls. With seven Florida locations by way of the Tampa-based Ciccio Restaurant Group (Ciccio Cali, Green Lemon, Taco Dirty), Fresh Kitchen serves bowl-based dishes built upon kale slaw, sweet potato noodles, herbal cilantro rice, quinoa or cauliflower potato mash. Layering continues with roasted vegetables, grilled chicken or steak, caprese tofu, tuna poke and other proteins. The house-made sauces are rich and complex (coconut sriracha has a surprising kick) and pressed juices like the flaming lemon (lemon, ginger, cayenne, maple water) complete the package. Funky chartreuse accents and a grass wall make the location stand out from its SODO neighbors.
10360 E. Colonial Drive, gyroville.com
Another Florida native, Gyroville is based out of Boca Raton and has branches throughout Florida and those bastions of Southern culture, Detroit, Kansas and Ecuador. Which is irrelevant, as the theme of Gyroville (pronounced JY-ro) is Greek, the slow roasted mix of lamb and beef shaved from a vertical spindle and served on fresh pita. Barbecue chicken, spinach pies, cooked-to-order falafel, hummus and grape leaves round out the traditional menu (considering that gyros weren’t a staple in Greece until after WWII), and all meats are certified Halal. You can jazz it up with proprietary Gyroville sauces: cucumber yogurt tzatziki, plain or augmented with spinach and jalapeño, honey mustard or feta tzatziki; and “Medichurri,” a salsa made with tomatoes, jalapeños and herbs. Gyroville founder Lambros Kokkinelis, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, sees Gyroville as the Next Big Thing, and is aiming for upward of 50 locations in the next five years.
Mediterranean Street Food
118 Lake Avenue, Maitland, mediterraneanstreetfood.com
All things Mediterranean somehow squeeze themselves into this VERY small Maitland footprint—a site that also has been, at various times, Sam’s Smoothie Shack, Fast Eddie’s Famous Hamburgers, Sandwich Oasis and Topos Hot Dogz N Pastrami. That’s a rather astounding pedigree for a place the size of a toll booth. The parking lot building, which owner Julio Bermudez calls “a 100 percent weird location,” is not a sit-down restaurant, unless you count the few picnic tables outside or your car, but the menu is ambitious and done very well indeed. Items include tender Turkish grilled chicken, hand-made kofte (seasoned meatballs), lamb and beef gyros, and rather delightful marinated lamb chops served in a lavash bread bowl. Babaganoush, hummus, falafel and stuffed grape leaves heighten the Med mood.
Nine Spices Hotpot
5320 S. Kirkman Road, ninespiceshotpot.com
Nine Spices fills every requirement of fast and casual, plus a few you might not have considered. Combine the cook-it-yourself Chinese hotpot model with conveyor belt delivery (a la very popular sushi bars), then add an all-you-can-eat option (two hour limit, please), PLUS a Universal Orlando-adjacent location. Forget the expensive theme park sandwich and experience the delight of little orange plates joyfully promenading directly to your table. The speedy supply adds up to a table-filling order of broth-based hotpot (vegetarian soups are available), to which you add an ark of proteins (seafood, pork, lamb, eggs, sausage, beef, tofu and chicken), noodles, vegetables, greens and more. The sauce bar makes us chuckle; already replete with containers of satay paste, garlic sauce and chili oil, there is a “recommended sauce mix” chart for making even more exotic combinations.
(COURTESY OF TAMALE CO.)
2411 Curry Ford Road, tamaleco.com
From food truck to sit-down—a story that is playing out all over town. Fernando and Jennifer Tamayo have run the Tamale Co. truck since 2012, making a lasting impression with timeless dishes that take as much passion as technique to do properly. Snuggled in the ever-mutating Hourglass District (Is it a building, is it a neighborhood, is it a brewery? Yes!), the recently opened stationary location offers up an assortment of corn flour tamals that are creamy, robust and stuffed with intense flavors—from breakfast tamales (served all day) to deep, rich mole and carne asada tamales, lengua and nopales tacos (tongue and cactus), mushroom and black bean tamales, and thick masa sope topped with pork sausage. Grab a chicharron preparado, fried pork skins topped with cabbage, tomato and pickled pork rind, and a micheladas, Mexican Modelo Negro beer mixed with lime juice, spices, tomato juice and chili peppers. Tamale Co. proves that ancient recipes can be very hip.
Z Asian Vietnamese Kitchen
1830 E. Colonial Drive, facebook.com/eatzasian
It’s wonderful watching new restaurant owners reinvigorating what we’ve considered a bastion of traditional Vietnamese cuisine in the Mills 50 area. Hawkers and Mamak brought Indonesian and other Asian street foods; Laotian and Hawaiian cuisine came courtesy of Sticky Rice and Poke Hana; and a generational shift happened with children of the original owners taking over at Pho 88. Z Asian owner Hien Pham takes a cue from these fresh offerings and scales his restaurant to vibrant versions of Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese food, with updates on classics and some new offerings. There are beautifully fresh summer rolls, the ever-popular phở, thick fermented anchovy bún mắm soup, and a dish that we’ve not come across before: bánh xèo—a fried crunchy rice flour crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts to be eaten in pieces, rolled inside the accompanying mass of greens for a savory pleasure.