I lost a dear friend, Ralph Ameduri, recently in a tragic way. His passion for food was a second only to his passion for music, so when I went home to Orlando for his funeral, I had to go to a few places we used to frequently eat at together. Although he wasn’t anywhere close to a vegan (and neither was I when I lived there), many of the places we both loved have plenty of great vegan options.
Less than a mile from my old house sits Paco’s Mexican Restaurant – so it was a mainstay for us. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. Actually, it doesn’t look like much inside either. They’ve been in business for almost 30 years, and the only thing I know of that has changed on the menu (aside from prices, but only slightly) is they now serve Pepsi instead of RC (darn it). While Ralph would always say “you’ve got to have the beef tacos when you’re at Paco’s” (and was indeed right – they are great tasting if you’re a meat eater), I used to always get the bean burrito, which is covered and baked to a crisp in cheese, or the cheese and onion enchiladas. Both are vegetarian, but not vegan. However, the beans are vegan, so on this visit I “got the tacos” but with beans instead of beef, and no cheese.
They were loaded with beans, lettuce and a tomato slush. The thing about Paco’s is that the food isn’t fancy – it’s just simple and good. And these tacos didn’t disappoint. I didn’t ask if the rice was vegan or not – I was too tired hungry to be a fussy vegan – but it was lightly flavored and well prepared. I fantasized that if I still lived in Orlando, I’d regularly go to Paco’s with a bag of Daiya and make them bake me a vegan burrito or enchiladas. Maybe someday…
Sadly, I discovered another favorite restaurant of ours, Don Pepe’s Cuban Café (which was renamed to Habana Grill after I moved away but will always be Don Pepe’s to me) closed for good sometime in the last two years. Ralph and I used to go there for breakfast after late nights out, just to get their awesome Cuban coffee, but the food was great too. No worries, I went to our other favorite Cuban restaurant, the Black Bean Deli, which Ralph always argued had better food anyway.
If you’re ever in Orlando and have time to go to just one restaurant, GO HERE. It’s tiny, impossible to park at, always packed, and has only about six seats (is best for take-out) but it is just awesome! Similar to Paco’s, the basics haven’t changed at the Black Bean Deli since I moved. However, one huge thing did happen – they now have vegan empanadas on the menu! The person taking my order was also very fluent in vegan – and pointed out options to me.
It’s probably good that I moved, because I’d be there every day getting seriously fat on fried vegan pies. The empanada was stuffed with potatoes and a saucy picadillo-like fake beef substance – incredibly tasty. The black beans and rice were so good that one of the first things I told my husband when I got home was “I’m never eating black beans in Phoenix again” (which I’ve already violated due to Green’s amazing Tres Tacos special). The tostones were fried to perfection and covered in garlicky mojo, but a touch thick (I like them thin and crispy).
Another favorite we used to go to often is the Thai and Vietnamese restaurant Viet Garden. It hadn’t changed at all! Viet Garden was my “intro course” to Southeast Asian food, and in many ways – tofu – because they have great tofu dishes on the menu (I guess I was a vegan in training). One “must order” menu item is the garden rolls delight.
These fully-packed tofu rolls come with a thick and slight sweet (not spicy) peanut sauce that is lick-the-bowl good.
I had a hard time choosing between the Panang curry, which is quite delicious and can be made vegan with tofu, and the Buddha’s Crispy Noodle Delight. I decided my stomach wasn’t up for spicy, so the more mellow crispy noodles got the nod.
The tofu was very fresh and I still love the sauce. It’s similar to the Chow Mein at Fresh Mint in Scottsdale, but a bit more flavorful. They have plenty of other vegetarian and mock meat items on the menu too (but I’m not sure that they’re vegan).
In addition to my old favorites, Orlando has blossomed with vegan restaurants in the 14 years since I moved away to Phoenix. Ethos Vegan Kitchen was near my hotel and made for a great spot for quick bites. I decided it is Orlando’s version of Green, but with beer and Sunday brunch available (C’mon Damon – we want a Green brunch!).
The menu isn’t extensive, but it has a good variety of light eats and full meals. I tried the Buffalo Chickun Wrap daily special when I arrived in town.
It didn’t hold a candle to That’s A Wrap’s Buffalo 66 with tofu in terms of knock-your-socks-off spice, but it was worthy of a try. The mock chicken tasted great.
On a return visit with a friend, he ordered the Creamy Potato & Broccoli soup and Spinach Salad (a safe option for non-vegans) and enjoyed both. In fact, he might go back again!
I tried the What’s the Dilly, Philly? with a side of the macaroni & cheese daily special.
The seitan was a bit thick for a Philly, but the onions, peppers and cheese brought it all together just fine. The mac & cheese was exceptional. I don’t think they used Daiya because it wasn’t melty and stringy, but it was perfectly flavored and very comforting.
Since I was headed to the airport, I ordered one of every cookie to take home with me. I’m sorry I didn’t order two of every cookie – especially the orange sugar cookie and the cowboy cookie. Bring them to all your non-vegan friends and they’ll all say “I can’t believe these are vegan!”
If you’re looking for an excuse to go to Orlando, maybe these dining tips will motivate you. If you need another reason, on Oct. 23 there will be a Ralph Fest in downtown Orlando to honor an amazing guy with great taste in food and music. I suspect there will be at least one chart-topping band playing – keep an eye on the Orlando papers to find out who. And I hope the Black Bean Deli sets up a food cart in his honor. Although he certainly would have gotten the pork instead of the vegan options, and lectured me on what I was missing.