Some may not think of Orlando as a culinary mecca. But they don't know this town like I do — after living in the area for more than seven years, I made it my mission to discover & devour every veg-friendly food in sight. Though I'm just focusing on my all-time favorite restaurant and chef, you'll find a list of a few additional budget-friendly and go-to local spots at the end of this post.
One of my dearest friends is Chef Derek Perez, Chef de Cuisine at Luma On Park located on Park Avenue in Winter Park, FL.
Let me tell you...living a matter of blocks away from this food (and this guy) for my last years living in the South was an incredible experience. My quality of life in Florida improved ten-fold after Luma became a part of it. I don't think I ever truly understood the concept of "food art" until seeing Derek's expert plating, color combinations, inventive garnishes and finishing touches. This man's food isn't simply great food that's delicious and beautiful to look at...it's a serious culinary experience.
As a longtime vegetarian, I had been hesitant to try out Luma because of its meat and seafood-heavy menu, so it actually took me a few years of living in the Orlando area to walk in and give it a shot. Luckily, we were seated at the Pastry Counter which offers a view of the bustling kitchen and the opportunity to engage with the chefs and the pastry chef. My husband Matt and I clicked with Derek immediately. When I told him I was a vegetarian, he didn't look annoyed like most chefs do — instead, his face lit up with excitement. He made it a challenge to invent new, all veg-friendly spins on the meat and fish dishes for me each and every visit. Everything Derek has ever served me has been impeccably imagined, prepared, and seasoned...so much so, that my recent trip to Florida was partially to spend time at Luma and (finally) properly photograph some of his always gorgeous work.
Every fresh ingredient is locally and sustainably sourced from a handful of the best farms in the area. You can see it and taste it. Only the brightest and best seasonal fare goes onto these plates.
Invented by genius pastry chef Brian Cernell, this dense and flavorful cheese and cauliflower tart is sinfully rich and addictive. It was originally offered on Luma's menu about three years ago. When it went off the menu, I was so sad and let it be known to all! A year later, for my wedding rehearsal dinner in 2012, Derek and Brian brought it back for me and my wedding party. Six months after that, we moved to California. Three months later, my husband instigated a ridiculous and amazing birthday present with the Luma boys: they baked a huge cauliflower tart for me and put it into a box of dry ice along with a birthday card, and overnighted it from FL to CA. I was homesick already, so I may or may not have cried when I received it. Long story short (too late), this is my ultimate comfort food, and Derek and Brian once again brought it back for me during last week's FL visit. I ate two #noshame.
Both of these guys, as well as the rest of the crew at Luma On Park, continue to amaze me with their continued enthusiasm for their craft and sheer talent. I feel so lucky to have them in my life, even if I only get to see them every two years or so these days. It's funny to think now that I'm actually living in the bonafide food mecca of the Napa Valley, Luma's food will always be unmatched in my mind.
On-a-budget: food gems in the Orlando area that won't break the bank...
- Black Bean Deli. This is the best Cuban food in the South, hands down. Another crazy-talented friend, Andres Corton, is the mastermind behind this multi-location culinary destination. Their vegetarian platter is an old standby of mine and features traditional black beans, plantains or garlic tostones, yellow rice, and a perfectly dressed salad. Also be sure to try the yucca fries, empanadas, and cuban coffee. Great beer options here, too! Their newest location on Colonial downtown is FAB — great light, great vibe, always great food.
- Barnie's Coffee Kitchen. The moment this place remodeled and revisioned (back in 2012), Executive Chef Camilo Velasco sealed the deal. His visionary concepts and fusion food is always fresh, affordable, and delicious! Their breakfast panini is a favorite (with avocado instead of bacon!). Also, do yourself a favor and get a Turkish Latte and sit on the back patio near the fountain with a good book. This place is like a second home to me — I spent so much time in this cozy spot.
- Prato. Luma's sister restaurant. Executive Chef Brandon McGlamery offers rustic Italian wood fired pizzas and house-made pastas. Brian from Luma is also the head pastry chef here and makes the best damned Tiramisu I've had outside of Italy.
- Mynt. Adorable little Indian restaurant located in Winter Park's Hannibal Square. Lunch specials are huge & super affordable — served in a darling sterling silver tiffin box! Once you unstack, you'll find naan, rice, your main dish, a house lentil curry, plus some mint chutney and tamarind sauce.
- El Potro. My go-to Mexican food in Orlando! No frills here. Just always on-point vegetarian refried beans, veggie tacos, guacamole, and ice cold beers. Also, nacho cheese: not sad about it.
- Park Ave. Pizza. It's tough to find a take-out pizza place that never lets you down. I still haven't found one in the Napa area. Matt and I still talk about this place because it was (dangerously) just a few blocks from our home in Winter Park. The Bianca Pizza is probably one of the best smelling foods ever...so garlicky it just fills your nostrils and you start salivating! This was my last meal in Orlando when I visited last week...well-played, well-played...(p.s. this iPhone photo really doesn't capture the magic, but still).
- Bombay Cafe. All-time favorite Indian food EVER. And that says a lot! Nowhere on the West Coast can even touch this little place. Let me be clear: if you venture here and are unfamiliar with Orlando, you may be scared. Located in "the ghetto," the food is worth it on all levels. Get the Gobi Manchurian — super crispy fried cauliflower coated in a sweet and spicy red sauce and sautéed bell peppers and onions. And the CHAAT!
- Dandelion Communitea. Though I didn't make it back this trip, this colorful, artsy, and bohemian spot always felt so comfortable to me. The Giddy-Up wrap is filled with homemade vegetarian chili, vegan cheese sauce, crushed blue corn chips, and fresh veggies. They also make KILLER hummus that I've never quite been able to duplicate. I first learned about hemp seeds and the intricacies of brewing teas properly here. Lovingly called "Dandy," it'll always hold a special place in my heart.
- La Empanada Food Truck. Curried cauliflower. Tomato, corn, and goat cheese. My two ultimate empanadas, and LE introduced me to both! Find my sweet ladybirds Janelle and Gabrielle out and about town during events and farmers markets.
My favorite Orlando area coffee shops, sweet treats, and hangouts coming SOON!