In Orlando, searching for Chinatown leads not to a specific part of the city, but rather to a shopping center that proclaims itself to be the city’s Chinatown. The Westside Crossing Shopping Center on West Colonial Drive is a facility so massive that most people are inclined to drive, not walk, from one end to the other. This center was once anchored by a Walmart and Publix supermarket, but was later abandoned and rehabilitated by Chinese investors.
This “Chinatown” shopping center is not really the best place to go when looking authentic Chinese restaurants. However, this isn’t a knock against the restaurants in Westside Crossing. It merely reflects the fact that amidst all the Chinese stores and businesses there, there are only three Chinese restaurants in the shopping center, and one of them, Top China, serves New York-style Chinese food, i.e., is completely Americanized. The elegantly named Chinese Cuisine does turn out good dim sum for lunch and a variety of dishes for dinnertime. However, with room for only a few dozen diners, it really can’t be considered a destination restaurant. Finally, a few doors down at Taipei Kitchen, you can find a number of Taiwanese specialties, but you have to ask for the separate menu, or once again you’ll be stuck with generic Americanized Chinese food.
However, there is one culinary attraction worth a trip to Orlando Chinatown: Sunpearl Bakery. Sunpearl produces over 70 varieties of Taiwanese and Chinese dim sum and baked goods. Sunpearl’s renown inspires students at the University of Florida in Gainesville, a two-hour drive from Orlando, to schedule regular trips to stock up on goods. Seek out Sunpearl’s piggy bun, cleverly created to resemble the face of a pig. Another highlight is the three different varieties of taro buns — crunchy, mocha, and sweet cheese.
Interestingly, the Orlando Chinatown shopping center is less important as a dining destination, and more for being the bus station between Orlando and Little Fuzhou in New York’s Manhattan Chinatown. As such, it’s somewhat surprising that Zheng’s Family Cuisine, the Fujianese-style restaurant that was once in the shopping center, has gone out of business, while its identically named sister restaurant in Little Fuzhou is still going strong.
So if Orlando Chinatown is not the place to find your Chinese meal, where should you go? Stay on Colonial Drive, but head several miles east. Similar to San Diego, good Chinese food in Orlando is tied to the Vietnamese community, due to the significant Chinese ethnic presence in Vietnam. The intersection of Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue, once the center of the Vietnamese community, now has the most significant concentration of authentic Chinese restaurants in Orlando. A top choice is Ming’s Bistro, which serves dim sum in the daytime to overflow crowds, and Hong Kong-style seafood at dinnertime. A few steps away is Tasty Wok, a popular barbecue restaurant serving favorite varieties of Cantonese comfort food. A short ways up on Mills Avenue is Hawkers Asian Street Fare, which serves not only Chinese food, but also Malaysian, Vietnamese, and other Asian dishes. Further east on Colonial Drive is Lam’s Garden, another major purveyor of dim sum in Orlando.
As is the case with Miami, Orlando has been slower in seeing non-Cantonese regional cuisines appear in the community than the rest of the country. However, there are signs of other regional varieties emerging. Orlando’s first real Sichuan-style restaurant, Chuan Lu, recently opened on Colonial Drive. Nearby, Garden Café has a Chinese vegetarian menu in addition to its regular fare. Shanghai-style food is represented by Magic Wok in the Universal Studios area, and the hot pot craze is represented by Hotto Potto in Winter Park.
While Orlando does have its share of good and authentic Chinese food, what makes the city noteworthy is probably the best collection of Peruvian-style Chinese restaurants in the United States. I was oblivious of the existence of so-called Chifa cuisine (so named because it sounds like the Mandarin Chinese words for eating rice) in Orlando until five years ago. After it was recommended to me, I arrived at Hong Kong Asian Cuisine and found a second menu in Spanish, with dishes that did not correlate either to the English menu nor to anything I was used to seeing at a Chinese restaurant, such as pescado con fideos Chino, fish with thin Chinese noodles. As it turns out, Orlando is home to a number of Chifa restaurants.
While Hong Kong Asian Cuisine also serves primarily Americanized Chinese food to the local clientele, China Hut on Orange Blossom Trail appears to focus largely on a Peruvian clientele, as all the other diners I saw were Peruvian. Some portion of its customers must be looking for Americanized Chinese food though, because as when I was seated, my menu offered only Americanized Chinese food. I had to ask about the Peruvian Chinese menu, which again was only in Spanish. (Now I know how some non-Chinese must feel when treated similarly at authentic Chinese restaurants.) At China Hut and Hong Kong Asian Cuisine, the pescado con fideos Chinos is made with glass noodles, the only times I’ve ever seen this combination at a Chinese restaurant. Meanwhile, at 8-8 Panda in Casselberry, the Chifa menu contains a number of tamarindo-flavored Chinese dishes. And at Pollos A La Brasa Mario, one might not even know that the restaurant serves Chinese food based upon the restaurant’s name.
Rest assured that when it comes to Chinese food in Orlando, there’s a lot to discover beyond the ubiquitous Chinese buffets aimed at tourists.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.