I knew as soon as I stumbled upon the back entrance to Buttermilk Bakery, a small patio flanked by succulents and filled with soft sunlight, that it was my kind of place. The new small-batch bakery, housed in a space the size of an elementary school portable, is churning out gorgeous pastries, brunch and lunch, all full of local ingredients.
This happened two other times — at the Strand and King Bao, both in the hip, burgeoning Mills 50 neighborhood — during a recent whirlwind weekend trip to Orlando, the city in which I was raised but am still discovering as a culinary obsessive.
In an area this sprawling, these restaurants felt intimate, the food crafted with care, their existence an integral part of the city that can get overshadowed by Mickey Mouse ears and downtown hot spots.
Tucked into a strip on Mills Avenue, King Bao is easy to miss in an area just a few miles from the downtown core and bordered by Mills and Colonial Drive. This bright hole in the wall, opened in spring 2016 by owner Hoi Nguyen, is nestled among the shops and restaurants that make up Little Vietnam, but I had trouble finding it even with Google Maps on.
Inside, the white-walled space is cozy and sun-soaked, a food Instagrammer's dream. On one side of the restaurant, pictures of Orlando landmarks like Lake Eola hang, complete with cartoon illustrations of a little bao wearing a crown. On the other side, a menu detailing King Bao's specialty: steamed Asian buns that sort of look like if a taco and a really soft pillow procreated.
These buns? They are the reason you come here, the star of the short menu and the kind of dish that doesn't exist in such an interesting form everywhere.
From a menu that's sectioned into "Baos," "Tots," "Drinks & Chips" and "Sweets," you can choose a Two Bao Combo (drink and two bao, $7) or a Three Bao Combo (drink and three bao, $9). I recommend you drop all feelings of guilt and go for the three.
The restaurant's most popular options include the Kickin Chicken (kimchi fried chicken, cucumber, sriracha aioli and scallions, $3.50), an irresistible balance of hot crunchy chicken, cool cucumbers, soft bun and slightly spicy sauce; and the Glen Rhee Bao (marinated pulled Korean short rib, Asian pear salsa and cilantro, $3.50, named after a Walking Dead character), a welcome twist on the ubiquitous cut of meat. But you can't go wrong with most of the options here, which include pork belly, shrimp and crab cake, plus tofu and other vegetarian versions like sweet potato croquette.
Share an order of Truffle Tots ($3) with a friend, and definitely order a sweet bao on your way out the door. I tried the Igloo, a fried bao (which tastes strikingly like a doughnut) filled with ice cream and topped with caramel and ground honey-roasted peanuts.
The beauty of the bao? They're small enough that, after eating even three in one sitting, you are able to convince yourself that you could squeeze in just one more.
710 N Mills Ave., Orlando; open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
About a block down the road from King Bao sits the Strand, opened in 2014 on a corner lot off Mills Avenue. It's a hip farm-to-table-driven restaurant successfully masquerading as a quiet, unpretentious neighborhood hangout, one with minimalist decor, a small bar and an open kitchen.
I had weekend dinner reservations, and when I showed up with my group around 5:45 p.m., the place was relatively empty. That gave us ample time to notice the large glass windows that look onto the street and cast the restaurant in a delightful glow. Chalkboard signs on tables bore the name of that evening's reservations; I spotted "Michelle" in a wooden corner booth. An hour later, the small restaurant was mostly full.
The menu, pieces of paper stamped with the date, changes quite frequently, with new specials daily from married chef-owners Joseph and Alda Rees. (This is the kind of place that will name-check its chefs.) A dessert my dining party had been drooling over online was not on the restaurant's actual menu, but it didn't matter. More on that later.
Dishes are seasonally inspired, with an emphasis on partnerships with local farms. All of the food is made from scratch, and the Strand's servers are quick to tell you that, and to be able to explain anything on the menu in detail. (I dined with a vegan, and though there were not many options on the written menu for her, the chef made a veggie-laden flatbread at our request.)
Our dishes ranged in type and heartiness, from warm homemade pretzel to a delicate beet and citrus salad swathed in creamy dressing, to a whole pork chop, lightly battered and fried, served with mashed potatoes and broccolini. (Entrees ranged from $11 to $27.) For dessert, we tried a house-made shortcake topped with seasonally appropriate strawberries, whipped creme fraiche and a fragrant fennel syrup, and a heavenly chocolate ganache pudding.
Everything had an ideal balance between comfort and flair.
807 N Mills Ave., Orlando; open for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, for brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
The quaint space near the well-traversed Park Avenue is just under 1,000 square feet, but you wouldn't know it from sampling the pastries and lunchtime fare like quiche and hearty tartines. (Think open-faced sandwich.)
Buttermilk Bakery made a name for itself in the Orlando area by selling desserts at local farmers markets and businesses, taking steps toward opening a brick and mortar restaurant in August 2016.
Owner Taissa Rebroff, 27, runs the place with her mother, Lana, and her brothers, Phillip and Alex. Alex works the register and the dining room; the other three do the baking, with Phillip in charge of savory items like lunch and self-taught bakers Lana and Taissa on the items in the pastry case.
Taissa said a lot of their ingredients come from the Orlando area, things like vegetables that they pickle and serve with every lunch plate. A couple of exceptions include chocolate, for which they get "the really fancy kind."
I visited for a weekday lunch, the menu containing three tartines — Roasted Tomato, Spring and Deviled Egg — and a quiche, plus a bakery case full of breads and pastries. My dining buddy (my mom) and I split the Spring Tartine (house-made sourdough bread loaded with asparagus, peas, delicious roasted sunchoke, goat cheese, Meyer lemon and shaved turnip, $12) and quiche of the day (a deep-dish with goat cheese and roasted tomatoes, $6).
We added on a chocolate chip cookie for dessert ($3), probably one of the best chocolate chip cookies I've ever had. Surprisingly, it was the Polenta Tea Cake With Strawberry Jam and the Almond Tea Cake With Dark Chocolate (both $3.50) I took to go that turned out to be revelations. Moist cake, decadent fillings — a fitting souvenir from a food-filled romp through my hometown.
1198 N Orange Ave., Winter Park; open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.