Sunday, November 30, 2008
The Mediocrest Place on Earth - Disney Dining Part 1: Disneyland
Ah Disneyland, home to fun and adventure for children of all ages. The happiest place on earth...except when it's time to eat, when it becomes a minefield of overpriced mediocrity and downright horribility. Is it possible to find great food in Disneyland? Not really...but there is the better and the worse. As a fairly regular guest, I thought I would share my experiences in Disney dining and help you identify the pitfalls and possibly, a few hidden gems.
This week we will focus on the the popular Disneyland Park and next week, we will cover the less popular though in my estimation underrated Disney California Adventure, but first, a few helpful eating tips for both parks.
Tips for the Hungry Mouse
1. You can bring outside food into the park. That's right, you can bring food from home or elsewhere and eat it in the park. Technically, you are not supposed to actually enter the park with outside food, but should eat it at the front picnic area, but I've never had a problem setting up at one of the outdoor restaurant tables with a sandwich. (There is a Lee's Sandwiches that opens at 7:00 a.m. just a few miles from the park on Harbor Blvd.) Even if I don't bring a full meal, I usually bring some healthy snacks so I have some alternative to the high priced goodies that tempt you throughout the park.
2. Bring water. Even if you don't bring food or snacks, there is no reason to pay Disney prices for water. I usually bring at least a bottle per person. If you freeze them the night before, they stay pretty cool most of the day.
3. Avoid Hamburgers. Even at the places I say are decent, do not order hamburgers. I don't know what Disney does to their hamburger patties but they are revolting, grey discs that have no place between a bun. Anton Ego would not swallow.
4. Remember the First Corollary of Disney Dining: Nothing is Great/Everything is Expensive. You will have a better time if you accept this rule. As a food blogger, I suspend my usual standards when I enter the Magic Kingdom. There are a few good bites, but no amazing finds, and sweets tends to be better than savories. Just repeat the rule to yourself: Nothing is Great/Everything is Expensive. You'll live to eat another day.
5. Reserve a table. At some choice dining spots, particularly the Blue Bayou at Disneyland and Ariel's Grotto at California Adventure, reservations are required. Call Disney Dining at (714) 781-DINE.
6. Disney is dry/California Adventure is wet. You won't find alcohol for sale at Disneyland park, but you will find it at California Adventure.
And now for the food, by Disney location. First a few caveats for both this list and next week's. This list is by no means exhaustive but reflects some of the things I have experimented with, for good or ill, over the years. Also, it covers only food within the park, not Downtown Disney or food at any of the hotels.
About that corndog cart
The only single Disneyland food that gets buzz among foodies is the corndog cart on Mainstreet USA. Even Jonathan Gold has sung the praises of the little red wagon. It's located on the right side of Main Street, from the direction of the entrance, right before you hit the Carnation Cafe. When done well, these things are indeed wonderful...a perfectly fried, sweet and chewy cornmeal coating, hand dipped such that it bulges at the top and locks in the hot dog juice. Of late, however, they have had a problem with the grease having a rancid odor, a smell that makes me nauseous before I even bite into the dog. If you can smell the grease before you can see the cart, you may want to pop across to Disney California Adventure's Corndog Castle, which I will cover next week. Same dog, fresh grease.
NEW ORLEANS SQUARE
New Orleans Square has some of the most promising food in the park, as you might expect from an area that is named after one of America's most prominent gastronomic destinations.
One of the most sought after seats at the Disney table, the Blue Bayou's main draw is the location. It is situated inside of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which gives you the feeling of dining alongside a bayou at night. It's fun to sit and watch the pirate boats pass by. The food is mostly mediocre, but they do serve one of the last great Monte Cristo sandwiches. I love a Monte Cristo...ham, cheese and turkey on white bread, battered and fried and served with jam. The BB does a near perfect version of this classic. My biggest beef with the Bayou is that the food is ludicrously expensive, and this includes the Monte Cristo which weighs in at almost $20 (although it is big enough to easily feed two). Overall, the BB is a great thing to do once, but call in advance for reservations, (714)781-DINE, because it fills up.
For the food of the Blue Bayou without the fun of eating inside a ride, Cafe Orleans is a table service restaurant with a similar menu, including the vaunted Monte Cristo, and reservations are not required.
French Market Restaurant
The French Market Restaurant is a decent cafeteria style restaurant right next to Cafe Orleans. They do a fine fried chicken, and I like the pork on the BBQ pork po-boy, though the bread is perpetually stale.
At the service window on the patio of the French Market you can get little apple dumplings and the popular "mint julep" which is also served at the Cafe Orleans and the Bayou. Now, as a fan of real mint juelps, I have to say that I am deeply offended that anyone would call this non-alcoholic, fluorescent green elixir that smells and tastes like something you would polish furniture with, a mint julep. I don't know what it is; I don't know that I want to know what it is, but it certainly does not contain mint or Bourbon and therefore, has no business being called a mint julep.
Royal Street Veranda
The Royal Street Veranda is a window near the Pirates ride which serves clam chowder and gumbo in a sourdough bowl. It's not bad when doused with Tabasco (think a decent canned soup in a Boudin boule) and pretty quick if you are trying to get on with your day at the park without a long lunch break.
The futuristic Tomorrowland Terrace is a large circular stand at the center of Tomorrowland. In the world of tomorrow, food will apparently have lost all redeeming value and have been reduced to tasteless burgers, wilted lettuce and flavorless chicken sandwiches. Tomorrowland Terrace may be the worst food in Disneyland, which is saying a lot...AVOID, AVOID, AVOID.
Redd Rockett's Pizza Port
Big slices of pizza and pasta are available at the Space Mountain adjacent Redd Rockett's. It's pretty similar to a Sbarro or similar mall-Italian place. They do have some decent pastas with some nice garlic in the sauce. Pizza Port is a pretty safe bet in the otherwise dangerous culinary world of Tomorrowland.
I'd heard some good recommendations for the satay-style skewered meats at Bengal Barbecue in Adventureland. The skewers looked like satay, but they were salty, really, really salty. I won't be returning.
Tiki Juice Bar
One of the few places you can get a Dole Whip outside of Hawaii is in the juice bar outside the Enchanted Tiki Room. Personally, I'm not fan of these popular tropical fruit sherbets which come out of the soft-serve machine. They have an artificial/chemical taste I find off-putting, but if that's your thing, you can get it here. Now, an Enchanted Tiki Bar, that would be cool.
FOOD CARTS AROUND THE PARK
There are lots of carts that serve food at multiple locations around the park...here's a guide to just a few of them.
Disneyland does a pretty decent churro. They are crispy on the outside, chewy within...my standard Disney breakfast.
Ice Cream Bars
There are carts all over both parks selling various ice cream novelties such as mouse shaped ice cream sandwiches, frozen bananas and chocolate covered Mickey Mouse ice cream bars. Most of these are pretty decent. I particularly like the chocolate covered Mickey Mouse bar. The chocolate is rich and the ice cream isn't too sweet. However, these ice cream bars come with two caveats: (1) Do not read the ingredient list...just don't; (2) I don't know what Disney uses in their freezer carts, but these things are hard as rocks. Seriously, you could chip a tooth on one of these things...or kill someone if you threw it hard enough. I literally wait 15 minutes before eating one of these mouse-eared treats, maybe less on a really sweltering summer day.
Well, I hope that will help you avoid the bad and seek out some of the good on your next trip to Disneyland. The food is actually a bit better at Disney California Adventure, which we will review next week, so stay tuned Disney diners.
UPDATE: See this entry and extensive comments on Chowhound.