Any guide to vegetarian cuisine in Orlando starts at Garden Café, the most famous veg-head restaurant in town, dedicated totally to non-meat fare, and simply one of the best dining establishments anywhere in Central Florida. But that's not where it ends, not by any stretch of the imagination.
If you know where to look and what to ask for, Orlando has a cache of excellent vegetarian choices, whether or not you're looking for meat substitutes, and whether or not you're trying to escape chain-restaurant hell.
First off, a disclaimer: I'm not a vegan, and while I do my best to make sure nothing I eat contains a dead animal (that means fish, too) or a dead-animal byproduct (say, chicken broth), I do eat dairy and occasionally eggs, so if those aren't your bag, don't bitch at me. Disclaimer No. 2: I'm not the world's most adventurous diner, so if I missed your favorite vegetarian place, I apologize in advance.
Let's begin. Ask any local vegetarian what his or her favorite restaurant is, and dollars-to-doughnuts the answer will be Garden Café (810 W. Colonial Drive, 407-999-9979). And with good reason. Hands down, Garden Café boasts the best meat substitutes I've ever tasted and I've tasted plenty in the three years since I swore off mammal flesh. It houses all this faux meat inside a rather traditional Asian menu, so for instance, the General Tso's chicken is delivered over a bed of vegetables and rice on the side, and it comes as hot or mild as you like. Douse it with soy sauce and dig in.
Or start with the spring roll, and follow it with either the salt-and-pepper ribs or the house steak. You won't be disappointed. The "meat" is delectable, bursting with flavor in every bite. There's a full menu, so prepare for many a return visit and lots of sampling. And one last bit of advice: Should you ever find yourself in need of more traditional American food, Garden Café makes one of the best veggie burgers I've ever had.
Next, head over to of all places the Florida Hospital cafeteria (601 E. Rollins St., 407-303-6611). The hospital is run by Seventh-Day Adventists, a religious sect entirely kind to vegetarianism, though the cafeteria has some meat products as well. Once you get over your objection to eating in a hospital that pungent smell is hard to shake you'll find a plethora of choices, at very reasonable prices, inspiring that old "eyes bigger than stomach" syndrome. The pizza both veggie and not looks yummy, but I haven't gotten a chance to sample it yet. Instead, I go for the exquisite vegetarian Philly burger, a meatless patty topped with cheese, onions and peppers and all the fixings, for $3.99.
Faux turkey and dressing, and even a vegetarian Reuben sandwich, are also on the menu. But I suggest a raid on the taco bar, if for no other reason than taco bars are totally awesome, provided you skip the beef and hit the veggie beans. And do not repeat, do not skip the brownies. To paraphrase Ned Flanders, they're scrum-diddily-umptious. The cafeteria stays open until 2 a.m., making it the perfect spot for late-night munchies, assuming you don't mind sick people.
If you've got a taste for Caribbean-tinged faux meat, and don't mind a drive into less-than-desirable parts of town, then No Blood No Bones (4759 Raleigh St., 407-296-9441) is worth a try. You won't be disappointed. At least, I wasn't.
Until I started "researching" for this essay i.e., eating lunch and sending my boss the bill I hadn't gotten around to NBNB, mainly because I hadn't the faintest idea where it was. So, finally, I found it and ordered the veggie steak with mashed potatoes, and macaroni and soy cheese. My more carnivorous boss the guy whose hands lie on the editorial checkbook took on the veggie chicken, some cornmeal dumplings and black beans.
I came away full and happy. The mac and cheese was good more so than I expected, considering I've never been a fan of soy cheese. The mashed potatoes were, well, mashed potatoes. The steamed vegetables were good, crispy and fresh. But the highlight was the steak, which I gobbled down as fast as I could and wished I had more when my Styrofoam box was empty. The boss a heartless sort who weeps not when his dinner consists of slaughtered fowl, pig, goat, fish, cow (or even veal!) was more or less pleased with his "chicken" a "nice attempt," he called it, giving extra points for the fake bone stuck in the middle.
My one concern, if I have one, is that I simply don't see how this place makes money, and I can't imagine it surviving. I hope I'm wrong.
On to downtown and Rincon Criollo (331 N. Orange Ave., 407-872-1128). A lunch-oriented Cuban restaurant that makes some of the best beans and rice around, Rincon Criollo gives vegetarian lunchers plenty of options, including a fake meatball sub that'll make your mouth water and daily vegetarian specials featuring several kinds of fake chicken or steak. It all seems like the same substance smothered with a different kind of dressing, but that doesn't make it any less worthy.
The former Primo Hoagies now called Philly Style Subs and Hoagies (223 N. Magnolia Ave., 407-423-0123) makes some of the best subs in town, and for those of us with slightly cleaner souls and colons, I'd recommend the eggplant parmigiana sub, which is bathed in sauce that covers a delectable chunk of breaded eggplant. Or, if you're in a cheesy mood, the Italian market sub is loaded with various cheeses and vegetables. Also on the sub front, if you're ever in Hoops Tavern (47 W. Amelia St., 407-843-5618) enjoying a cold, frosty beverage, do yourself a favor and order the vegetarian sub, with everything on it. It certainly ranks among the best bar food I've ever had.
Uncle Henry's Restaurant (595 W. Church St., 407-849-4646) is one of the brightest, most colorful restaurants I've ever encountered. Located on the bottom floor of the Hughes Supply building, its menu says it specializes in soups and pies. I don't eat pie, and the soups are largely non-veggie, but I have a different reason for going the best grilled cheese sandwich in town. I get mine with Swiss cheese on rye, with tomatoes and french fries. The service is fast and friendly, and if you go in there enough, they'll know what you want before you order it. And if you happen in on a day when they're making tomato basil soup, get it. It's wonderful.
As any vegetarian with a penchant for night life knows, late-night munchies are usually not made with you in mind. And that's why there's the vegan hot-dog guy or actually, the vegan hot-dog stand that sits directly across from The Social late into the evening. For $3, you get a veggie dog, with veggie cheese, veggie chili, onions and whatever the hell else you want, and it's the perfect late-night snack. Even some of my carnivorous friends make it a point to stop by, as it's easier on the intestines than whatever it is the sausage guys down the street are selling.
As a vegetarian, you're probably more socially evolved than the next guy. So while they're taking in whatever Ashton Kutcher flick is playing at the megaplex, you're taking in an obscure, subtitled film not "movie" but "film" at the Enzian Theater (1300 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland, 407-629-1088). And the Enzian folks know this. So they've stacked the menu with veggie dogs, veggie burgers, a portobello sandwich and a ginger barbecue tofu sandwich that I've never tried, but have heard is excellent. All of these are outrageously expensive, but at least they're there and they're good. It beats the hell out of munching popcorn while your companions eat cheese steaks.
Finally, a few words about your options at local chain restaurants, because this is Orlando and you can't avoid them. Chili's has a most excellent black-bean burger; Moe's Southwest Grill has a burrito called the "Art Vandalay" which I could eat all day long and never tire of. Crispers' vegetarian vegetable soup is among the best around; beware, though, that the broccoli and cheese soup is made with chicken broth. Pasta places usually make life easy on the vegetarian. Olive Garden, of course, has an excellent mushroom ravioli meal in addition to its vegetarian minestrone soup. At Buca di Beppo, the spaghetti and marinara is good and plentiful, as is the cheese ravioli. Even Burger King carries the BK Veggie, which is decent though the one nearest my house always overcooks it. Oh, well.
Good vegetarian fare is out there, if you look for it. And really, you don't have to look far.