Interview with James Emerson of Eating Orlando

If you vacation like us, then food is important to you! There's nothing quite like trying a new dish or munching on an old favorite when you're visiting Orlando - whether you're at a theme park or a fine dining establishment. Deciding where to eat can be tricky, though; there are so many restaurants to choose from and only so many meals that can be packed into a single trip. Sometimes, the best way to get a recommendation is by turning to an expert who has been there, done that!

With that in mind, we contacted James Emerson. James is a restaurant explorer. His expeditions take him to restaurants all over Orlando, and he shares many of his experiences through honest, fair restaurant reviews. In this interview, James singles out some of his favorite food spots in Orlando and offers tips to help you narrow down your choices and save money when you go out to eat. 

Eating Orlando With James Emerson. Copyright James Emerson. All rights reserved. 

Eating Orlando With James Emerson. Copyright James Emerson. All rights reserved. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your Eating Orlando Blog and your mission?

Eating Orlando is all about the local Orlando and Central Florida dining scene. From the theme parks to local dives to food trucks, if it has anything to do with food in Orlando, we cover it on Eating Orlando. I started the blog in 2009 to combine two of my loves - writing and eating. It was the perfect combination for me. From the founding, I’ve had one mission: to eat at every single restaurant in the Orlando area and write about it. I’m not even close to completing said mission, but I’m enjoying every minute of the journey.

There are so many restaurants in Orlando. How do you choose which one to eat at on any given day?

Orlando is a geographical and cultural melting pot, and our restaurants reflect that. From fine dining at a celebrity-chef owned restaurant to lip-smacking southern barbecue, Orlando has it all. With so much to choose from, I usually just let my stomach do the talking and guide me to a restaurant destination. But I do have a bucket list of restaurants I’ve never dined at on my iPhone that I refer to when I just can’t decide.

Do you have an all-time favorite restaurant? Or is there one you return to time and time again for "comfort food."

I get this question a lot, and I always say my favorite restaurant in the Orlando area (it’s in Titusville) is Dixie Crossroads. I absolutely love their broiled rock shrimp. For those of you not familiar, rock shrimp is harvested right off the Central Florida coast near Cape Canaveral. The shells are extremely hard to crack, but that’s done for you at Dixie Crossroads. The meat inside is simply divine - better than shrimp, better than crab, better than lobster. It’s worth the drive.

Is the best food in Orlando located in heavy tourist areas or are there better restaurants off the beaten path?

Well, there’s great food all over Orlando! Sure, because of tourism, we have more per-capita celebrity-chef-owned restaurants than any metro area outside of LA, New York and Las Vegas. It seems everyone who comes to Orlando, has to try at least one of those. They’re great if you can overlook fellow diners in tank tops, shorts and sandals - that’s a real turn off for me. Think Emeril’s Orlando, Tod English’s bluezoo, Norman Van Aken’s Norman’s, Kevin Dundon’s Raglan Road, and several others.

But there are some home-grown gems that are also chef-driven that would rival any celebrity-owned restaurant in the area. I’m taking Prato, Ravenous Pig, Enzo’s by the Lake, Cask & Larder and many more. If you’re visiting Orlando from out of town, I say give one of those restaurants a chance at your foodie dollar.

Salmon meal at Emeril's. Copyright James Emerson. All rights reserved. 

Salmon meal at Emeril's. Copyright James Emerson. All rights reserved. 

Theme park food sometimes gets a bad rap. What do you think about the food at Universal, Disney, and other Orlando theme parks?

There are some awesome restaurants near, and even inside, our theme parks. One of my favorites is Mythos inside Islands of Adventure. I love the look of Mythos, there’s nothing quite like it anywhere (theme park or not). There’s definitely a Greek angle here, but the food selection is broad. Even if you don’t like Greek, there’s something on the menu you’ll like. My go-to dish: the Mythos Signature Hamburger.

The best theme park to visit for a great meal has to be Epcot. Almost every country around World Showcase has a great restaurant featuring appropriate fare. You can’t go wrong with a steak from Le Cellier in Canada, or almost anything on the menu at Chefs de France, but my favorite dish at Epcot is the Roast Lamb Meshoui at Restaurant Marrakesh in Morocco. You can’t help but feel like Indiana Jones eating here. The environment is so immersive, and you expect Sallah to show up at your table at any time.

Mythos in Islands of Adventure.

Mythos in Islands of Adventure.

A lot of people who are visiting Universal Orlando find their way to I-Drive around the corner. Where should they eat?

International Drive was such a wasteland of fast food and buffet restaurants several years ago, but a lot has changed in the past several years. New, worthy restaurants in the area include Yard House, Capital Grille, Funky Monkey, Tommy Bahama, Nile Ethiopian, Texas de Brazil, Spencer’s for Steaks & Chops, Tapa Toro, and my long-tome favorite, Café Tu Tu Tango.

Do you have any tips for people who are trying to stick to a food budget when they visit Orlando?

My biggest tip: drink water. Bring a water bottle and refill it or just ask for a cup of water at any restaurant. If you’re in a family of four, you could save upwards of $20 at every meal drinking water over soda. Water is better for you anyway.

I say splurge on an expensive meal or two while you’re in town at a theme park or nearby restaurant, but then get in your rental car and drive a few miles to a locally-owned spot that will have better food, better service, and be easier on your wallet. Here are a few locally-owned restaurants that are awesome and won’t bust your budget: Hawkers Asian Street Fare (Mills 50 area, Orlando), Tako Cheena (Mills 50 area, Orlando), Black Bean Deli (Winter Park), Porkie’s BBQ (Apopka), Korean BBQ Taco Box (food truck, all over town), Town House Restaurant (Oviedo), Hot Dog Heaven (Orlando), Beefy King (downtown Orlando) and Pom Pom’s Teahouse (Orlando). You can’t go wrong at any of these restaurants.

Can you tell us a little bit about your YouTube Channel?

Eating Orlando has had a cult following in the Orlando community from the beginning, and social media has been responsible for most of the following. It’s kind of a strange feeling knowing that 35,000 followers on Twitter are interested in what I ate for dinner last night. But they are, because everyone loves a good meal.

Recently I’ve also started a Eating Orlando YouTube Channel and I’m having a lot of fun filming my eating escapades. I’ve met some interesting restaurant owners who love talking about their food. And I’ve met some fellow diners who love talking about food. Apparently the only thing people like more than eating is talking about eating.

How do you decide which restaurants to feature on your YouTube channel?

I try to feature restaurants that will be interesting on video. The restaurant should have a story to tell, whether it’s through amazingly different food, interesting owners, unusual patrons or just the fact that it’s new in town. When there’s an interesting story, I just hope to bring it to the audience on YouTube.

What type of video editing software do you use to create your YouTube videos?

I’m new to YouTube, so I don’t have any tips or tricks to share yet. In fact, if you have some to share with me, please, please send them to me at eatingorlando@gmail.com. I use a GoPro Hero Session a lot because it’s not intrusive at a dinner table, but I also have a Sony DSLR and, of course, my iPhone. I’ve found that almost any camera will do for video, but having a good mic is a must. I use Adobe Premiere on an iMac to edit my videos.

Finding Eating Orlando Online

James Visits the Yard House at I-Drive 360 on Orlando's International Drive

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