The centerpiece of downtown is Lake Eola with its ‘50s-era fountain, swan boat rides and a park that’s home to a happening farmers market on Saturdays. The bars and restaurants surrounding the lake get a large flock of young urbanites every evening, but for me, a downtown dweller, I’m more often drawn to the Mills 50 District for food and entertainment. The area is so-called because the hub lies at the busy cross section of Colonial Avenue (State Road 50) and North Mills Avenue. Orlando’s large Vietnamese population has claimed much of this area, which is now home to several large Asian food markets, Vietnamese restaurants and services geared at new immigrants. Even the Publix grocery store here has parking signs in Vietnamese.
What make it special is it’s the spot for adventurous eaters looking for authentic tastes. Sizzling hot bowls of pho (pronounced “fuh”) come out the kitchen door in a constant flurry at Pho 88 (730 N. Mills Ave.), one of the largest Vietnamese restaurants in the area. If you’ve never tried it, the signature dish is rice noodles in a savory soup served with paper-thin slices of beef that cook the moment they hit the broth, and it's served with stalks of fresh cilantro, basil, lemon wedges and fresh bean sprouts. Be sure to get a creamy iced coffee for dessert.
At least five other Vietnamese restaurants are here, serving their own specialties such as bahn-mi sandwiches on homemade French bread or noodles dishes topped with tender grilled pork. Other ethnic businesses also call the area home. A hankering for authentic Chinese, the kind you might find in New York or San Francisco, is fulfilled at tiny Tasty Wok (1246 E. Colonial Drive), where barbecued ducks hang from skewers. Besides the delicious grilled meats served over rice, the congee porridge is serious comfort food.
For those on the quest for Korean, Shin Jung (1638 E. Colonial Drive) has grills inside table tops for making your own bulgogi or, you can order favorites such as bi bim bop rice bowl made with grilled beef and fresh vegetables topped with a fried egg, or maybe the slick japchae noodles. Small dishes of kimchi, plus other delicacies like spicy pickled radish, seasoned tofu or even a sweet/savory potato salad arrive at your table before every meal.
Over on the North Mills Avenue side, the variety of authentic international cuisine seems to have drawn some of the more progressive new dining to Orlando. The Strand (807 N. Mills Ave.), a hip little eatery serving bistro-style food, is always packed with trendy types nibbling on steak frites and seasonal salads.
Other notable restaurants: Hawkers (1103 N. Mills Ave.) serves pan-Asian street fare in a modern dining room; Pig Floyds (1326 N. Mills Ave.), a sleek, Latin/Caribbean-inspired place specializing in barbacoa served in tacos or on rolls; Tako Cheena (932 N. Mills Ave.), a hipster dive serving a delicious fusion of Korean and Mexican flavors wrapped inside tortillas. For dessert, Bubbles and Ice (811 N. Mills Ave.), makes a huge range of sweet boba drinks (the bubbles are chewy rounds of tapioca), and shaved ice with exotic toppings such as sweet red bean, coconut or fresh tropical fruit.
Cool Kid Nightlife
Then there are the bars. Will’s Pub (1042 N. Mills Ave.), which has been a celebrated place to watch indie and local bands for ages, is a nightly draw for live music. Next door is Lil Indies (1036 N. Mills Ave.), a bar popular with artsy 20-somethings who come for the craft cocktails and fancy beers. Wally’s (1001 N. Mills Ave.), is seemingly ancient and its “so-gritty-it’s-cool” vibe lures local bar flies and clouds of cigarette smoke. Gay bars such as St. Matthew’s Tavern (1300 N. Mills Ave.), which also serves as a church on Sundays, and the new drag-queen club, Divas Dinner Theatre (924 N. Mills Ave.), make this one of the most colorful and eclectic bar scenes in Orlando.