A trip to Disneyland can be many things. For a child, it might be a chance to meet Mickey Mouse or a favorite princess, adrenaline junkies will always seek the wildest thrill rides, while annual passholders might have a weekly ritual to visit the park just to see what's new. I definitely fall into the latter category, and am perfectly content to spend a few hours strolling around the Happiest Place on Earth to see what has changed.
I am also a self-proclaimed foodie.
Being a foodie and a Disney Parks fan has often led to double adventures through Orange County. I'd walk around the park for a little while and then leave the Disneyland Resort to get some interesting food. Don't get me wrong—I love the cult classics like the churro, Dole Whip, and smoked turkey leg just as much as you do, but I just get burnt out on food faster than most people.
My gastronomical boredom at Disneyland might be a thing of the past, though, because Disneyland is stepping up its food offerings, and doing it very well. In late 2010, Fantasyland's Village Haus restaurant closed for refurbishing. It quietly opened in January with a new menu that featured a pastrami burger and a BLT (bacon, lettuce, and tomato) flatbread pizza.
And now, just waking up from a two-month hibernation is Critter Country's Hungry Bear restaurant, with some very exciting menu changes.
Last week, Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix and I met with Karlos Siqueiros of Disneyland's Food Concepts department, Disneyland's Chef de Cuisine Richard Riojas, and Hungry Bear chefs Scott Mancino and Jose Hernandez to get the inside scoop about the restaurant's new menu.
Siqueiros explained to us that the Disneyland Resort had decided to take its Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) locations in a new direction. Instead of finding the same hamburger and fries at every QSR location, Disneyland has chosen to create a "happy menu that brings characters alive while telling a story." This concept, Siqueiros said, enriches the dining experience and makes the food not only unique to the location, but "a terrific compliment to the theme of the area." For example, Big Al and Trixie, two beloved characters from the now defunct Country Bear Jamboree, have a chicken salad and blueberry pie named after them, respectively. But you can't sell a new menu on clever name changes alone; you have to taste the food too. And boy, did we ever get a treat.
Part of the formula for the QSR overhaul is to create a signature burger to anchor the menu. The Hungry Bear's signature burger is the Pioneer Chili Cheeseburger. The first thing you notice when you see this new burger is how tall it is. You know how you see an ad for a burger and it looks big and juicy but when your order arrives, it looks nothing like the picture? Not so with the Pioneer Chili Cheeseburger. It's a one-third pound chuck burger with home-style chili, a slice of cheese, and a giant hand-battered onion ring. The onion ring alone must be at least an inch and a half thick, and gives this sandwich its jaw-stretching height.
The star of this dish, though, is the chili. Chef Riojas created this chili himself. Through trial and error, he came up with a chili that he felt was unlike any chili served in any Disney Park. Some of the ingredients he uses in this chili include filet mignon, ground chuck, Tabasco, fresh tomatoes, and fresh (not dehydrated) onions and garlic. And one ingredient he insisted made the chili perfect? Ketchup.
Purists will be happy to know that Chef Riojas' chili does not contain beans. Beans or no beans, the chili is delicious on its own. And here's a tip: Even though it's not on the menu, you can order a small cup as a side.
While the Pioneer Chili Cheeseburger is clearly the top-billed new addition to the Hungry Bear menu, there is another new sandwich that I think steals the show: the Fried Green Tomato Sandwich. This entrée was the brainchild of Chef Mancino. Taking him four months to perfect, he not only kept experimenting with different coatings for the green tomatoes, but also made some minor adjustments to really make the flavors pop, like adding fresh heirloom tomatoes to the sandwich and a little mango to the slaw. Even the oblong multi-grain bun, a split from the traditional round hamburger buns we've come to expect, was a key player in making this sandwich work.
Now I'll admit up front that I'm a fan of fried green tomatoes and I know they can be a tricky meal to perfect, but Chef Mancino has nailed this dish. The green tomatoes are dredged in cornmeal, creating a sweet and crunchy crust. One of the surprises in this dish is the presence of ripe red heirloom tomatoes that rest in between two layers of fried green tomatoes. This gives the sandwich significant substance, and a very "meaty" mouth feel in what is a 100 percent vegetarian dish.
The tomatoes are complimented by a mango-jicama slaw that adds a little crunch and dose of sweet acidity. And what would a hot sandwich be without a slice of cheese? Havarti, one of the most underrated sliced cheeses in the deli case, is a wonderful supporting player.
Coming into this tasting, I never expected to be blown away by a vegetarian sandwich—but the Fried Green Tomato Sandwich isn't just the best sandwich at Hungry Bear; it's one of the best sandwiches at the entire Disneyland Resort.
If you are like me, you want a side dish to complement your burger or sandwich. The new Hungry Bear menu introduces a side dish that has been long overdue: sweet potato fries. If you have never had sweet potato fries, you are missing out. Luckily, Hungry Bear has created what I would consider to be a near flawless sweet potato fry. Sweet potato fries are often limp and soggy and because they are naturally sweet, many restaurants do not season them. At Hungry Bear, the sweet potato fries are not only crispy, but they are sprinkled with just enough salt to compliment the sugars in this bright orange tuber. If that weren't enough, you can request ranch dressing to dip the fries in.
You can also order sweet potato fries as a standalone side dish, and it would make a perfect walkaround snack for the park. And since many nutritionists applaud the sweet potato as a super food that we should eat more of, even though they're fried, they're not an entirely unhealthy treat.
If you still aren't convinced, you can substitute onion rings (the same giant onion rings that adorn the Pioneer Chili Cheeseburger) or the mango-jicama slaw (from the fried green tomato sandwich) as your side dish, but the restaurant no longer offers traditional french fries.
In addition to the Pioneer Chili Cheeseburger and the Fried Green Tomato Sandwich, guests can order the Crispy Chicken Sandwich, a holdover from the original Hungry Bear menu that has been dressed up with a honey mustard sauce. There is also a Turkey & Provolone Sandwich, a classic cheeseburger, and Big Al's Chicken Salad. I'm not sure the rotund crooner from the Country Bear Jamboree ate a lot of salads, but you can also get it as a vegetarian option.
Kids ages 3 to 8 can order off the Munch, Inc. menu, which feature the Kid's POWER Pack, a Kid's Hamburger or Kid's Chicken Breast Nuggets. Toddlers under 3 can get the Yummy Cheesy Macaroni. Gluten-free buns can be substituted on all sandwiches, and a gluten-free version of the fried green tomato sandwich can be prepared upon request using a rice flour and cornmeal coating for the tomato.
Dessert has never really impressed me at the QSR restaurants; it always seemed to be a pre-wrapped cookie or rice crispy treat next to the register. The Disneyland Resort's executive pastry chef Jean-Marc Viallet has remedied that problem with not one great dessert but two.
The Lemon "Bumblebee" Cupcake, a nod to Winnie-the-Pooh, has a lemon-cream filling and decadent honey-lemon frosting topping as tall as the cupcake itself. Atop the frosting crown is an edible bumblebee, handmade daily at Disneyland with a chocolate body and almond slivers for wings. Even if you are over the cupcake craze, this frosting and lemon-cream filling make this a surprisingly refreshing dessert.
Trixie's Blueberry Pie is not your average fruit pie. Chef Viallet only uses fresh blueberries, giving you a true blueberry taste instead of a purple gelatinous goo you might expect from a QSR location. The pie is topped with a tender and flaky lattice crust and is served warm as if it were fresh from cooling on the windowsill. I always thought the bears whistled at Trixie, the Country Bear diva, because of her good looks, but her blueberry pie probably had something to do with it, too. This dessert alone is reason to walk across the park to Critter Country.
So there you have it. One of the best-kept secrets for casual dining spots in Disneyland has some very exciting dishes to go along with the waterfront seats on the Rivers of America. Now you can eat some great food while you relax in the shade and the watching the boats drift by. I for one will go back often.
I encourage all of you to visit Hungry Bear, try something new and maybe even discover your new favorite treat at Disneyland.