My Disney Top 5 - Mexican Dining and Libation at Walt Disney Worldby Chris Barry, contributing writer
Welcome back to another Disney Top 5.
It has been a cold and rainy couple of weeks here on Long Island. We had an early spring tease with a week of 80 degree temps and then things plummeted and got nasty on us. My thoughts have been turning south to Walt Disney World, of course, where the weather is warmer. May is a wonderful time to be down at Disney. The temperatures are warm, but it's not that soupy summer heat that you get in July and August. Spring Break is over, so the crowds take a dip for a few weeks which is always an added plus. And the Flower and Garden Festival is in full bloom over at Epcot. With all that said, I'm not so sure what I'm doing here! I should be down visiting my sons in the most magical place on Earth, shouldn't I? Soon enough I imagine.
When I saw that I had an article due to run on May the 5th, Cinco de Mayo, I figured what better topic to cover than Mexico! Contrary to what most people assume, the 5th of May is celebrated, not as a day of Mexican Independence, but rather as a commemoration of a significant battle during the Franco-Mexican War in 1862. On that day, the vastly outnumbered Mexican army delivered a rather stinging defeat to the French. In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo celebrations are typically reserved for the state of Puebla where the battle took place. In America, Cinco de Mayo has pretty much morphed into a day when Mexican Americans celebrate their culture and heritage and the rest of us happily jump on board for good food and margaritas.
There are plenty of ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo at Walt Disney World, not just in early May but all year long. I'm a big fan of Mexican cuisine from a cheap quesadilla at a food truck all the way up to the finest Mexican dining of which we have plenty here in New York. Now, I know right away, my readers and friends that live on the West Coast are going to give me grief for even mentioning the East Coast and Mexican food in the same sentence. Yes…I know. You've got it much better out there. But that doesn't mean you've got exclusive rights to good Mexican food. There's a local Mexican place here in my town that serves killer tacos and legit Mexican specialties despite the fact that they are a few thousand miles away from Southern California. And I was recently at a wonderful Mexican restaurant in Cincinnati, Ohio that completely took me by surprise. If I've learned one thing from watching Guy Fieri on the Food Network, it's that great food is all about the chef and the ingredients, not necessarily the location. With that said, can you get good Mexican food at Disney? On this Cinco de Mayo, let's find out with my Top 5 places to get good Mexican food and drink in Walt Disney World.
5 - BoardWalk Joe's Marvelous Margaritas
Is this a Mexican restaurant? No. No it's not. The most you can get to eat here is a Mickey pretzel or some nachos. However, I include it here for a few simple reasons. First, the location. You all know me. I'm a huge Crescent Lake fan. The Yacht Club is my favorite place to stay at Walt Disney World. Actually, it's just about my favorite place to stay anywhere. Now, BoardWalk Joe's isn't part of the Yacht and Beach Club complex, but it's right across the lake on the Disney's BoardWalk. There's nothing better than taking a stroll around he boardwalk for some shopping, or ice cream or a killer margarita from Joe's. Take your pick. They've got some great choices for such a small drink stand. It's tough to choose. Do you get the Marvelous Watermelon? How about the classic Strawberry? Joe's has 5 different kinds of tequila packed into this little stand, including the Patron Disney Select Barrel Anejo found only at Disney. If you're feeling a little exotic, try my favorite, the Frozen Grand Margarita which has Jose Cuervo Gold mixed with lime juice, sweet and sour and Grand Marnier. Yum!
Margarita Joe's is a small concession stand along the Boardwalk overlooking Crescent Lake. It offers at least eight different margaritas as well as various beers, soft drinks, smoothies and snacks. Photo by Bonnie Fink.
A warm night, a seat on Disney's BoardWalk and a frozen margarita from Joe's sounds just about right to me. And slightly off topic…they also have Dole Whips including an adult version with a shot of Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum added in for good measure. Epcot feeling a little too crowded for you? Duck out the back exit between the UK and France and head over to the BoardWalk for some truly delectable margaritas from Joe's and some peace and quiet to boot.
4 - Frontera Cocina - Disney Springs
I've never been shy about my distaste for Disney Springs or, back in the day, Downtown Disney for that matter. I go to Walt Disney World to be in the bubble and Disney Springs always popped that bubble anytime I ended up there. I understand its appeal to guests. There's plenty of shopping and dining and entertainment. But as far as I've always been concerned…no thanks. I'd rather stay in my resort than take a night off and head to Disney Springs. That said, I do realize there are some great places to dine there. The few times I have been there, it was mostly to eat and it was always quite good. On one of those rare visits to the Springs I had the pleasure of dining at Frontera Cocina and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Celebrity chef and Julia Child Award winner Rick Bayless is behind this Mexican favorite, and if you're a Mexican cuisine fan it's hard to go wrong here.
Frontera Cocina is the creation of celebrity Chef Rick Bayless, who has several Mexican restaurants in the Chicago area. Chef Bayless is also featured on the PBS cooking show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time. Photo by Donald Fink.
The open kitchen, the wall full of tequila bottles and the floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the springs give Frontera a crisp modern look, and yet it's definitely a comfortable and inviting place to dine. And the food? You've got all the classics like tacos and enchiladas, but look closely and you'll see all sorts of unique and tasty additions to the menu. Here's my suggestion: Get the bacon guacamole appetizer to start. Do I even have to explain why? It's guacamole topped with bacon! I had the Shrimp Mojo de Ajo, which is blue shrimp with a sauce made of garlic, chicken broth, olive oil, lime and chipotle over plaintain rice. It was excellent. If I'm ever going back to Disney Springs, and it may be years before I do so, I hope Frontera Cocina is still around because I wouldn't think twice about going back.
3 - La Hacienda de San Angel
The next three entries on my list are all in the same place, Epcot's Mexico pavilion. Those of us who follow the left first rule of Epcot's World Showcase know that Mexico is the country you hit first and it's one of my favorite pavilions. Inside the pyramid is a beautiful collection of Mexican art, shopping, drinking and dining – but more on that later. Let's stop first at the Hacienda outside the pyramid alongside World Showcase Lagoon. The second restaurant added to the Mexico Pavilion, La Hacienda offers a more modern take on Mexican cuisine and offers some of the best dining views in all of Epcot. I haven't actually dined there during a fireworks show, but, from what I'm told, the full length windows alongside the lagoon offer amazing views of the show to accompany your wonderful meal.
The flowers are in full bloom outside the Mexico pavilion's La Hacienda de San Ángel. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
The decor is simple and refined and there are some beautiful light fixtures hanging from the ceiling in each of the rooms. You can't go wrong with an avocado margarita, some queso fundido for an appetizer and then the roasted pork tenderloin with mole negro sauce, roasted corn and sweet potato mash. Next time, I'd like to get a window seat and watch the fireworks while I'm digging into the delicious Empanada de Manzana dessert – puffed pastry filled with caramel apples and topped with dulce de leche ice cream and maybe a second yummy avocado margarita.
2 - La Cava del Tequila
This has got to be one of the coolest places to have a drink and snack in all of Walt Disney World. Located inside the Mexican temple pavilion, if you didn't know about La Cava, you'd have to stumble upon it to discover it. But once you do, you'll be back. I'm not a huge fan of straight tequila, but the tequila market in the US has exploded in the last decade and La Cava offers you some of the finest examples of the libation you may find, not just at Walt Disney World, but anywhere. For such a small place, they actually have over 200 different types of tequila available at La Cava.
The interior of the pyramid in the Mexico pavilion, World Showcase, is packed full of street vendors, shops and one awesome tequila bar. Image by Donald Fink.
See if you can snag a table or sidle up to the bar. The staff is friendly and they know their tequila. Once again, straight up tequila is not really my thing, but I do feel the need to maybe order a flight of exotic samples and see what all the fuss is about. What I do like here are the margaritas and when I say margarita, I don't mean just the usual. With choices like cucumber, wild passion fruit, hibiscus and jalapeno, you will find something that suits your taste buds. My choice? Go for the blood orange. You won't regret it.
1 - San Angel Inn
In the 15 years that I've been writing here on MousePlanet, nothing has been more divisive with the readers then my admiration for this classic Epcot eatery. Many of you out there agree with me and love it and, clearly, many of you do not. Full disclosure, I have not been back to the San Angel Inn for quite some time. My sons are not big Mexican food fans, and that has been steering my wife and I away from one of our favorite places for a while now. But on our most recent visit to the Mexico pavilion as we floated by on the Gran Fiesta Tour, both Diane and I lamented the fact that we haven't been back and couldn't wait for our upcoming Friday night reservation. Our trip was cut short, of course, and our return will have to wait. But we will be back on our upcoming trip back for sure.
It's hard to beat the atmosphere inside the Mexico pavilion at the San Angel Inn. Image by Donald Fink.
What's not to love about this place? I realize it's a totally constructed environment, but you simply cannot beat the atmosphere created by Disney's Imagineers in the San Angel Inn. The permanent twilight, the volcano off in the distance, the boats lapping by in the river, the soft candlelight delicately illuminating your table…this place has got the market cornered when it comes to ambiance. And contrary to a portion of the readers and commenters out there, the food is quite good. Give me a mango margarita, the Tostadas de Tinga appetizer and the Sirloin con Chilaquiles and I'll be set for the night. This place is embedded in our Disney brains and I can't wait to sit back down in that beautiful room for a delicious meal.
There are a few other options for Mexican fare at Walt Disney World. If you're looking for a decent Mexican lunch at the Magic Kingdom, head to Frontierland and give Pecos Bills Tall Tale Inn and Cafe a try. The Pork Carnitas Rice Bowl is actually pretty good and there's plenty of themed seating areas to choose from. I haven't been over to Coronado Springs in quite some time, but from what I hear the Maya Grill does a nice job. Obviously, if you want the Mexican experience, you need to be at Epcot in World Showcase and that's why my top 3 on this list all come from there. I know hat some of my readers and associates from the west coast are going to knock my east coast choices here and that's fine. I think Walt Disney World has a lot to offer fans of Mexican cuisine and libations, and they can avoid them when they come here to visit. That leaves more margaritas for me!
That's all for this time. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below to share your thoughts. Happy Cinco de Mayo and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.
Similar to your sons, I'm not a huge fan of Mexican food, but I can generally find something that will be acceptable to me on most menus. (For me, it's the general dislike of bean-based entrees or sides that causes the challenge, but I'm not above ordering something with a small side of re-fried beans and just not eating them if I am confident will really like the rest of the meal.) Pretty much any other aspect of Mexican food is a strong "go" for me, I love the mix of various meat or fish dishes with all the other veggies that are generally mixed in, and I like the spicy flavoring that can be with some dishes also, it's really just the beans that I am not a fan of.
So with that being said, of all the places on your list, I've only eaten at La Hacienda de San Angel one time. Not because I did not like it (I certainly did), it's just with all the other options at EPC and the rest of WDW, I'm more likely to go for something I'm more fond of in general. I'm also sure I've tried various Mexican offerings at the food booths of F&W and F&G over the years, and for those smaller offerings, I might even be adventurous and try something with a bit of beans in it (the horror! ).
My one meal at La Hacienda de San Angel actually was during Illuminations. I was not an expert at picking times that would go well with the possibility of requesting a decent view table at that time, however (IIRC, my reservation was exactly when Illuminations was scheduled to start). So my view was mostly of a post or wall , but we all get better at planning these things with experience . (off topic, but I can't complain in this department since I think I did have very good outdoor patio seats at Rose and Crown for Illuminations on two other occasions)
I have had on the bucket list to try San Angel Inn one day, as I would agree the theming and ambience in there looks like it would be really neat.
Make sure you get to San Angel. Itís wonderful.
I also love Mexican food but we donít go often at Disney because we have several local restaurants with authentic Mexican cooking (not Tex-Mex).
Having said that weíve tried San Angel Inn (enjoyed the food and ambiance, HATED the tight seating), and La Hacienda de San Angel (wonderful meal with more room than at the Inn).
Weíre anxious to try Rosa Mexicana at the Dolphin. The menu looks intriguing.
We rarely visit Disney Springs so we havenít tried Frontera Cocina yet.