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Plenty of new places to eat at Universal's CityWalk

ORLANDO

Opened in 1999, Universal CityWalk sits at the entrance to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, with a gorgeous 20-screen AMC movie theater and a real range of dining and imbibing possibilities open along a two-tiered promenade. But like the parks themselves, the dining-shopping-entertainment complex keeps retooling and rethinking its concepts, recently unveiling some huge new things. • All right, they're not as big as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley. But still. • I took a drive eastward a couple of weeks ago to check out the new noshes.

First up, the Hot Dog Hall of Fame, which replaces a fairly ho-hum bar on the second level. A super-fun idea, this place re-creates hot dogs from the country's most iconic ballparks. No ketchup in the house (I guess sausage savants eschew the red stuff), but this means loaded Chicago dogs dragged through the garden, Boston brats and lots of dogs spilling over with chili and such to threaten your trousers. Prices are steep for a dog, $6.99, but this is a neat place, with outdoor stadium bleacher seating, giant screens playing the ball game and fun wiener-obilia and novelty merchandise. The mastermind behind this one is Steven Schussler, the man behind Rainforest Cafe and Disney's T-Rex restaurant.

Not far from that is the best of the new crop, Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food, which opened this winter and replaced Latin Quarter. There's a roaming mariachi band playing a little Gaga Pokerface; a Day of the Dead tarted-up VW bus outside serving up mojitos, margaritas and caipirinhas; the Rolls-Royce of guacamole carts rolling around the dining room; and a vibrantly painted exterior. The best part is, the food is really good. Even better, it's affordable by CityWalk standards (appetizers mostly under $12, entrees mostly under $18).

This is upscale Mexican, largely fancy spins on familiar dishes: carnitas al pastor tacos (made with beer- and chile-braised pork, grilled pineapple and guajillo salsa, Oaxaca enchiladas (chicken tinga and housemade mole sauce, queso fresco and lime crema) and carne asada brava (coffee-crusted rib eye with fire-roasted vegetables). It has shaped up to have Orlando's heaviest-hitting tequila list, with all the ultra premiums in attendance. Most of those you want to drink neat, but the house margaritas are stupendous as well.

The decor is also standout, with wonderful graffiti-style murals and an installation of creepy tattooed baby dolls by the restrooms (some reference to the Island of the Dolls in Xochimilco, Mexico). The upstairs is fancier, without the frenetic bustle of downstairs and with a pretty semiprivate room that would be great for big family gatherings on theme park forays.

VIVO Italian Kitchen opened in June on the ground floor and seems to be the one with a fair amount of foodie buzz. The central allure is a pasta maestro rolling and flouring and spinning the noodles for diners to watch (seriously, it's fun to watch, with draped fettuccine fluttering like Greg Brady's groovy beaded curtain), with a spare and sophisticated dining room. A read through the menu reveals a greatest-hits lineup, but execution of gnocchi and even a margherita pizza with tangy crushed San Marzano tomatoes is exacting. Pastas under $17, appetizers under $12. (The housemade mozzarella rocks.)

Not worthy of a ton of ink because you've seen it before, there's a new Cold Stone Creamery and an outpost of Menchie's, a yogurt joint with a cultlike following (scoop your own toppings, go nuts), as well as a deli sandwich newcomer called the Bread Box and a Neopolitan-style pizza spot called Red Oven Pizza Bakery.

And there's more on the horizon. Picture this: CowFish, where sushi meets burgers for "burgushi." Sounds more far-fetched that anything going on over on Diagon Alley.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

.If you go

Notable existing

CityWalk dining

With live entertainment nightly, often from the Buffett oeuvre, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville is the local Parrothead paradise, with three bars and accessible Floribbean cuisine, heavy on the lime and tequila. The Lone Palm Airport is the restaurant's lounge, with Jimmy Buffett's very own seaplane, the Hemisphere Dancer.

Rendered islands-mellow from a run-in with a cheeseburger in paradise, head to Bob Marley — A Tribute to Freedom for a bit of reggae, mon. There's a hip open-air veranda and courtyard, and the restaurant (a re-creation of Marley's home in Kingston, Jamaica) features photos, artifacts and video highlight clips from his musical career.

Set off to one side is one of the biggest Hard Rock Cafés in the world — a veritable "Roman Coliseum of rock," replete with memorabilia from Kiss, Elvis, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, along with an all-American menu of burgers, ribs and salads.

At Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, a tabletop stand holds two license plates. Flip it to "Run, Forrest, Run" and the waiters keep moving. Change it to "Stop, Forrest, Stop" and someone instantly comes to a halt tableside. Yes, they'll get you another Tropical Breeze, but not until you tell them what bus number Forrest was supposed to take to get to Jenny's house. "There's, um, shrimp kebabs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo, pan-fried, deep-fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp and lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich."

NASCAR Sports Grille, formerly NASCAR Café, features tableside plasma screens, simulator games and an outdoor "Tailgating Experience." The menu is familiar ribs, pasta and sandwiches. Oh, and you can take a selfie with the NASCAR vehicle outside.

Similar in style, but with another all-American idiom at work, NBA City gives you exclusive NBA-created programming along with a familiar menu of pizzas, pastas, burgers and salads, more expertly crafted than they have to be.

Kick it up a notch and head to Emeril's Restaurant Orlando for Emeril Lagasse's upscale spins on Louisiana-style oyster stew, duck and rib eye. The cocktails are good, but the 12,000-bottle wine list merits some robust consideration. Also a notable cigar bar and all prime beef — an expense-account paradise.

Parking is free in the two multilevel parking structures after 6 p.m. for Florida residents, defraying the cost of an evening on the town.

Plenty of new places to eat at Universal's CityWalk 08/25/14 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2014 3:16pm]
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