The most authentic international neighborhood in Central Florida is 30 minutes away from the ersatz multiculti sheen of Epcot, in a formerly vacant corner of downtown Orlando once home to an Air Force training center. Thousands of South Vietnamese refugees settled there in the 1970s after being displaced by the Vietnam War. The sprawling urban food court of Orlando’s Little Vietnam is now situated at the intersection of Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive (State Road 50), an increasingly hip district that goes by the alternate moniker of Mills 50.
“The area has become trendier and somewhat modernized, but it’s still Vietnam town, and everyone knows each other,” says Rosa Phan, who runs her family’s restaurant, Pho 88, with her siblings. Phan’s parents arrived during a moment of explosive growth for Orlando’s Vietnamese community, setting an example that has since attracted immigrants from across the Asian continent. “It’s not only Vietnamese anymore—you can now find great Thai, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean food here,” Phan says. “The enduring quality has everything to do with the fact that these restaurants are still family-run. That’s why so many places around here have succeeded.”
Pho 88 Vietnamese Restaurant
For years, this Mills Avenue mainstay answered the phone “beef noodle 88,” not so subtly hinting at their most popular dish. The specialty is the classic Vietnamese pho (pronounced “fuh”) with rare eye round and brisket that cooks the moment it hits the broth. Zested with ginger and scallion, it’s packed with dense clumps of rice noodles.
Phuoc Loc Tho
Mills 50 is lined with Asian supermarkets, but Phuoc Loc Tho is the largest among them. Set aside plenty of time to roam the vast library of Asian spices, produce and meats. Next to the sandwich counter with fresh bánh mì and barbecue pork ribs you’ll find door-stopper bags of imported jasmine rice.
Founded in 2011 by four local chefs with Malaysian, Japanese and Vietnamese roots, the flagship Hawkers remains in the heart of Mills 50. But between the neon lights, crisp lagers, clanging woks tossing yaki udon and deep fryers blasting out Korean wings, you’ll feel transported to the late-night hawker stalls of Southeast Asia.
King Cajun Crawfish
Sisters Melinda and Judy Nguyen moved to Orlando from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and opened King Cajun in 2010. Their hybrid cultural and culinary background has been affectionately dubbed “Viet-Cajun.” Opt for the blue crab, shrimp and lobster boil dusted and doused with their trademark Sha Bang seasoning, a mixture of lemon pepper, garlic butter and Cajun spices with a humbling degree of heat.
Named after the cornerstone of Laos’ national cuisine (a glutinous hunk of white rice used for dipping), Sticky Rice is the neighborhood’s first Laotian eatery. Order the sharing plates—lemongrass beef jerky, chicken larb with pork rinds and chili peppers, and the eponymous sticky rice.