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Disneyland dining review: 'Yes' on the chowder and curry, 'No' on the barbecue

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Published: April 15, 2010 at 10:33 AM

I've got a couple of new recommendations for you on places to eat when you visit the Disneyland Resort.

I took the family down to Anaheim this week during the kids' Spring Break and we spent a day each at Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure. (Well, a half-day at California Adventure.) I already posted some photos of the ongoing construction at DCA, and today I want to talk about the food.

First, the pleasant surprises. I've not been a fan of the food in California Adventure, finding it mostly nondescript. Living in Southern California, if I want a fast-food hamburger, I'll go to In-N-Out, so I'm not going to waste the fat, calories (and theme park prices!) on a burger that's not as good. Show me something more special when I'm in the parks.

This time, with the kids in tow and not looking forward to yet another full-price, table-service meal, we decided to give the counter service eateries in the Golden State section of the park another shot.

Disney's upgraded these restaurants over the past few years, and they now impress. Natalie opted for the Monterey Clam Chowder ($8.99) at the Pacific Wharf Cafe and Laurie and I tried the Thai Coconut Curry from the Lucky Fortune Cookery ($9.49 - Laurie opted for chicken, and I for tofu).

The clam chowder delivered far more flavor than we've been come to expect from bread-bowl soups. Natalie declared it second only to the razor clam stew she'd had in Washington, D.C. last summer. There's not much heat in the curry, which I expected given the theme park audience. But the flavors of the sauce and veggies blended well and I scarfed down my serving in no time. (I also appreciated that the tofu wasn't fried, as is the case at too many restaurants.)

I'd definitely put both of these options on my "recommended" list for visitors to DCA. Laurie and I had tried the Wine County Trattoria last year, and while I like the Chicken Panini ($10.29) over there, the Coconut Curry offers better flavor and better value.

Over at Disneyland, the Chicken Fusilli ($8.99) at Redd Rockett's Pizza Port continues to be our go-to meal for taste and value. Laurie enjoyed her Starfield of Greens ($7.49) salad, with blue cheese, candied walnuts and cranberries, but not as much as her bite of Natalie's Fusilli. Give the pizzas a pass, though. Disney's thick-crust pies remain tasteless globs of crust and cheese, not worth the $6-a-slice price (50 cents to a buck more for one with toppings).

Based on our good experience there last year, Laurie and I took the kids to the Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue for dinner. Disney's made some changes to this all-you-can-eat meal in an effort to draw more customers (including dropping the "Celebration Roundup" name), and I regret that all the changes have been for the worse.

Last year, Laurie and I paid $28.99 for the family-style lunch, which included barbecue chicken and ribs, cole slaw, corn, baked beans, cornbread, drinks and dessert. This time, we paid $24.99 for the dinner version, which added sausages but now no longer includes drinks ($3 each) or dessert (from $5 - we passed).

The new lunch price is $19.99, but that version of the meal does not come with the sausages served at dinner and now has dropped the corn, too, in addition to the drinks and dessert.

Kids can eat much more cheaply, for just $9.99 - down from $12.99 when we dined last year (and drinks are included in the kids' meal, but still, no dessert). Unfortunately, Disney only counts children 9 and under as "kids." Ten-year-olds pay the $28.99 adult price. Disney really needs a "tween" price on a meal such as this, for kids ages 10-14, who aren't going to eat anywhere near an adult portion, but who still would eat more than a smaller child.

Ultimately, much of what the kids are getting for the price here is the show. But Disney's gutted that, too. Toy Story's Woody, Jessie and Bullseye are gone from the scene. Tex Tumbleweed's still roaming the crowd, playing for and chatting with guests, but Miss Chris is just up on the stage now, for a short set with a piano player.

Without the characters and with the new pricing, Big Thunder Barbecue simply doesn't deliver the value it did last year. And for families with kids older than nine, the meal's simply a rip-off. My advice? Avoid the Big Thunder Barbecue and let's hope Disney shutters this concept in favor of one that offers some value again.

Readers' Opinions

From Joshua Counsil on April 15, 2010 at 1:35 PM
I always love the articles regarding theme park food. I've found it so funny that people will complain about some arbitrary element that somewhat offsets the area theming (e.g. monsters in tunnels and backdrops in Epcot), but don't seem to care that they are eating a cheeseburger in a land themed as Morocco.

I'm a bit of a foodie, and I realize that fine dining has no place within theme park walls. However, you should be able to eat a quality meal in a casual, yet comfortable, setting. Robert claims that the '00s were the decade of the roller coaster. In terms of attractions, sure, I'd agree. In terms of overall experience, however, I think that food is right up there in the greatest theme park improvements of the last decade. We are seeing vegetarian and vegan options in parks typically dominated with cheeseburgers and pizza. Food courts with heat lamp fare are being replaced with wood fired grills and rotisseries. Both Disney and Universal have removed trans fats from their parks, all within the last decade. Mythos dominated the decade as TPI's most popular restaurant, indicating theme park junkees will pay for quality food, service, and decor. At this rate, and with increasing health concerns, I'd say we could hope for an even greater push in the right direction in terms of theme park dining.

From Robert Niles on April 15, 2010 at 2:21 PM
Joshua,

What are you, Google, today? :-)

FWIW, you mentioned Morocco, which reminded me how much I love that restaurant in Epcot. One of the great go-to-when-you-don't-have-a-ressie options, and better than many of the places for which you always seem to need a reservation. Haven't eaten there in years, though, so I hope that it is holding up better than Big Thunder BBQ did.

I didn't comment in the BTBBQ food quality, but should note that I preferred the ribs to the chicken. The ribs have a smoky, almost chipotle-like sauce. The chicken, however, didn't have much flavor at all, either in the meat or the sauce.

Non-organic chicken is pretty much cr-p these days, in my opinion - bred for size and devoid of any flavor, no matter where you get it. So most places rely on breading or sauce to make chicken palatable. If that's the case, you're better off saving yourself some fat and calories and just going with tofu.

From Joshua Counsil on April 15, 2010 at 6:00 PM
What can I say? I love directing people, especially when it's to pages on this site.

As for Marrakesh, I'm afraid it's not holding up. Although you still do not require a reservation priority seating, the food is not nearly as flavorful as North African food should be, like the options found at Jiko and Boma. I tried the $50, seven-course feast last time I ate there, with $50 being a very reasonable price for seven courses. The couscous was fine, not sticky, and the lamb was fall-off-the-bone tender, but I left without that satisfyingly spicy post-meal effect I normally get from Middle Eastern food, like I just cleansed my stomach. It seemed like it was trying too hard to appease, rather than please, everyone. I think if they brought in a daring Moroccan chef, people would be pleasantly surprised.

It's still a good theme park restaurant, but it has potential to be great. Les Chefs de France won last year's TPI award for Best Theme Park Restaurant, and, in many ways, deservedly so. No, it's not Parisian quality, but it does provide an exceptionally good meal for a theme park restaurant. That they even offer escargots is nothing short of a miracle, and, I might add, they do them well. They even encourage you to soak up the oil in a French roll when you're finished. Marrakesh provides an equally beautiful setting, but I find the selection unadventurous. I know they want to cater to those who shy away from ethnic food, but I truly think that people could love this type of cuisine if they gave it a chance.

Regardless, the main dish, the gorgeous belly dancer, has held-up for years.

The greatest gourmet tragedy at Epcot is Akershus, which was probably the most faithful restaurant to its source. I love the old castle setting, with dimly lit tables and beautiful Serbian servers. It was such a nice, quiet respite from the sensation-overload parks. Unfortunately, they converted this establishment into a character dining location. I haven't returned since.

From Tyler Stover on April 15, 2010 at 9:30 PM
I'm going to have to disagree with the value assessment of the BBQ. I know at least for my wife and I, we aren't big dessert eaters. I'd rather not pay for a dessert I wouldn't eat otherwise. That's the same reason, among others, that we skip the dining plan at Walt Disney World unless it is offered as part of a very good deal. Sure you get more food at a discount, but we're still paying more for something we wouldn't have eaten otherwise. Breaking out the desert just gives options. I can see how drinks should be included though.

As far as entertainment, well let me just say I'd pay more if it meant not having some marketing campaign crammed down my throat while I'm trying to enjoy a nice meal. Whether it be "Dreams" or "Celebrate" Disney latches on to a catchphrase and flogs it to within a half inch of its life. If reduced entertainment means fewer forced "celebrate" references, and they charge me less for it, I'm thrilled.

I do strongly agree with your Pizza Port picks. My wife likes the pizza at the resort, but I'll side with you on this. I don't dislike it as much as you seem to, but it certainly isn't outstanding, and worse than some other theme park pizzas.

As far as burgers, in the past I would have recommended giving Taste Pilots Grill a shot. The burgers are pretty good for counter service theme-park stuff, and the toppings bar makes up the difference and brings it even with non-theme park fast food places, but the criss-cut fries put it over the top. Unfortunately, Disney has downgraded to regular generic fries without a price drop, so I'd no longer recommend it over anything else.

My other recommendation for DCA would be the new Cucamonga Cocina. Since it moved and changed menu, it really is pretty good. The last time I was there my tamale was a bit dry, but it has been excellent before and the carne asada was great. My wife's burrito was good too.

At Disneyland, the French Market is a nice buffeteria choice that's less expensive than a full table service meal but nicer than a simple counter service burger location. I'd give it a try next time you go.

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