As anyone who has met me at a social gathering has heard me say — likely with a mouthful of nachos — I love to graze. I enjoy a good smorgasbord of munching options and little snacks.
If I had my choice between just trying one plate of a satisfyingly-delicious entree or multiple plates of lots of smaller, little, yummy samplings, welp folks, I’m going with the samplings! And I maybe don’t understand why anyone would choose the alternative? In this fleeting thing called life, why choose one menu item when you can experience lots of different flavors?
For my money, there is no better location for exploring varying culinary concoctions than Universal CityWalk at Universal Orlando Resort. My ideal night is hopping from one venue to the next, ordering an appetizer or two, and then strolling to the next to do the same thing. That means I’m coming to you as an appetizer-aficionado. Here are my top recommendations for appetizers in CityWalk…
Reader, it is my pleasure to introduce you to the Large Warm Soft Pretzel at NBC Sports Grill & Brew. Give me an appetizer that is at its core a carb that you dip in cheese and I am set. This lightly-salted, super-sized treat comes with a side of jalapeño cheese and Bertman Ball Park mustard.
This is going to sound pretty nuts, but sometimes I’m just not in the mood for a giant pretzel (don’t tell the writer of this Pretzel-Lover’s Guide!). If I’m looking for a lighter option, I opt for the Chicken Lettuce Wraps! Savory ground chicken mixed with shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, bean sprouts, cilantro, and ginger soy sauce. So. Good. And a great starter for a marathon of appetizer-eating.
If you’re craving something sweet and are wondering what on earth dessert bread could possibly taste like, you are in need of Warm Chocolate Almond Bread. Plus it’s served with salted caramel butter, so I’m not even sure why we’re still talking about it. You need this in your life! Run, don’t walk to get some ASAP.
Sometimes an appetizer comes into your life that just checks all the boxes. The Pork Belly Sliders are that appetizer for me:
What else could you be looking for? These are a must-try.
Speaking of sweet — who made the rule that dessert had to come last in a meal? Any of the doughnuts at Voodoo Doughnut are worthy of a spot in this blog. They’re so snackable you can walk and eat them! My favorite is the ODB, which is a raised yeast doughnut with chocolate frosting, Oreo cookies, and peanut butter. Sometimes I wish I could travel back in time and tell eight-year-old me all her favorite things would some day come in doughnut form. She’d be thrilled and so am I.
Any opportunity you get to eat any sort of leveled-up mac & cheese, you should take it. The Shrimp Shack Mac & Cheese at Bubba Gump is one such occasion. You’ve got your typical elbow pasta with monterey jack cheese, but with fresh, delectable shrimp mixed in and a parmesan topping. This dish is as rich as it is cozy!
I believe my stance on trying multiple flavors has been well established. So, of course, the Run Across America Sampler is a go-to. It is essentially a who’s who of deliciousness — fried shrimp, seafood hush puppies, chicken tenders, Bubba’s Far Out Dip, tortilla chips, all served with cocktail sauce, chili ancho aioli, and Maker’s Mark Bourbon Sauce.
I mean, this one is kind of a no-brainer. No one needs a blog about appetizers to tell them to order Tableside Guacamole. Duh it’s got the tasty factor, but it comes with a touch of that Universal entertainment as the Team Member combines the avocado, tomato, garlic, red onion, green olives, and cilantro for you and your table.
Let’s just assume that this isn’t your first time on an appetizer-fest and you didn’t need to be told to order the Tableside Guacamole. It’s already on your list and you’re looking for what’s next. The answer is empanadas. These masa turnovers are filled with roasted corn, chorizo, cotija and menonita cheese and served over a jalapeño mayo and chili oil. Frankly, I’ll eat anything that comes with jalapeño mayo.
The flatbread has become a staple on most appetizer menus over the years. And why not? It gives grown-ups an excuse to eat what is basically a mini pizza and call it an appetizer. The Southwest Chicken Flatbread at Hard Rock Cafe is SO much more than a mini pizza, though. We’re talking grilled fresh chicken, avocado, melted Italian cheeses, fresh pico de gallo, diced red peppers, and scallions. Which is all pretty much spot-on but I’m not finished because it is topped with a guacamole ranch that is fantastic.
If you enjoyed the Pork Belly Sliders from Toothsome, I have got great news for you and it comes in the form of more sliders. The All-American Sliders at Hard Rock Cafe are mini-burgers with melted American cheese, crispy onion ring and a creamy coleslaw on a toasted brioche bun.
The hardest thing about trying to convey how delicious I find this dish to be is that I can’t type and eat it at the same time. The Lava Lava Shrimp, served at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, is golden fried and drizzled with chili and lime spiked aioli. It’s the perfect amount of heat and you’ll find yourself dreaming of the aioli long after you’re back home from your Universal vacation.
I am a big fan of seafood, but I understand that not everyone is and for those people I say — order the Key West Chicken Quesadillas and thank me later.
If you hear the words “chicken wing” and picture some typical iteration with any old boring sauce, my friend you are not picturing the Get Up, Stand Up Mango Wings at Bob Marley-A Tribute to Freedom. The mango sauce is so good, so unique, and so a sauce I would put on everything if I could.
For my vegetarian friends, you can’t go wrong with the Jerk Cauliflower Bites! Crispy fried and tossed in the restaurant’s unique jerk sauce, they will undoubtedly satisfy your craving for Caribbean-influenced flavors!
I’m not going to knock regular nachos here because I’m not a monster, BUT I will tell you these are in another universe than whatever plate of melted cheese on chips you’re envisioning. The Blackened Tuna Nachos at The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar are crispy wonton chips, topped with crab Rangoon dip, avocado salsa, tomatoes, and seared blackened yellowfin tuna. They’re ridiculously good and the perfect starter for a sushi meal or appetizer-crawl.
It’s hard to talk about a sushi place and not bring up Edamame, so I won’t bother trying. Order steamed with sea salt, sriracha, ginger, or garlic inspired sea salts or try them all!
We’ve arrived at the appetizer that originally sparked my idea for this guide. The Bourbon Cheese Fondue at BigFire is truly what dreams are made of. Some of the best nights of my life have been spent sitting at the bar in Bigfire with a Smoked Old Fashioned, sharing this appetizer with my crew. The bourbon cheese is served with crispy cauliflower, blistered shishito peppers, grilled bread, lavosh, and hearth grilled baby carrots. You can add hearth grilled Andouille sausage or cola braised pork, too, if you’re looking to appease the carnivore in you. Though I will say the vegetables at Bigfire will convince any veggie-denier to rethink their ways.
I’m not sure why at this point you’re not trusting me and just going with the Bourbon Cheese Fondue, so I am left to assume you just want to also order another appetizer and that appetizer should be the Oysters Rockefeller. Topped with a bernaise sauce, spinach, bacon and breadcrumbs, these oysters are fresh and packed with flavor.
There’s something about the Fried Ricotta appetizer that just screams Italy to me, which is exactly the vibe I’m looking for when I walk into VIVO Italian Kitchen. The mixture of Italian flavors you get when you dunk these breaded rosemary-lemon ricotta balls into the house made tomato sauce will transport you to a summer evening in an Italian piazza. Oh, and don’t you dare let all that extra sauce go to waste — make sure to dip the warm Italian bread that your server brings to the table. Never miss an opportunity to dip a carb in a sauce.
The Mushroom Sauté could easily moonlight as an entrée — it’s both delicious and substantial. The mushrooms are mixed in a sherry and cheese cream and covered with a crispy parmesan crust. Ask for more of that warm Italian bread to eat this appetizer with.
Sweet beignets are a well-known Mardi Gras tradition, but the savory version of the popular fried dough treat holds its own. The Crab Beignet has a mascarpone and crab filling with a hint of tarragon oil and powdered sugar on top. Squeeze some lemon juice on it and dip into the mayo sauce for a true New Orleans experience. Oh, and if it’s a beautiful day outside, make sure you ask for a table on the patio — one of my favorite spots in CityWalk!
There’s really no escaping the New Orleans vibe when you come to Pat O’Briens, so surrender to it completely by ordering the Cajun Crawfish Dip, an authentic Louisiana appetizer served with housemade tortilla chips.
So what do you think, did I leave any of your favorite appetizers off the list? Let me know in the comments below!