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At the Disneyland Resort, it’s a small world of food after all

A forest mushroom Impossible Sausage pizza from Craftsman Grill at the Disneyland Resort.
A forest mushroom Impossible Sausage pizza from Craftsman Grill at the Disneyland Resort.
(Edwin Goei)
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If you had visited Disneyland a lot in the ’90s, like I did as a young adult, you would’ve eaten a lot of corn dogs, popcorn and Dole Whips. Apart from the decadent Monte Cristo at Cafe Orleans and fried chicken at Plaza Inn, the food experience often felt secondary to the attractions.

This is not to say that the corn dogs at the Little Red Wagon on Main Street aren’t the best darned corn dogs in the universe, but if you wanted something outside the norm of theme park food, you had to leave Disney property and explore the surrounding neighborhoods to get shawarma, Asian fare and carnitas tacos.

But the Disneyland Resort of today is not the Disneyland of 30 years ago. These days you can slurp on Japanese ramen with a perfectly set egg, sink your teeth into a Vietnamese banh mi and choose from at least two versions of shawarma, all inside the resort’s borders.

Disney’s food team didn’t make these evolutionary changes in its offerings over the years in a vacuum. As its culinary teams try out new recipes from a particular culture, they recruit input from a group of Cast Members from that culture (officially called “Business Employee Resource Groups”) who comment on the sensitivity, the context and, most of all, the flavor, before the dish is introduced to the public.

The results of these efforts are foods and delicacies that reflect the diverse communities that surround Disneyland.

Further proof that Disney is embracing a wider breadth of palates is the recent announcement that Taiwan-based Din Tai Fung and Cuban bakery behemoth Porto’s are both opening restaurants at Downtown Disney.

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But you don’t have to wait until that happens to start exploring the diverse array of flavors now served at the Disneyland Resort. Here are eight of the best dishes, some of which you don’t even have to pay the theme park admission to sample.

Thick and fluffy Japanese soufflé pancakes from Tangaroa Terrace at the Disneyland Resort.
Thick and fluffy Japanese soufflé pancakes from Tangaroa Terrace at the Disneyland Resort.
(Edwin Goei)

Thick and fluffy Japanese pancakes

A few years ago in Tokyo, the soufflé pancake craze reached its Cronut Phase. There were hourlong waits at popular pancake shops. YouTube and Instagram were inundated with recipes complete with overhead shots of mixing bowls. Everyone wanted to try one because it was like no other pancake anyone had ever seen before.

A single soufflé pancake had the height of an entire stack at IHOP, forever nullifying the phrase “flat as a pancake.” But the whipped egg whites that are carefully folded into the batter impart the most compelling characteristic: cloud-like fluffiness.

I’ve sampled Japanese soufflé pancakes all over Orange County, but Tangaroa Terrace’s rendition is, by far, the best executed. The texture exists in the sweet spot between angel food cake and a chocolate soufflé. It’s very airy and light but also still moist and substantial with a custard-like finish.

The chef at Tangaroa Terrace also ventures into unexplored soufflé pancake territory by spooning a refreshing dragon fruit compote on top, garnishing with sliced star fruit and including crisp-tender bacon on the side — the most inspired pairing of the sweet and savory since Roscoe’s Chicken ‘N Waffles. These embellishments don’t just transform the dish into a full-fledged meal but also elevate it to become the greatest pancake breakfast in O.C. — Japanese or otherwise.

Where to find it: Tangaroa Terrace Tropical Bar & Grill at Disneyland Hotel
Theme park admission required? No

The Loco Moco burrito from Tangaroa Terrace at the Disneyland Resort.
(Edwin Goei)

Loco Moco burrito

Invented in Hilo, Hawaii sometime in the 1950s, loco moco has since proliferated to every plate lunch joint on the islands but has also snuck into the menus of trendy mainland restaurants such as Bosscat in Irvine and Chapter One in Santa Ana. But if you’re unaware of its Hawaiian origins and saw the dish — which combines hamburger, gravy and fried egg with rice — it wouldn’t strike you as tropical. And you’d be right: it isn’t.

What it does, however, is tick every box on the comfort food checklist. It’s salty, it’s eggy, it’s beefy and it’s starchy.

At Tangaroa Terrace, you’ll find loco moco not on a plate but swaddled inside a warm flour tortilla. Yes, Disney has morphed it into a breakfast burrito. But it’s one that somehow improves the experience because now, between every toe-curling mouthful of loco moco, you can dribble on a salsa that adds a brightness and zing you never knew it needed.

Where to find it: Tangaroa Terrace Tropical Bar & Grill at Disneyland Hotel
Theme park admission required? No

The quesabirria taco at Cocina Cucamonga at the Disneyland Resort.
The quesabirria taco, served with lime wedges, consommé and radish slices at Cocina Cucamonga at the Disney’s California Adventure.
(Edwin Goei)

Quesabirria tacos

Birria, the spicy, long-simmered goat meat stew from the Mexican state of Jalisco, has exploded in Southern California in recent years. Its popularity also meant the advent of quesabirria tacos, where the meat (typically beef in the U.S. and not goat) is folded with cheese inside a corn tortilla.

The whole taco is then pan-fried using the brick-red grease skimmed off the top of the stew. The grease stains the tortilla orange and hardens it into a crunchy cocoon. Meanwhile the cheese that oozes out from the edges gets lacy and crisp. If birria is Rocky Johnson, the quesabirria taco is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — the oil-slicked beefy offspring everyone is now a fan of.

Dunked into consommé — the intense soup in which the meat was cooked — the quesabirria now being served at Cocina Cucamonga at Disney’s California Adventure is a heavyweight contender that could go head-to-head against the best quesabirrias in O.C., such as the one from Santa Ana’s reigning champ, La Super Birria. In fact, Cocina Cucamonga’s quesabirria has proved such a hit that Disney has imposed a rule limiting guests to two orders at a time.

It was recently announced that the entire Pacific Wharf area, including Cocina Cucamonga and Lucky Fortune Cookery, will be rethemed to become San Fransokyo from “Big Hero 6.” So, get the quesabirria tacos while you still can. Can you smell them cooking?

Where to find it: Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill at Disney’s California Adventure
Theme park admission required? Yes

The beef bulgogi burrito from Lucky Fortune Cookery at Disney's California Adventure.
The beef bulgogi burrito from Lucky Fortune Cookery joins pork ramen and banh mi at Disney’s California Adventure.
(Edwin Goei)

Beef bulgogi burrito

It’s been 13 years since Roy Choi’s Kogi food truck turned the food world upside down with the Korean taco — an invention that made Choi a millionaire food celebrity and the rest of the world thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

The Korean Mexican hybrid dish, of course, was kismet. Korean BBQ meats have never met a better friend than a tortilla. And like others inspired by Choi, Lucky Fortune Cookery at Disney’s California Adventure has taken his epiphany and developed a Korean Mexican mash-up of its own. It’s created a bulgogi burrito, which joins pork ramen and banh mi on an updated menu that used to feature only rice bowls.

These changes are significant upgrades not just on flavor but also practicality. Unlike the rice bowls Lucky Fortune used to serve, the bulgogi burrito is portable and can be eaten while you’re queueing up for a ride. Most importantly, it tastes as though it could have conceivably come from the Kogi food truck itself.

The flour tortilla has a nice elasticity. The rice is fluffy and the beef is sweet and sesame-scented from its marinade. But the most inspired add-ons are the garlic-flavored tapioca crackers served as chips and an Asian slaw that is so spicy, it’s disorienting. It had me asking, ”Am I actually at a Disney theme park eating this right now?”

Where to find it: Lucky Fortune Cookery at Disney’s California Adventure
Theme park admission required? Yes

A forest mushroom Impossible Sausage pizza from the Craftsman Grill at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel.
(Edwin Goei)

Forest mushroom Impossible Sausage pizza

You’ve always been able to get pizzas inside Disney’s two parks, but historically most have tended toward pleasing younger palates. With thick doughy crusts overloaded with cheese, these were pies that had always reminded me of those served by a certain kid-friendly restaurant chain that has a rodent as a mascot.

Adults craving a more traditional slice can go to Downtown Disney’s Naples Ristorante, which has consistently produced pizzas that hew closer to the Neapolitan ideal. But there is another option.

In a rarely traversed corner of Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, a quick-service counter called Craftsman Grill — which caters to pool guests — makes a great pizza in the California style popularized by Wolfgang Puck.

It’s a thin-crusted pie that crackles between your teeth but with a soft inner crumb that’s just the right amount of chewy. The best choice for topping is the forest mushroom with Impossible Sausage where three cheeses — fresh mozzarella, Grana Padano, and aged Provolone — are melded with umami-loaded roasted mushrooms, mushroom spread, caramelized onions, green onions and a plant-based sausage that tastes so convincing, no unsuspecting carnivore would know the difference.

And it’s this quality that makes this pie better than the rest — it’s the rare “gourmet” pizza that can please everyone from the young, the old, the vegetarian and that dude who insists on meat in everything.

Where to find it: Craftsman Grill at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel
Theme park admission required? No

The Hearthstone Cobb salad from Hearthstone Lounge at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel.
(Edwin Goei)

Hearthstone Cobb salad

While the California theming is slowly being whittled away at Disney’s California Adventure to make way for Avengers, Pixar characters, and soon, “Big Hero 6,” the celebration of our state is still going strong at the Grand Californian Hotel. The hotel’s lobby, with architecture inspired by the legendary Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, hasn’t stopped being jaw dropping. And at Napa Rose, chef Andrew Sutton and sous chef Gloria Tae continue their flawless execution of California wine country cuisine, still considered by many (including this writer) as the best restaurant in Orange County.

But you don’t have to get a reservation there to experience a dish that manages to represent California on a single plate: the Cobb salad at Hearthstone Lounge. Not only is this Cobb the best update to a salad that was invented in California (at Hollywood’s Brown Derby), it also features ingredients that are so iconic to California it borders on cliché: arugula, avocado, artichokes (the pride of Castroville) and blue cheese from Point Reyes.

With a perfectly cooked jammy egg, cider-glazed slab bacon cut into thick pieces, apples, cherry tomatoes, leaf lettuce, radish, a tangy vinaigrette and a healthy sprinkling of Aleppo pepper, it’s a salad that should make any Californian, and maybe even Alice Waters, proud of our state’s delectable bounty.

Where to find it: Hearthstone Lounge at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel
Theme park admission required? No

Sullust garlic chips, or krupuk, oil-puffed tapioca crackers at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge inside Disneyland.
(Edwin Goei)

Sullust garlic chips

If you’re walking around Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and encounter beverage carts offering what appear to be ear-shaped foam crackers covered in rust-colored powder, stop, get your money out and buy a bag. They’re officially called “Sullust garlic chips,” but Indonesians like me recognize the snack as “krupuk,” oil-puffed tapioca crackers which we eat with nearly every meal.

Yet, while krupuk is as commonplace as French fries or Lay’s in Indonesia, the fact that it’s still undiscovered and unfamiliar to most Americans makes it an ideal snack for the Star Wars universe. The texture is unique. Bite into it and you get a noisy skull-rattling crunch that quickly subsides into mush in your mouth. The closest that any commercially made snack has come to resembling krupuk is Munchos by Frito-Lay.

But Disney’s offering of krupuk is the real deal. And since it’s dusted with a thick layer of Buffalo and white cheddar powder, it will make you think of another Frito-Lay invention: Flamin’ Hot seasoning, but with far less artificiality and more sweetness.

Where to find it: Various Beverage Carts at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge
Theme park admission required? Yes

A Cold Brew Black Caf with Taro Topper at Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo inside Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland.
A Cold Brew Black Caf with Taro Topper at Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland.
(Edwin Goei)

Cold Brew Black Caf With Taro Topper

You could channel Luke Skywalker and chug the blue milk at Milk Stand inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, but for something that’s more rooted in reality and involves less food coloring, head to Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo for the “Cold Brew Black Caf With Taro Topper.”

The drink sports a meringue-like head that’s colored purple from the Earth-found plant called taro, the tuber that millions of Asian milk tea drinkers already know is an essential dessert, drink and dessert-drink ingredient.

The taro topper has a consistency somewhere between melted ice cream and marshmallow fluff and is, at first sip, jarringly sweet. But then as the creamy concoction slowly dissolves into the black bitter depths of the coffee, the drink finally attains the long sought-after balance of the Dark Side and the Light.

Was the Star Wars metaphor intended by Disney’s chefs? I don’t know.

But since it’s a seasonal item, does that mean the drink’s availability is likely to be as ephemeral as ghosts of departed Jedis? Probably.

Where to find it: Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge
Theme park admission required? Yes

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