As construction walls start to come down all around Disney Springs, the list of new dining venues around the Town Center area continues to grow. The newest restaurant added to the mix is Frontera Cocina, the most recent location in a string of modern Mexican eateries from celebrity chef Rick Bayless. Located next to the new Disney Springs Guest Relations location, across from Sprinkles Bakery, this restaurant focuses on freshly-made classic Mexican cuisine in a casual table-service setting. I dropped in during opening week to try out a few dishes and get a feel for what is sure to be a very popular location in Disney Springs and all around Walt Disney World. Frontera Cocina is open from 11:00 AM daily (closing hours vary, so be sure to check before a late dinner), and for now, works on a walk-up seating basis (reservations are available now on OpenTable for seatings starting July 21st; “soon” on My Disney Experience). I chose to beat the rush this particular day by grabbing a table for an early dinner after strolling around some of the newly-opened shops nearby.
The menu here’s not enormous, but has a pretty wide variety of options: lots of shareable appetizers, a few reasonably-priced tacos and tortas (sandwiches) that look perfect for lunchtime/lighter dining, and plated entrees and sides that are priced similarly to most Disney non-signature table service restaurants (like The Wave or Captain’s Grille). First impressions were two-fold: the menu, while modern-leaning, is still pretty accessible to most diners accustomed to pure neighborhood Tex-Mex; secondly, I had absolutely no idea what to order, because everything sounded fantastic. Luckily, my server was quick to point out both the house specialties and her own personal favorites from the dishes she’d been sampled thus far. First, though, I had to settle on a cocktail from their extensive menu. Options here include the incredibly popular avocado margarita, straight from Epcot’s La Cava del Tequila, but I was looking for something I’d not yet tried and couldn’t get elsewhere – luckily, that fits most of this menu, due to the specialty spirits used, many of which are specific only to Frontera Cocina and La Cava. House specialties on the menu include the agave flights, the Frontera margarita, or the slightly-spicier version that is blood orange & jalapeno flavored.
If you’re looking for something a little off the beaten path, I’d go for the Mexican “cola” ($16), my first choice during this meal. Made with Avión blanco tequila, tamarind, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, and served on the rocks in a black ant salt rimmed-glass, this drink totally surprised me in flavor. Rich and dark cola (yes, like your favorite soda) flavors dominate, slightly caramel-y, with the sweet and smoky chili liqueur balanced by the tartness of the tamarind, all with an incredibly smooth tequila backdrop. The black ant salt rim initially threw me off (even as a pretty adventurous eater), but after hearing the history behind them from manager Ricky, I gave them a shot; it’s a nod to the pre-colonial era of Mexico, when insects were the primary source of nutritional protein for non-elites. After giving it a tentative try, I realized they were pretty innocuous in the end, offering only a tad bit of sweetness (they’re candied) with the salt on the rim. This incorporation of historical ingredients and traditional techniques combined with modern preparations and plating also permeates the rest of the food menu and sets the tone for a great meal.
Though it was tough to skip out on one of the three varieties of freshly-made-to-order guacamole and the shrimp and bay scallop coctel verde, I settled on one of the house specialties for an appetizer, the sikil pak ($9), expertly described by my server as “Mexican hummus”. A modernized version of the traditional dish from the Yucatan peninsula, this creamy dip is made from pumpkin seeds and habanero chilis (have no fear, it’s not very spicy), served with jicama and cucumber sticks and warm tortilla chips. The dip was the perfect consistency for scooping (important in sharing situations!), very earthy and savory, without being salty; a slight background spice from the habanero is cut by the creaminess, and the sweet and refreshing jicama and cucumber sticks are absolutely addictive with this stuff. I could’ve eaten this whole bowl by myself, but it’s easy to share with a few friends or family members, as well.
I struggled to decide on an entrée, with the carne asada and the Cocina half chicken highly recommended, but ultimately settled on the carnitas, slow-cooked pork shoulder with garlic and lime, served with creamy refried black beans, salsa verde, guacamole, pickled red onions, and warm corn tortillas ($23). I expected typical pulled pork like you see at most restaurants serving carnitas, but here it was several larger bites of smoky and rich pork that was nicely caramelized on the outside (a nice bit of umami you usually miss with carnitas). The acidity of the pickled red onions and salsa verde cut the richness of the pork, while the creamy guacamole and black beans, both well-balanced and garlicky, match the pork’s marinade perfectly. This dish was easy to eat on its own, but I chose to make small tacos with the corn tortillas and varying accompaniments, each bite highlighting a different flavor from the dish. The portion wasn’t too large or small, perfect as an entrée if you’re sharing an appetizer or a dessert with a friend. Overall, I would definitely order the carnitas again, and can’t wait to try the rest of the entrees considering this dish’s high quality.
I couldn’t pass up a chance to try a few of the side dishes that did not come with my entrée, so my server recommended the queso añejo mashed potatoes and the fried plantains topped with crema and cotija cheese (both $5 each). After ordering, I was a little afraid I was about to relive the disappointment from STK’s tiny side dishes but when these arrived, I was very happy with their sizes – both dishes would be suitable to share between at least two people. The plantains maintained their inherent sweetness with a good amount of caramelization on the outside, and the cotija and crema offer a slightly salty counterbalance to the sweet, making them a great foil for any savory entrée you could order. As good as the fried plantains were, though, the mashed potatoes were even better. The cheese mixed in with standard mashed Yukon gold potatoes offers a funkiness and slight smokiness along with a very savory (not too salty) flavor – these are definitely some of the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever had. I snuck a bite of them with the carnitas from my entrée and transcended to heaven. I’d recommend giving either of these sides a try if you end up ordering entrees that do not already come with them.
While finishing my entrée, I ordered the Lucy ($15), a sotol-based cocktail with fresh carrot juice, orange liqueur, ginger cordial, fresh lime, and candied mango. Sotol is a liquor not too different from tequila in production, but made from the sotol plant instead of agave, so it has a slightly ‘greener’, earthier taste to my palate. Based on the menu description, it sounded a bit like a healthy smoothie, but my server assured me if I liked the sweetness of carrot and the bite of ginger, I’d love it – and I did. It drinks very smoothly, but it’s definitely potent – a perfect summer/spring cocktail with bright flavors that didn’t drown out any of my food. The dried candied mango in the glass served not only as a pretty garnish, but also as a drink stirrer and a sweet treat at the end of the drink.
The dessert menu features three dishes perfect for sharing that are unique compared to options at most Mexican places you may frequent: a fried plantain sundae, a coconut lime “quatro leches” cake, and pecan pie bar, which my server described as a cross between pecan pie and a brownie (all three $9 each). I settled on the pecan pie bar, especially after my server told me it is Rick Bayless’ grandmothers’ recipe. A dense, sweet, fudgy brownie packed with pecans arrived, topped with Mexican vanilla ice cream (a little sweeter than most vanilla flavors you’re used to, with a strong vanilla bean profile). There’s a reason why Chef Bayless carries on this recipe – this dessert is superb, even by Southern standards. It’s definitely too rich to eat all on your own unless you have a strong sweet tooth, but one for the table would be a fitting cap to an excellent meal.
My first meal was so good, in fact, that I ended up back at Frontera Cocina just a few days later, this time to try the offerings from the walk-up window at the rear of the restaurant. There’s a short menu here – guacamole and chips, two kinds of tacos, and two margaritas, but like Morimoto Street Food, gives you a small taste of what the restaurant can do with a quick-service style meal. The guacamole and chips “snack” ($8) is definitely large enough to split between two people, just as fresh as what I tried inside the restaurant, with tons of crunchy corn tortilla chips. The tacos ($12 for three tacos), served just as tradition dictates (three double-wrapped fresh small corn tortillas, meat, and onions for both), were true winners and a great way to see just how good the food is here at a smaller price-point.
First up, the cochinita pibil tacos, with achiote-braised pork shoulder, pickled red onions, and a habanero salsa that the friendly walk-up window server put on the side (as it is, no joke, very spicy). The acidic and peppery braise on the pork makes it fork tender and very savory, with more pickled onions for extra brightness and cilantro for some color and bite. My favorite, though, were the beef barbacoa tacos. The beef is chipotle-braised, with a tad bit of spicy undertone to its rich flavor, and fresh red onion and a little cotija cheese give the whole dish some balance. These tacos were packed full of flavor, and pretty filling, overall. A friend and I split the two taco plates and guacamole for dinner and were perfectly satisfied – $32 total plus tax for dinner for two (a great deal at Disney, nowadays).
I had pretty high expectations for Frontera Cocina when it was announced – a renowned chef in his field rarely missteps, and so many of the new offerings at Disney Springs are excellent. Honestly, though, I didn’t expect to love my meal here as much as I did – top-notch food punctuated by excellent service, with servers and managers who were incredibly passionate about the food and its history and very knowledgeable about items that may be unfamiliar to many guests wandering through the door. Start to finish, I would gladly go back to try every one of these dishes again as soon as possible, and I can’t wait to try the rest of the menu here, as well. After two great meals, it’s safe to say that Frontera Cocina is a can’t-miss restaurant on your next trip to Disney Springs.