Yesterday evening, my girlfriend and I visited a restaurant that I’m now wishing I’d visited closer to 5 years ago. The Islands Dining Room, at Universal’s Loews Royal Pacific Resort, it turns out, is a hidden gem in the theme park world. On “select nights,” which seems to roughly translate to “most Fridays, and whenever we think it’ll be busy,” Islands Dining Room offers The Wok Experience. At this meal, for $24 per adult, you get all-you-can-eat made-to-order stir fry dishes.
The Islands Dining room is located on the lower level of Royal Pacific. To reach it, walk in to the lobby and hang a right, then go downstairs. (We actually went left, and then got lost as we tried to go downstairs at the wrong point, ended up at a dead end, went outside, circled back around, found the back door of the restaurant, walked all the way around it, and finally entered. But hey, we were exploring the resort, right?). There is a check-in podium located between Islands Dining Room and Jake’s American Bar. We were quickly seated with no wait. When the hostess informed us that in addition to the regular menu, they were hosting The Wok Experience tonight, we replied “oh we know, that’s why we’re here!”. She told us that in that case, we could help ourselves whenever we were ready.
One of the first things we noticed when we got to our table was how empty the restaurant was. This was 6:30pm on a Friday night. Both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure had closed early, at 6pm, for Grad Bash. So where the heck was everyone? How are there not more people here?
Step one of the Wok Experience is to grab a bowl and fill it with whatever vegetables you’d like in your stir fry. There was a nice selection available, including carrots, broccoli, sprouts, cabbage, mushrooms, onions, peppers, snow peas, water chestnuts, and baby corn. The vegetable bowl seems small when you get to it, but remember that this is only a small portion of your overall Wok dish.
Next you take your bowl of veggies over to the chef working the woks. There are spaces for up to 6 woks to be cooking at a time, but (at least when we were there) only one chef working them. It’s a good thing the restaurant was nearly empty. I don’t believe this setup would work if they had a full house, as the lines for the woks would be out the door. Regardless, the chef starts every dish with a clean fresh wok, no intermingling of flavors with previous customers’ dishes. The chef asks each of the six current customers which protein they’d like. Our choices are beef, chicken, shrimp, or tofu. To start off our experience, I chose beef, and my vegetarian girlfriend got the tofu. It seems that all the meats were just a little bit pre-cooked, nothing raw was going into the woks. The tofu had been previously fried, and the beef was rare, but certainly not raw. Later I’d also see that the shrimp were already slightly pink, not white as you’d expect raw shrimp to be.
After sauteing the meat for a minute or two, the chef adds your custom selection of vegetables to the woks. At this point, he also offers each person any or all of salt, garlic, and ginger. A few more minutes of frying up this mixture:
Your next choice is either white rice or noodles. The noodles are added directly into the wok, while the rice is served as a bed to the side of your stirfry. That being said, we did hear a couple guests request to make a fried rice dish instead, and had the rice added directly to the wok to be cooked. The chef accommodated those requests without issue. In addition to your starch, you also now have your choice of six sauces. On the sweet side, they have teriyaki, orange, and sweet & sour. On the spicy side, they offer Thai peanut, Szechuan, and coconut curry. We both went with noodles for our dishes. I chose the Thai peanut, and Iris got the orange.
One final step right before plating your dish, the chef offers you cilantro and scallions to be mixed in. After you’ve made that choice, he dumps your Wok creation into a serving dish, and you happily take it back to your table. When we got there, we found our water glasses and a bread service had also been delivered in our absence. I’d say the whole experience from choosing our veggies to obtaining our completed meal took between 5 and 10 minutes, because there were some woks already in progress when we arrived, so we had to wait a bit to get ours started.
Both dishes were excellent, and surprisingly huge, given the smallness of the bowl of veggies that we started our meal. Both chopsticks and silverware were provided at our table. When we’d finished enjoying our dishes, we each went back up to the wok area and started over again. This time, I chose shrimp, veggies, and rice with the teriyaki sauce, while Iris got just the veggies and noodles, without her tofu, but keeping the orange sauce. I foolishly forgot to take a picture of her second dish, but here’s mine:
I think if I’d been a little hungrier when we started, I could have managed a third dish, but instead I chose not to overstuff myself with another huge portion, and instead made use of the other included options in The Wok Experience. Opposite the wok area is a small salad bar, and to the right of that is a soup area. The salad bar is pretty basic, just lettuce and a few vegetables with two dressings (ranch and ginger), as well as a pair of pre-made salads, one vermicelli noodles, one mixed veggie. The two soups available are Egg Drop and Vietnamese Pho. Between them are several different mix-ins you can add to your soup, including beef, noodles, scallions, cilantro, sprouts, jalapeÃ±os, and Bay leaves. The Pho was out when I visited, so I tried the Egg Drop Soup. Unfortunately, it was very salty, and I couldn’t eat more than a couple spoonfuls.
Once we could finally eat no more, our server (who, I should mention, was very quick to offer us drink refills and checked to see if we needed anything very often throughout our meal) brought us our bill. $24 for all you can eat, custom made to order, fresh stir fry. How can you beat that? Buffets at Disney cost twice that amount, and frankly, aren’t as good. I really don’t get why the restaurant was so empty, why I’ve only ever read one review of this place before now. Do people not know about The Wok Experience? Either Universal and Loews really need to market it better, or it’s a super secret thing that its fans don’t want anyone to know about for fear that it gets overrun.
If you drove to and parked at Royal Pacific, make sure you ask your server to give you a parking validation ticket when they bring your check. Without that validation, we would have been charged over $25 just for the couple hours we were there for dinner.
Just before leaving, we snapped some pictures of Islands and Jake’s regular menus, which I present to you here.
The Wok Experience is offered 6pm-9pm on select nights at the Islands Dining Room in Loews Royal Pacific Resort, in the Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando, FL. The days are not published in advance, so I suggest you call 1-407-503-3000 to confirm it will be offered the night you wish to dine.
Have you been to the Wok Experience before? What’d you think? Have you tried Islands Dining or Jake’s American Bar’s regular menus? Are they worth it? Are there any other hidden dining gems to be found at Universal? Let me know in the comments below!