Epcot’s World Showcase has some pretty awesome international cuisine but it does lack one very large continent: Africa. It’s not that African cuisine isn’t appealing, it’s that it’s so unfamiliar to Americans. What is it exactly? Grilled meats? Exotic fruits and vegetables? Unless you live in a big city with a sizeable African expat/immigrant population (I’m thinking Washington D.C. with its large community of Somalis and Ethiopians) you’ve probably never had African food ever.
Animal Kingdom changes that with several food options that showcase African cuisine made for the American palate. If you don’t get a chance to go out to the Animal Kingdom Lodge to sample from Boma or Jiko your next best bet is in the park at the Tusker House, a character buffet with a little bit of everything and a lot of African-inspired dishes.
A warning: as I said above this is a character dining experience. If you don’t want to take pictures or chat up Goofy in a French Foreign Legion costume then check out some of the quick service windows a short walk away. I’m not usually a character dining person, but I figured the characters and their human handlers would be understanding if I politely declined to ham it up in favor of eating dinner. For those who love characters, you’ll be tickled by the special costumes each character wears, unique to the Tusker House. I will admit that Goofy in his Foreign Legion outfit, looking like an extra from Casablanca, was pretty amusing.
Tusker House offers breakfast (skewing more American, but keep an eye out for bobotie, the national dish of South Africa), lunch, and dinner. All are buffet style and while it may not have the same acclaim as Boma, the spread is pretty sweet. Located just across the bridge that connects Discovery Island to Africa and a short jaunt from Asia and Pandora, Tusker House makes a nice meeting spot if your party decides to split up to explore Animal Kingdom or even take a break before heading out elsewhere. If you time your day right you can hop onto the Kilimanjaro Safari jeeps before or after your meal since the attraction is just steps away.
From the start the restaurant immerses you in African culture. An Afro-Pop band is usually playing outside to the delight of young and old, providing entertainment as you wait to be seated. The design of the building is a tourism company warehouse. You’ll see maps and guides on display and signage as if you were stepping inside for a quick bite before trekking out to the savanna. Take a close look at everything from the fabrics decorating the walls and ceilings to the intricate carvings tucked away for guests to discover.
The main dining areas are a little cramped, especially once the characters come out. When we dined there were several large groups with small children around us, so we learned on the fly how to maneuver around excitable youngsters with heaping plates of food. If you have a preference for where you are seated you can make requests when you reserve or check in.
Characters make their rounds throughout your meal. You can expect to see a character ever ten minutes or so. The characters rotate so you may see Donald across the room now but he’ll come by to visit your table later. Characters and their handlers are very conscientious about balancing interaction with your meal so they’re not offended if you just give them a wave and get back to eating. If you want a picture the human handlers are more than happy to snap a photo with your camera or cell phone. There is no PhotoPass photographer inside Tusker House so you’ll need to use your own devices to take pictures.
The buffet area is a circular room with food arranged in stations. You’ll find a cold appetizer/salad station, soups, breads, carved meats, hot entrees, children’s food, and in the center the dessert station. Take a look around before you grab your food. There are a lot of interesting dishes and you won’t want to fill up before you’ve tried that special dish you had your eye on.
The food is a mix of familiar and exotic. You can find a simple green salad alongside a watermelon rind salad or spicy curry chicken next to macaroni and cheese. For those who aren’t adventurous you can always hone in on the kid’s buffet. No one will judge you. There’s chicken nuggets, hot dogs, mac and cheese, and pizza for those who aren’t ready to venture out of stateside cuisine. For those who want to try something new there are a lot of fun options. Read the labels carefully as they can sometimes note if a dish is spicy, which is common in African cuisine. If you have food allergies or special dietary needs make sure to inform the host at check in so that they can accommodate your needs.
Naturally we had more than more plate of food. We started with the cold salads and bread. The bread table has a wide variety of dips and toppings for you to try with breads from America and Africa. I was a bit boring and just went for some fresh hummus, but you can find chutneys and salsa-like dips as well as vinegars and oils to mix. For bread we went with a simple pita bread for the hummus but I had to try the famous mealie bread. This African bread is like a marriage of corn pudding and white bread, almost cakey in consistency. It isn’t too sweet, but you can definitely taste the corn niblets strewn through the batter. I slathered it in some simple sweet cream butter. So delicious! This bread would be perfect with soup or mopping up curry. I also had a cold African “pea” and cucumber salad. The peas aren’t the green orbs you think of but black-eye peas, common in Southern cooking here in the States. The salad is very simple: black-eye peas, diced cucumber, white onion, bell pepper bits, and all tossed with a light but tart vinaigrette. This salad tasted so clean and refreshing. It was an excellent palate cleanser before we moved on to the entrees.
There was a lot of food to choose from and we went for it all. Busy Bumble has always been the more adventurous eater out of the two of us so she tried to find as many unfamiliar dishes as possible. Her dishes spanned Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia. All of the items were superior but she did love a few things more than others.
The mealie pap was a revelation for both of us. This sweet corn mush doesn’t look like much but it tastes like a cross between the best corn chowder you’ve ever had and thin mashed potatoes. I even went back to get a bowl of the stuff on its own. Eaten as a side starch in Africa, mealie pap is a humble but amazing addition to the menu.
Similarly, the fried plantains were worth getting seconds. We’ve loved fried plantains since we were children and these were tender and sweet. You could eat them as part of a savory entrée or as a dessert. Some people didn’t seem to know what to make of them but I gladly ate their portions.
The “peas” and rice side dish is a mix of lentils and rice as a lightly spiced pilaf. This side went great with everything and was a good balance to some of the spicier menu items. Small children who are picky eaters may find themselves asking for another plate of this.
The Kenyan spiced pork was moist, tender, and savory. The spices aren’t overwhelming and aren’t foreign to American palates. This was a popular option at the carved meats station so if it looks like they’re running low just hang back and wait for the next piece to get carved up.
A few of the more Indian-inspired items were also very good. The green curry shrimp has a light kick on the soft palate, but not too bad. The red curry chicken is much hotter, so eat that with some rice, mealie pap, and a tall glass of milk. The Tandoori vegetables and tofu wasn’t spicy hot but did have more spice than other dishes. This may not get kids to eat their vegetables but it is a wonderful alternative to plain steamed veggies. Busy Bumble was very happy with the samosas although she did not partake of the dipping sauces offered.
I got much of the same food, but I opted out of the spicy curries. I did grab some of the squash medley as the bisected squash was too adorable to pass up.
My favorite part of any meal is always dessert and the dessert station does not disappoint. You may have heard of Boma’s famous zebra domes, but they won’t be found here. There are other tasty treats worth you time, though.
The strawberry bundt cake may look a fright with how pink if is, but the cake and cream are mildly sweet and moist. The chocolate ganache tart is the exact opposite: rich and densely sweet. The chocolate in this was so thick it felt like it could get stuck in your teeth.
The zebra coffee cake was a tasty, crumbly treat. It wasn’t terribly sweet and felt like the perfect grown-up dessert to have with a cup of coffee or tea at the end of the night. The magic bar was a slice of nostalgia, since my grandmother often made this toothachingly sweet dessert. Made from condensed milk, coconut, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, graham crackers, and butter you’ll need something to wash it down.
The chocolate chip cookie was serviceable and unremarkable, but a good choice if you’ve got fussy kids who need something familiar and not so messy for dessert. The chocolate orange cake slice was much like the zebra coffee cake in that it wasn’t one of the sweeter desserts and felt more sophisticated than some of the other offerings. The turtle brownie was another dessert that is probably better for those who crave familiarity. I wasn’t wowed by it but I wasn’t spitting it out.
The raspberry panna cotta financier is a delicate little treat that kids and adults will enjoy, both for its tender sweetness and its small size. A fresh raspberry sits atop a swirl of raspberry panna cotta, which is itself atop a tender little almond cake. This delightful little wonder was a great way to end dessert: bright tartness from the fresh raspberry, a surprisingly smooth creaminess from the panna cotta, and a buttery, nutty finish from the cake.
Overall we left feeling just a tad bit too full but pleased at having experienced so much new food. Next time you’re in Animal Kingdom skip the ordinary theme park food and take a chance in the Tusker House. You’ll discover new food and new favorites.