June 22, 2024

Animal Kingdom’s Best Counter Service Meal!

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Animal Kingdom is, quietly, a culinary juggernaut. The case could be made that, pound for pound, it's the park with the best food in all of Walt Disney World. It has better dining than Magic

Animal Kingdom is, quietly, a culinary juggernaut. The case could be made that, pound for pound, it’s the park with the best food in all of Walt Disney World. It has better dining than Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, and arguably even World Showcase–certainly fewer “misses” than EPCOT.

The highlights of Animal Kingdom’s cuisine are well known. Tiffins is perhaps the best in-park restaurant at Walt Disney World, and the attached Nomad Lounge is one of the best spots to kick back and enjoy an elevated meal for (near) counter service prices. But it doesn’t stop with that 1-2 punch.

On the table service front, Yak & Yeti Restaurant doesn’t get nearly enough love despite beautiful dining rooms and a deep menu with tons of variety and generous portions–Yak & Yeti is truly an embarrassment of culinary and thematic riches! Then there’s Tusker House Restaurant, which is mercifully serving up its buffet again–it’s one of the most ambitious in all of Walt Disney World (like Boma, but with characters). And finally, Rainforest Cafe…which also exists.

The counter service restaurants are a bit more ‘feast or famine’ at Animal Kingdom. At the awful end of the spectrum are Pizzafari and Restaurantosaurus, both of which have had flashes of brilliance over the years, but are currently in the running for the worst restaurants at Walt Disney World. (I’m sorry, but clever themed design–which both have!–does not make up for subpar and stereotypical theme park cuisine.)

Then there are the mid-tier options, which could go either way depending upon what you order. These include Yak & Yeti Local Food(s) Cafe(s), Harambe Market, and Kusafiri Coffee Shop and Bakery. We’ve had a wide range of experiences at all of these; it really depends upon what time of day you visit and what you order (perhaps more).

It will come as no surprise to longtime Walt Disney World fans, but this puts two counter service restaurants on a collision course for the #1 and #2 spots at Animal Kingdom and, perhaps, all of Walt Disney World. (I would disagree with that assessment, but both are definitely top 10!)

Of course, we’re talking about Flame Tree Barbecue and Satu’li Canteen. The former has has historically been up there as one of the Top 15 Counter Service Restaurants at Walt Disney World, claiming the #1 or #2 spot for many years. More recently, Flame Tree BBQ has faced staunch competition as new restaurants have opened, including the upstart Satu’li Canteen in Pandora — World of Avatar.

Longtime readers might recall a period of time, around 2017-2019, when there was “fierce” debate among Sarah and I about whether Flame Tree or Satu’li Canteen was superior. Unsurprisingly, she favored the healthier and customizable Avatar eatery. Being the consummate carnivore, I swore my allegiances to the Flame Tree meatery.

Sadly, Flame Tree Barbecue has fallen from grace in the last several years. This is a trend that began shortly before the parks closed and only accelerated post reopening as Walt Disney World cut corners to reduce portion sizes for the benefit of guests’ waistlines (very much their words, not mine!).

I don’t think the quality at Flame Tree BBQ has gotten noticeably worse–it’s all about the portion sizes. There was a time when you could order a Full Slab of St. Louis Ribs or Half Slab of St. Louis Ribs with sides and cornbread. Gone are those options, replaced by the St. Louis Rib Dinner, which is about a half to two-thirds of a slab, depending upon your luck.

It also comes with smaller sides and without cornbread (now a $2 add-on). The last time times I’ve ordered the St. Louis Rib Dinner, I’ve left hungry. (The Baked Macaroni & Cheese with Pulled Pork has become my go-to at Flame Tree; it’s cheaper and more filling.)

Suffice to say, I now agree with Sarah. (She is, of course, always right.) Satu’li Canteen is the best counter service restaurant in Animal Kingdom…

For the most part, the highlights of the menu at Satu’li Canteen haven’t changed in the last several years. The best items are the bowls, which include the following options:

  • Smoked Chimichurri-braised Beef
  • Chopped Wood-Grilled Chicken
  • Chili-Garlic Shrimp
  • Chili-Spiced Crispy Fried Tofu

Plus Crunchy Vegetable Slaw and Boba Balls served with your choice of Base and Sauce.

Personally, I’m partial to the Combination Bowl: Smoked Chimichurri-braised Beef and Wood-grilled Chicken.

This is essentially just like the other bowls, but with two full portions of meat. Honestly, I don’t think they’re full portions (meaning it’s probably not double meat), but it’s definitely bigger than a regular bowl. That’s pretty much why I prefer it. When paying out of pocket, I usually opt for the beef bowl, but with the Disney Dining Plan‘s return right around the corner, I’ll soon be enjoying this again. Well, maybe not (see below).

Then there’s the fan-favorite Cheeseburger Steamed Pods (Bao Buns) stuffed with Ground Beef, Ketchup, Mustard, Pickle, and Cheddar Cheese served with Crunchy Vegetable Slaw and Vegetable Chips.

Hot take: these are overrated. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not bad. They’re certainly better and more interesting than a counter service burger at Restaurantosaurus or wherever. They’re just not great by Walt Disney World burger standards (the bun to meat ratio is not so hot) or Animal Kingdom cuisine standards.

I think people give them way too much credit for being a novel presentation of cheeseburgers. If this were Magic Kingdom, yeah, they’d be a highlight. But this is Animal Kingdom, where the bar for good counter service cuisine is higher than “it’s edible.” These are the weakest item on the menu at Satu’li Canteen. It’s all relative.

The most recent addition to the menu at Satu’li Canteen is the Ocean Moon Bowl consisting of Blue Noodles, Tuna, Watermelon Radish, Pickled Daikon, Rainbow Carrots, Avocado, Cucumbers, and Red Cabbage with Miso and Sweet Soy Drizzle topped with Micro Cilantro. This was added around the time that Avatar: The Way of Water debuted, but we ignored reviewing it at the time because we assumed it’d be short lived.

How happy we are to have been wrong about that, as the Ocean Moon Bowl is an inexplicable highlight of the menu at Satu’li Canteen.

First things first–the Ocean Moon Bowl is gorgeous and colorful, fitting for Avatar: The Way of Water. It’s a veritable (Water)world of color, and not in just some lame Instagrammable way. Beyond that, it’s a feast of flavors, with the light and refreshing dish coalescing incredibly well.

The vegetables are abundant and fantastic, offering texture, crunch, and (I’m guessing) necessary nutrients that might otherwise be missing from your diet at Walt Disney World. It all works really well with the tuna, which is likewise delicious and shockingly high quality. The blue noodles, sweet soy dressing, and flavorful fish are pure bliss.

The only thing that could make this better is a bit of sriracha–perhaps swapping out the sweet soy drizzle for Japanese mayo. Regardless, this is absolutely incredible and worth every penny of the high price tag. So in actuality, the Ocean Moon Bowl is what I’ll be ordering while on the Disney Dining Plan, especially if I need a change of pace from the heavier and heartier dishes I normally eat at Walt Disney World.

Frankly, I cannot believe the Ocean Moon Bowl is served at one of the busiest counter service restaurants at Walt Disney World. It’s ambitious and delicious, and absolutely crushes preconceived notions of theme park ‘fast food.’ I wish Walt Disney World would “trust” guests with more unconventional and envelope-pushing items like this more often.

For dessert, Satu’li Canteen still serves up the beloved Blueberry Cream Cheese Mousse. Now, that’s also been joined by the Metkayina Mousse, consisting of Flourless Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Mousse, Raspberry Gelée, Mango Coulis, Boba Pearls, and a Milk and White Chocolate Garnish.

It’s difficult to dethrone the Blueberry Cream Cheese Mousse…but I think the Metkayina Mousse does exactly that. Be warned, this is a rich dessert for chocolate lovers, and definitely a massive change of pace after eating the light and refreshing Ocean Moon Bowl. But it’s also really good, and the perfect “reward” after eating a healthier bowl. (Or a punctuation mark at the end of a heavy meal…either way, make up an excuse for yourself to order it.)

The chocolate mousse in this is very heavy and very rich, but not to the point of being overwhelming or one-note. That’s thanks in large part to everything else going on–the base/cake provides texture and the raspberry providing a sweet and sharp companion. As a sucker for raspberry and chocolate pairings, I’m probably predisposed towards loving this, but I also think the execution is spot-on. The flavors complement one another really well in this dessert.

The same can be said for the mango coulis and boba pearls. There’s not a ton of either, but I found myself dragging every last bite through the sauce and trying to pair it with a pearl. Just a really dynamic dessert–as pretty as it is, everything here is doing something to add to the overall flavor…it’s not just pretty for pretty’s sake!

Ultimately, after years of sitting on the fence saying “it depends” and trying to defend my beloved barbecue…I just can’t anymore. The portions have gotten too small at Flame Tree BBQ. At the same time, Satu’li Canteen has added its best bowl and dessert to the menu. It now crushes the competition and is the undisputed* best counter service restaurant at Animal Kingdom (*among survey participants in the Bricker household).

I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Flame Tree Barbecue, and will undoubtedly revisit the St. Louis Ribs Dinner when I’m craving a slab of smoked meat someday. (So probably in another month or so.) But I really hope that when I do, it’s a big ole slab of meat that would put a smile on Ron Swanson’s face, and not a portion size that leaves me hungry for Second Lunch afterwards.

In the meantime, Satu’li Canteen earns our highest recommendation whether you’re paying out of pocket or are on the Disney Dining Plan, and regardless of what kind of cuisine you’re craving. For now, Flame Tree Barbecue is a more conditional pick, for those ordering that delicious and reasonably priced Baked Mac & Cheese or those on the Disney Dining Plan who don’t mind gambling credits on the high-priced combo.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Have you dined at Satu’li Canteen or Flame Tree Barbecue recently? Which one of the two would you pick as the #1 counter service restaurant in Animal Kingdom–or something else entirely? Which menu items do you like best at Satu’li Canteen? What do you plan on trying? Think that Animal Kingdom “quietly” has one of the best restaurant scenes at Walt Disney World? Do you agree or disagree with our review? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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