INSIDE LOOK: Restaurants of ‘Pandora – The World of Avatar’ serve up distinct dishes with a healthy side of storytelling

in Disney, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Food, Theme Parks, Travel, Walt Disney World

On May 27, Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE) will officially begin giving tours of Pandora – The World of Avatar. That is, Walt Disney World will officially open their newest expansion to Disney’s Animal Kingdom on that date.

It’s actually been six years since Disney first announced their partnership with James Cameron to make Pandora a real place – and today Walt Disney World granted us access to be among the first to feast our eyes on the delightful fruits of their efforts.

As the story goes, the alien planet of Pandora that was once ravaged by the human organization, Resource Development Administration (RDA), is now at peace with mankind 50 or 60 years after the RDA has left. And its inhabitants, the Na’vi, have welcomed ACE as a liaison between themselves and the human race.

Consequently, all of the abandoned RDA buildings have been repurposed by ACE for tourism.  The old bunkers and mess hall now serve as retail shops, restrooms, a refreshment center and a fast casual dining location.

Satu’li Canteen, the area’s dining location, will no doubt be one of Pandora’s biggest assets once it opens. With the land’s emphasis on a sustainable ecosystem, the Canteen focuses on what we consider to be “whole foods” and allows diners to build their own meal, in a sense.

WATCH – PANDORA FOOD & RESTAURANT TOUR:

While food is the primary reason to visit Satu’li Canteen (much more on that below), guests will first notice its distinct atmosphere. A tribal overlay has been given to what appears to be an abandoned, military mess hall, furthering the story of Pandora through setting. Its industrial building could even be mistaken as part of a “Star Wars” Rebel base – if it weren’t for the textiles of an alien tribal nation hanging from every beam and standing in every corner. We can easily see the story of a military hall that has been repurposed for hospitality and education by Pandora’s native people.

Shelves in the Canteen are filled with Na’vi cookware and utensils. Ten-foot “pillars” stand throughout the restaurant, some with rounded tops, others with more ornate prongs. These are Na’vi tools used for grinding berries and other food items in bowls during cooking prep. Woven baskets, iron pots, and beaded textiles are placed throughout and give the place a real sense of a layered history.

Satu’li Canteen not only works to help tell the story of Pandora and its people but also remains seamless with the theming of Animal Kingdom as a whole. This dining location would fit right in at Animal Kingdom Lodge.

So what are the locals of Pandora serving in this former mess hall?

Designated as a “Create-Your-Bowl” system, there are 48 different combinations of dishes for guests to choose from on the Canteen’s menu (plus two additional bao bun options, a couple desserts and a kids menu). Three choices have to be made in the creation of your bowl: picking a protein, picking a base and picking a sauce.

Don’t come looking for greasy, fast food style meals here. This restaurant’s flavorful, healthier options are a more than welcome change.

Protein choices are slow-roasted sliced grilled beef, chopped wood-grilled chicken, sustainable fish fillet, and chili-spiced crispy fried tofu. Upon sampling, the beef and chicken are both delicious, but the chicken is particularly lip-smacking-good.

Base options for the bowls are quinoa & vegetable salad, red & sweet potato hash, mixed whole grain & rice, and romaine & kale salad. Satu’li Canteen meets expectations in these selections with the quinoa/vegetable combination stand gout as adding some desired heartiness to these healthier meals.

Satu'li Canteen3

Selecting a sauce is the final step in creating a Pandoran bowl, and there are three choices: charred onion chimichurri, black bean vinaigrette and creamy herb dressing. All are good, but questionable in necessity as the dishes sans-sauce are sufficiently enjoyable. (No need to add extra calories!)

Satu'li Canteen

Aside from the bowls, the restaurant also offers steamed “pods” – or bao buns – as an option.

There are two: a vegetable-curry pod and a cheeseburger pod. The cheeseburger pod is probably the closest you will get to typical fast-food theme park fare in Satu’li Canteen without visiting the kids menu. But it’s still a rather unique choice here, replacing the typical bun with the delightfully “doughy” bao, filled with a “cheeseburger.” Cheeseburger here does not mean beef patty with layered toppings. It means a ground beef mixture that combines all the flavors of a cheeseburger together, rather than as layered ingredients. (The tiny pieces of chopped pickle hiding in the ground beef filling is a little off-putting if not expected.)

Satu'li Canteen

The restaurant’s non-alcoholic specialty beverage, the Pandoran Sunrise, can be ordered in a souvenir “Flute Flask” – a cup seems to take its inspiration from a pan’s flute. The drink’s flavor can best be described as a melon-flavored Powerade, dressed up with a bit of fresh pineapple.

More notable are the specialty alcoholic beverages.

The hypnotizing blue Dreamwalker Sangria and algae-green Hawkes’ Grog Ale easily take the spotlight while other lagers and Banshee wines round out the offerings.

For dessert, Satu’li brings two notable dishes to the table. Na’vi cheesecake is an eye-catching blue ball with bright yellow and white adornments, served with passion fruit curd.

Their chocolate cake has a unique texture with a hardened (almost crunchy) chocolate shell that encompasses a mousse and hints of liquid cherry. (Do not pass up either one!)

Given that the Canteen intentionally strays from typical theme park fare, this restaurant may not be for picky diners – or those who arrive with the wrong expectations. This is different, so be aware of what you are ordering before you ask for an entree. But you can’t go wrong with the root vegetable chips that come with the “pods” and many of the kid’s menu items – so good!

A breakfast menu will also be available at Satu’li Canteen. Here is a look at some of the food that will be available on that menu. There is a Vegetable Goat Cheese Frittata with Wood-Fired, Herb-Crusted Beef and Chimichurri, and a Pork Shoulder Hash with Chorizo Sausage and Natural Jus featured that is sure to please. For those that are fans of bao buns, a “steamed pod” with Scrambled Egg, Bacon, Spinach and Pickled Vegetables is offered.

For something a little lighter, the menu has the Tropical Pandora Forest Fruits with Yogurt Muesli and Vanilla Maple Syrup. Steel-Cut Oats with Whiskey Raisins, Marcona Almonds, and Goji Berry are another healthy option. On the other end of the spectrum, a Cinnamon Swirl French Toast with Blueberry Cheesecake Dollop and Passion Fruit Anglaise can satisfy a sweet tooth.

Guests choosing to visit the Canteen will need to be prepared for the cost – a bit pricer than your average quick-service location on Walt Disney World property. For a family of three, your meal may cost close to $50, including drinks and a dessert. It won’t break the bank, but it isn’t the cheapest option around – though neither is interplanetary space travel. All that being said, families in search of healthier fare and a well-themed environment should find it to be worth the cost.

Pongu Pongu is the other option for finding unique drinks in Pandora. Described as the Na’vi’s version of a tiki bar, serving up refreshing tropical beverages and craft beer from a little hut next to the area’s shop.

Walt Disney World will officially debut Pandora – The World of Avatar on May 27.

Planning a trip to Pandora? Get discounted tickets to Disney’s Animal Kingdom from our sponsor Maple Leaf Tickets.

(Video, photos, and additional reporting by Ricky Brigante)