Thornton Park Wine & Art Walk

It’s hard to believe it’s been over a year since Hue closed its door, ending a 12-year stretch at the corner of Central and Summerlin. It was tough to say goodbye to the hipster hotspot with its infamous Disco Bruch, but even tougher to see the coveted piece of real estate sit empty for so long. But after months of pining for a new concept to be unveiled, finally Soco arrived a few weeks ago… and it was totally worth the wait.

For starters, it is so great to see that corner buzzing again. The vacant patio felt like a missing limb in the Thornton Park District, a critical connector between the district’s Central Blvd and Washington Street segments. Soco opens daily at 5pm, and within an hour the breezy space is bustling with cheerful diners enjoying a lovely slice of downtown.

Inside, Greg Richie, executive chef and partner with Thornton Park Restaurant Group (also responsible for CityFish down the block), oversees his kitchen with a humble confidence that can only come from someone with such an impressive lineage. Richie has worked alongside celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and Roy Yamaguchi (Roy’s) and while Soco’s cuisine is definitely indicative of his Southern roots, tiny slivers of earlier Cajun and Hawaiian influences can’t help but sneak in.

The metamorphous from Hue to Soco is immediately apparent. Guests are now greeted with an air of down-home hospitality, a far cry from the haughty vibe Hue was once known for. And the bar, which used to take center stage in the main dining room, is now off to the left, sending a message that’s crystal clear: the food is now the main attraction, not a slew of boozy cocktails.

I’ve visited Soco three times now and have consistently walked away impressed, but more importantly, satiated and happy. Want to know why I love it so much? Read on…

1. The outdoor patio is better than ever, housing about 16 tables cooled by the outdoor breeze and overhead ceiling fans.
1. The patio is better than ever, housing about 16 tables cooled by the outdoor breeze and overhead ceiling fans.

Soco Thornton Park bar
2. The bar may be off to the left but it has its own little patio, stellar bar bites menu filled with savory small plates ($5-$16) plus nine spectacular house cocktails. The Watermelon Cooler (shown above) might seem like a girly choice but man up and order it anyway. It’s fantastic.

Soco Style Chicken Dumplings
3. The Soco Style Chicken Dumplings are, without a doubt, my favorite things on the menu and many, many others agree with me (including my four-year-old daughter, by the way, who thought they were wonderful). These doughy pockets are filled with lobster and then topped with carved chicken and a soy butter sauce that’s plate-licking good.

soco Thornton Park chefs table
4. A focal point of the main dining room are the two elevated tables that get a bird’s-eye-view of the kitchen through a huge window. While no plans have been disclosed for dining experiences filled with the chef’s whimsy, the space is affectionately known as the “chefs’ table” and I’m hoping the name sparks some conversation about launching a chef’s table menu filled with a series of small bites.

Soco Thornton Park Dining Room
5. Warm wood hues and lots of natural light pouring in from the windows give the main dining room a welcoming and casual feel, and the service definitely complements that aesthetic as it too is warm and welcoming.

Soco Thornton Park food
6. Soco stands for ‘Southern Contemporary,' which translates into lots of typical Southern dishes (fried chicken, collard greens and meatloaf, for example) but each with their own modern twist. And when I say modern, I don't mean frou-frou-style food with silver dollar-sized portions. Dishes overflow with unintimidating traditional renditions bolstered with fresh and creative accents that make everything all the more palatable. The meatloaf is a prime example, with its grilled preparation and lobster mashed potato bed. Richie has his pulse on the food world and as far as I can tell, realizes that diners love value almost as much as they love flavor. At Soco, you get an abundance of both. There's a lot of bang for your buck here. 

Soco Thornton Park desserts
7. As I told Chef Richie after a few too many drinks at Cows ‘n Cabs this past weekend, desserts are my happy ending. Nothing is more anticlimactic than forging through a meal only to arrive at a lackluster pile of worthless calories. But Soco does not disappoint in this regard. Far from it. Seven dessert offerings, each its own perfect blend of savory and sweet, line the dessert menu. Order a coffee by the pot (high five for supporting local coffee roaster, Lineage) and dive into a few of the tempting sweets on deck. My favorite is the Warm Berry Crisp, but it only has a short lead ahead of the Potato Chip Crusted Chocolate Cake and the Warm Apple Oatmeal Spice Cake. Whichever you choose, I can only predict it will be your happy ending to an outstanding meal at Orlando’s newest culinary stand-out.