Alright, no one's going to argue that Orlando's I-Drive is ground zero for the city's zillion or so annual tourists, but with what seems like a zillion or so restaurants to match, is it possible to find an ethnic culinary gem amid the chain buffets and ubiquitous pancake houses? Indeed. In fact, if you dig a little deeper you might come to the conclusion that they named it INTERNATIONAL Drive for a reason. Did you ever imagine you'd find authentic Japanese or Ethiopian food in the heart of this tourist corridor? Such treasures surprise many an Orlando native, never mind the visitors. Of course, "chain" doesn't have to be a dirty word. There's something to be said for the fun and familiar when it comes to quality dining, especially if you're traveling with a diverse or picky group. Venues like Fogo de Chao offer fine food in lovely surroundings with the family-friendliness and ease of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Hotel-ensconced eateries like Spencer's provide elegant oases ideal for special evenings out, well away from the Disney-bound hordes. And restaurants like Tapa Toro, a new gem at the foot of the Orlando Eye, do up both succinct small plates for dates and succulent paella vats for family-reunion celebrations.
Fogo de Chão
Fogo De Chao, the well-known Brazilian steakhouse chain, could be described as something of an upscale all-you-can-eat option. Offering the I-Drive crowd -- and a preponderance of locals keen on churrascaria, the Brazilian tradition wherein roaming "gauchos" present and slice a vast array of pit-roasted meats tableside -- a dining experience that allows them to pace their meal as they wish, using a two-sided disc to signal when they're ready for more. The eatery's "salad bar," which is laden with far, far more than veggies, helps round out the meal with side dishes. Fogo de Chao is pay one price. Half price for kids and free for those ages 6 and under. ((407) 370-0711)
Though tucked into the confines of an unremarkable shopping center, for Venezuelan comfort food, Q'Kenan is tops. Cachapas, arepas and empanadas are just three of the stars on a vast menu that's drizzled with smooth crema and dressed with rice, beans and plantains (green or sweet). Unfamiliar with the cuisine? Don't be shy. Staffers are happy to walk you through the Comida Venezolana 101 crash course and breakfast, lunch or dinner. The impressive arepa menu alone, most under $5, loaded with an array of ingredients such as beans and cheese, shredded chicken, ham or pork, might make decision-making tough. If you're in a group, you'll hope it's made up of sharing types. ((407) 238.0014)
What's the burning question on the minds of Pio Pio patrons, you wonder? Perhaps it's how they serve such generous portions in the tourist zone for such reasonable prices. Perhaps, if they're locals, it's a disbelief that it's taken them so long either to find the comfort food their abuela used to make or how they haven't sampled Latin staples such as maduros, empanadas, or grilled skirt steak before stumbling onto this unassuming, family-friendly little place. Maybe they're just wondering what the secret ingredients are for Pio Pio's signature rotisserie chicken marinade. All are valid. But don't think too hard. Just eat. ((407) 248-6424)
Spencer's for Steaks and Chops
Locals (those in-the-know) and visitors alike visit Spencer's for Steaks and Chops, and its location inside the Hilton Orlando, which is also connected to the Orange County Convention Center, likely garners this venue a steady stream of corporate business. But really, this exemplary operation, a multiple award-winner, only has one kind of customer: repeat. Featuring USDA dry-aged prime beef, Spencer's for Steaks and Chops receives as many raves for gracious, knowledgeable service as it does for its hefty wine list, heftier porterhouse and heavenly desserts. Spencer's is open Tuesday through Saturday, but hours may vary seasonally. Call or use Open Table for reservations. (4073138625)
Vincenzo Cucina Italiana
Vincenzo Cucina Italiana is a hybrid of sorts, a superb restaurant that melds family-run warmth with a fine-dining vibe, making it a wonderful place for a date night, a client dinner, a post-work glass of Chianti or a special occasion dinner. You know, like Nana's birthday. Convenient for both vacationers and business travelers � but Vincenzo's tourist-friendly I-Drive location does nothing to keep the locals from returning for authentic cuisine and service that often goes above and beyond. Live music (like Sinatra, of course!) keeps things lively on busy Friday nights. A diverse menu ensures everyone in your party will find a dish to suit. (407-745-4030)
From the folks who brought you Taverna Opa, another of our I-Drive favorites, comes Tapa Toro, a beautiful addition to the I-Drive 360 complex, where the paella pit beckons, flamenco dancers stomp and sangria -- particularly at happy hour -- makes the music and food even better. Open for lunch and dinner, this lovely venue makes a convenient, tasty complement to "star-gazing" at Madame Tussaud's or a circuit on the adjacent Orlando Eye. Tapas abound, so you need not come famished, though you may find yourself hanging around. Gluten-free and vegetarian options mean diverse groups can enjoy...though the croquetas -- rife with flaky cod or savory ham -- could sway even ardent abstainers. (407-226-2929)
Taverna Opa Orlando
Consistently ranked as a Greek favorite in the City Beautiful, Taverna Opa is something of an all-encompassing experience, as diners are immersed in authentic, satisfying Mediterranean fare -- along with a steady stream of flying napkins and Ouzo shots. Nighttime brings out the DJ and the alluring belly dancers (they often play with fire, so watch those napkins) who somehow manage to encourage even the shyest of patrons to join in traditional Greek line dancing, sometimes even on the table tops. Pointe Orlando is arguably the I-Drive ground zero for tourism but that doesn't stop locals from getting in on the fun. (4073518660)
Hot Krust Panini Kitchen
Serving up tasty fast-casual eats from its comfortable Dr. Phillips digs, this cheery "paninery" does up a multitude of classic pressed sandwiches with fresh, locally made bread and house-roasted meats, which makes a big difference when it comes to taste. Vegetarians will find more than a few selections of krusty-with-a-K goodness for their diets, as well. From Philly steak to fondue turkey, Greek veggie to the sriracha-laden "Razzle Dazzle," which melds steak, provolone, strawberry jam and banana peppers for a unique fruity-tangy-creamy amalgam, -- diners are sure to find a sandwich to suit in HK's fast-casual environs. They're pretty friendly, too! ((407) 355-7768)
Hanamizuki Japanese Restaurant
Let the fact that Hanamizuki's website is in Japanese clue you in: this I-Drive dining experience may be atypical compared with Japanese restaurants you've frequented in the past. And that's definitely not a bad thing. Hanamizuki serves sushi to be sure, but you may want to save that for another venue and treat your palate to something new and adventurous amid this restaurant's traditional Kyoto-style menu. Ramen is a lunchtime favorite here -- be aware: it is not available at dinnertime -- locals travel from well outside the tourist zone for their Japanese noodle soup fix, bowls laden with noodles and perhaps pork and boiled eggs depending on your selection, all quite elegantly served. The tableside hot stone grill makes for an interesting presentation, as well. Lots of vegetarian options for the herbivore in your group. ((407) 363-7200)
Nile Ethiopian Restaurant
The Nile ain't just a river in Egypt, as the saying goes (sort of). In Orlando, it's one of a handful of independent restaurants amid I-Drive's sea of chain offerings, one serving up authentic Ethiopian fare in traditional style. What does this mean? For starters, no utensils. Getting the food to your face requires the use of injera, a spongy, tasty, vaguely crepe-like bread. Tear a piece off and simply scoop up the lentils, stewed chicken, seasoned beef or whatever other selections intrigued you and enjoy. Nile offers some wonderful selections for vegetarians, too, making it an excellent choice for everyone in the group. ((407) 354-0026)
About A.D. Thompson
A.D. Thompson has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and roughly 15 as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.
A roller coaster enthusiast, A.D. readily admits there is fun to be had amid the madness of the theme parks, but has found there is magic, as well, in the outer-lying reaches of Mickey’s long shadow. She is delighted to share with you the spoils of her adopted city.
Visit her colorful compendium at www.amydrewthompson.com.
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