I is for International: Surprising Best Bets in Orlando's Tourist Zone

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? The answer is a resounding "YES!" 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 Turkish or Ethiopian food in the heart of this tourist corridor? Such treasures occasionally surprise even Orlando natives, never mind the visitors. Alternatively, sleek, upscale, high-service eateries like Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse provide elegant oases ideal for special evenings out or business-grade meals well away from the Disney-bound hordes. And restaurants like Tapa Toro, a Spanish gem at the foot of the spectacular Orlando Eye, do up both succinct small plates for dates and succulent paella vats for family-reunion celebrations. 


Indonesian cuisine is the star at this curiously named I-Drive venue; with Halal and other Arabian dishes permeated the menu, as well. Fans of meat-and-rice offerings will love the colorful and fragrant platters and tiny servings of sauces, all of it made for Instagram. Tasty grilled satay, tempting hearty stews and tender lamb â€" available in dumplings, pastries, over rice and other varieties are among the delights. Service here is pleasant; staffers are happy to give recommendations and explain the dishes, happy ambassadors of the region's culinary culture.

Photo courtesy of Q'Kenan

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.

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.


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.

It's very likely you've heard of the Del Frisco's name and there's a good reason for that. Widely known across the country for their family of eateries - Del Frisco's Grille, Sullivan's Steakhouse and this, Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, they are â€" for sure â€" a carnivore's delight, but marked as much for their fine service and beautiful surroundings as much as for their mouthwatering meat. This DF's Double Eagle, a stone's throw from the convention center, sees plenty of business-related bar and kitchen tabs but locals, too, often make the pilgrimage to tourist-driven I-Drive just to partake of

Okay, so maybe you like to smoke the hookah and maybe you don't. But in the ample, open-air (but covered; take that, Florida rain!) space at Cafe 34 Istanbul, the smoke may not bother you at all, especially early on. This I-Drive enclave is open 24 hours â€" yes, really â€" and the most active shisha enthusiasts come late. Or early. Depending on your perspective. The rest, and there are a lot of them, come for food so tasty and authentic that you may not get past the appetizer menu. Creamy, garlicky haydari and spicy, peppery ezme â€" along with names you may recognize (hummus, tabouli, babaganoush and more) are served alongside soft pita. Come the entree round, beef and lamb doner (it's basically a Turkish gyro) compete with kebabs and juicy, well-seasoned kofte.

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 â€" particularly at happy hour â€" 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 â€" rife with flaky cod or savory ham â€" could sway even ardent abstainers.

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!

Seito Sushi has earned its reputation for being a quality and creative restaurant, and the Dr. Phillips location makes for phenomenal date nights, or family or business dinners, For discriminating groups, the venue excels. Smaller parties can be accommodated in the lovely main area, however larger groups of up to 40 can enjoy intimate events in Seito's private dining room, whether for professional gatherings or special, family-related events. As always, fresh, melt-in-your-mouth cuts of fish tantalize sushi fans while traditional Japanese fare and Asian-inspired dishes tempt those less enthused by raw offerings. Seito has something for everyone in your party.

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.


Meet A.D. Thompson

Amy Drew has spent nearly three decades as a professional writer and roughly half her life as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.

A roller coaster...  More About A.D.