Latin American in Orlando with Kid Friendly

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    Before you associate the Bumby Cafeteria with meatloaf and chocolate cream pie, we should clarify that Bumby Cafeteria is a full-service Latin restaurant, albeit a hole in the wall. About six months ago, it joined the ranks in downtown's closest claim to a Latin quarter – the stretch of Bumby Avenue between Colonial Drive and South Street. While the area doesn't qualify as Little Havana, it does have Medina's Restaurant (Cuban) and Rica Arepa Cafe (Venezuelan).

    Bumby Cafeteria barely seats a dozen customers, and that includes the picnic table out front. The dress code is comfortable, and the food is served on mismatched china, usually with a friendly greeting.

    Bumby Cafeteria barely seats a dozen customers, and that includes the picnic table out front. The dress code is comfortable, and the food is served on mismatched china, usually with a friendly greeting.

    Co-owners Hector and Blanquita Mata hail from Venezuela and Colombia, respectively; manager Pablo Quinones originates from Puerto Rico. Thus the melange of influences, from Cuban sandwiches and black beans heaped with chopped onions, to Venezuelan arepas (cornmeal patties stuffed with ham and cheese), to Spanish pork dinners with rice. Nothing sets you back more than $5.99.

    Co-owners Hector and Blanquita Mata hail from Venezuela and Colombia, respectively; manager Pablo Quinones originates from Puerto Rico. Thus the melange of influences, from Cuban sandwiches and black beans heaped with chopped onions, to Venezuelan arepas (cornmeal patties stuffed with ham and cheese), to Spanish pork dinners with rice. Nothing sets you back more than $5.99.

    Although this is a mom-and-pop operation, service is speedy, making Bumby Cafeteria excellent for takeout. On one visit, pabellon ($5.99) was ready in just under four minutes, featuring shredded beef spiced with tomatoes, peppers and garlic, served with rice and a choice of red or black beans. The red beans, loaded with peppers and onions, were the winner. The Wednesday lunch special ($5.49) was a sturdy chicken breast served in a spicy sauce with a trace of tomatoes. It came with more rice and beans, and a basket of toasted Cuban bread.

    Although this is a mom-and-pop operation, service is speedy, making Bumby Cafeteria excellent for takeout. On one visit, pabellon ($5.99) was ready in just under four minutes, featuring shredded beef spiced with tomatoes, peppers and garlic, served with rice and a choice of red or black beans. The red beans, loaded with peppers and onions, were the winner. The Wednesday lunch special ($5.49) was a sturdy chicken breast served in a spicy sauce with a trace of tomatoes. It came with more rice and beans, and a basket of toasted Cuban bread.

    Tamales ($4.50) are cooked to order, so there's a 15-minute wait. But slice into the corn-husk jacket and you'll find a moist, sweet, filling meal. Better yet, add a jolt of house hot sauce, made with marinated chilis and peppers.

    Tamales ($4.50) are cooked to order, so there's a 15-minute wait. But slice into the corn-husk jacket and you'll find a moist, sweet, filling meal. Better yet, add a jolt of house hot sauce, made with marinated chilis and peppers.

    Don't miss the homestyle coconut ice cream ($2.50), served in a scooped-out coconut shell. And a creamy block of flan goes for just $1.

    Don't miss the homestyle coconut ice cream ($2.50), served in a scooped-out coconut shell. And a creamy block of flan goes for just $1.

    As a potential extra treat, the spokesman for Bumby Cafeteria told me that they're planning on expanding to a 24-hour schedule at some point. After midnight, dining options dwindle, and downtown in particular is ready for an alternative to Denny's, I-Hop, Krystal and the hot-dog grill at 7-Eleven. If and when that comes to pass, it will create some welcomed wee-hours competition.

    Take a stroll down any major thoroughfare in the Peruvian capital of Lima and you'll find that pollerias, or rotisserie chicken joints, are as ubiquitous as pizzerias are here. In fact, many of these hole-in-the-wall eateries closely guard their recipes for pollo a la brasa the same way that pie-makers guard their recipes for pizza sauce. And while Peruvian-style chicken has yet to establish itself in this city's culinary lexicon, you'd be hard-pressed to coax the fowl formula from the cooks, waitstaff and proprietors at Brazas Chicken, all of whom defend their secret like Túpac Amaru defended his Incan pride.

    Occupying a corner of an Edgewood strip plaza, the bustling full-service restaurant forgoes the fast-food ambience typical of pollerias. Earthy tones exude a warmth inside the inviting, though somewhat cramped, interior while Andean objets d'arts and the predominantly Peruvian staff lend the place an air of authenticity.

    As far as chicken goes, you won't find a better deal. A whole roasted pollo, hacked into quarters, can be had here for a paltry $8. The spit-fired bird is, typically, rubbed in a marinade comprising (but not limited to) salt, paprika, cumin, black pepper, garlic, lemon juice and vinegar, resulting in crispy, herb-speckled skin and incredibly moist, fragrant and flavorful meat. I particularly enjoyed drizzling the juicy morsels with zesty chimichurri and a creamy piquant sauce made from the Andean herb huacatay, or Peruvian black mint.

    A whole chicken will easily satisfy two, possibly three, diners depending on which side items you order. I opted for the maduros ($3), or sweet plantains; arroz con frijoles ($4), long-grain rice and beans; and good ol' fashioned papas fritas ($3), aka french fries. Ravaging the succulently salty chicken, then downing a chubby fried plantain ripened to a wonderful sweetness was a gratifying act.

    But that didn't stop me from indulging in the papa a la huancaina ($5), a starchy specialty of boiled potato halves lathered in a huacatay-infused cheese sauce the consistency of béchamel and served over a bed of lettuce. The cold salad was a nice prelude to the chicken ' though, really, I found myself eating bits and bites from all the dishes on the table at once.

    Those dishes also included Peru's national dish, ceviche ($10). Cured in citrus and peppered with aji limo, a Peruvian red chili, every sliver of the uncooked, cilantro-flecked tilapia offered a tantalizing tang and took me back to when I first sampled the dish in a seaside restaurant in Lima. The inclusion of thinly sliced rings of red onions, sweet potato and canchita, roasted kernels of maize, provided texture and a cooling balance to the dish.

    Bubble gum-flavored Inca Kola ($1.50) and chicha morada ($2), a cider made from purple corn and sweetened with pineapple, sugar and cinnamon, are both equally palatable beverages.

    A dulce de leche-layered sandwich cookie known as an alfajore ($1.50) was a sugary chew, while the lucuma ice cream ($3), made from a popular Peruvian fruit, had a pistachio-like flavor reminiscent of Indian kulfi.

    With influences from Spain, North Africa, Japan, China and Italy, Peruvian cuisine has long been heralded, and its emergence on the global stage was astutely predicted most recently at Madrid Fusion 2006, one of the premier gastronomic events in the world. Brazas Chicken may not offer the full culinary spectrum from the South American nation, but what it does, it does well.

    China and Peru have enjoyed a long-standing diplomatic friendship; now diners can benefit from their culinary partnership. While the traditional Chinese fare is less than remarkable, the flavors of Peru shine. Don’t miss the ceviche mixto, tender citrus-marinated seafood served with a handful of toasted corn nuts. Read Orlando Weekly's full review: http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/dining/review.asp?rid=13329


    Teaser: China and Peru have enjoyed a long-standing diplomatic friendship; now diners can benefit from their culinary partnership. While the traditional Chinese fare is less than remarkable, the flavors of Peru shine. Don't miss the ceviche mixto, tender citrus-marinated seafood served with a handful of toasted corn nuts.

    When we first started business 10 years ago at Church Street," says Oscar Lagos, owner of Choo Choo Churros, "we had a small cart that we sold fried pastries from – churros. And since there was the train there, my wife named it Choo Choo Churros."

    From that small cart the Lagos moved to a little coffeeshop on Bumby Avenue, and then four years ago to Lake Underhill, always keeping the name. "Argentinean people and American people, they both ask, what does this name mean?" Lagos says. Well, to anyone who asks, in the universal language of food it translates into "good."

    From that small cart the Lagos moved to a little coffeeshop on Bumby Avenue, and then four years ago to Lake Underhill, always keeping the name. "Argentinean people and American people, they both ask, what does this name mean?" Lagos says. Well, to anyone who asks, in the universal language of food it translates into "good."

    Choo Choo has an affinity for small spaces, and there are barely nine tables in the room, with three more outside on a patio. Renovation is going on, but nothing will change the fact that Lake Underhill Road and the East-West Expressway are right outside. That seems to be the only negative Ã? unless you're a vegetarian.

    Choo Choo has an affinity for small spaces, and there are barely nine tables in the room, with three more outside on a patio. Renovation is going on, but nothing will change the fact that Lake Underhill Road and the East-West Expressway are right outside. That seems to be the only negative Ã? unless you're a vegetarian.

    Much of the food of Argentina and Brazil can be summed up in four letters – meat. Lots of meat, delicious big slabs of it, served in styles and from parts of beasts that some people, even carnivores, would rather not think about. So unless you know Spanish or aren't afraid to ask, you could order "morcilla" and end up with blood sausage, or be served a big order of lemon- grilled sweet breads because "molleja" is such a lovely word.

    Much of the food of Argentina and Brazil can be summed up in four letters – meat. Lots of meat, delicious big slabs of it, served in styles and from parts of beasts that some people, even carnivores, would rather not think about. So unless you know Spanish or aren't afraid to ask, you could order "morcilla" and end up with blood sausage, or be served a big order of lemon- grilled sweet breads because "molleja" is such a lovely word.

    What you might want to start with is "churrasco" ($12.95), a word that usually refers to an open-flame style of cooking rather than a cut of meat, but which in this case is a two-inch-thick skirt steak that is tender, juicy and unadorned. Here is a chef who doesn't have to season, flavor, dress up or disguise a piece of meat, but knows how to cook for the best effect. The mixed grill, or "parrillada" ($15.95 to $32.95, depending on the number of people) is a popular dish that features a little sample of everything on a sizzling platter.

    What you might want to start with is "churrasco" ($12.95), a word that usually refers to an open-flame style of cooking rather than a cut of meat, but which in this case is a two-inch-thick skirt steak that is tender, juicy and unadorned. Here is a chef who doesn't have to season, flavor, dress up or disguise a piece of meat, but knows how to cook for the best effect. The mixed grill, or "parrillada" ($15.95 to $32.95, depending on the number of people) is a popular dish that features a little sample of everything on a sizzling platter.

    If you need a break from beef, the sweet corn or ham-and-cheese empanadas – small and dense deep-fried turnovers ($1.50) – are great. There are a couple of chicken dishes "milanesa" (breaded) and a wonderful "Sierra fish" cross-cut steak (usually white fish, but on this occasion, salmon) that was firm but still juicy in a slightly spicy lemon and wine sauce.

    If you need a break from beef, the sweet corn or ham-and-cheese empanadas – small and dense deep-fried turnovers ($1.50) – are great. There are a couple of chicken dishes "milanesa" (breaded) and a wonderful "Sierra fish" cross-cut steak (usually white fish, but on this occasion, salmon) that was firm but still juicy in a slightly spicy lemon and wine sauce.

    Entrees come with a simple salad, good bread and the sounds of vintage tangos in the background, including some recordings that customers bring in to share from their own collections. (Mention Astor Piazzolla, and you're golden.) The owners are charmingly friendly. Mix in their well-prepared meals and cozy atmosphere and you have a winning combination, regardless of language.

    The building's not much to look at, but there's no missing the brilliant color of La Granja – yellow-orange and lots of it. The only adornment is the name of the South Florida fast-food chain emblazoned in red along with the description: "Pollos y carnes a la brasa," which loosely translates into "chicken and meat on the grill."

    The parking lot is usually buzzing with cars, whether it's lunchtime or dinnertime, and on busy days, the kitchen runs out of some items. So there's obviously been a warm reception to this ethnic spot near the intersection of Semoran Boulevard and Aloma Avenue in Winter Park (where Miami Subs used to be).

    The parking lot is usually buzzing with cars, whether it's lunchtime or dinnertime, and on busy days, the kitchen runs out of some items. So there's obviously been a warm reception to this ethnic spot near the intersection of Semoran Boulevard and Aloma Avenue in Winter Park (where Miami Subs used to be).

    There's a drive-through window, but go inside to see what people are packing away: large plates of spit-roasted chicken, grilled steak and pork accompanied by large helpings of white rice, black or red beans and french fries. The standard "Family meal #1" ($26) includes half a chicken, half a pound each of pork and steak, large rice and beans, large french fries and four sodas. Call it Latin American comfort food (or call it a carbohydrate curse), but the meat is the star of the meal, with its "secret" Peruvian spicing permeated by the flavor of cumin (which is the main ingredient in chili powders). By contrast, the rice and beans are bland, but the fries were thick and tasty.

    There's a drive-through window, but go inside to see what people are packing away: large plates of spit-roasted chicken, grilled steak and pork accompanied by large helpings of white rice, black or red beans and french fries. The standard "Family meal #1" ($26) includes half a chicken, half a pound each of pork and steak, large rice and beans, large french fries and four sodas. Call it Latin American comfort food (or call it a carbohydrate curse), but the meat is the star of the meal, with its "secret" Peruvian spicing permeated by the flavor of cumin (which is the main ingredient in chili powders). By contrast, the rice and beans are bland, but the fries were thick and tasty.

    The fried bananas ($1.75 small, $2.50 large) are my recommendation for dessert, though the flan ($2) is fine, too. The spare salad ($2/$3.50) is not worth the cost. Other side items are garlic potatoes and fried yuca ($1.75/$3.50). And the meat sandwiches served with fries are a good deal ($4.95). The yellow Inca Cola ($1.15), kind of like a cream soda, is refreshing, even if the Peruvian product is now owned by Coca-Cola. Don't be put off by the potential for carb-loading here – just pick up some of the spicy meat and pair it with a healthy salad at home.

    An interesting statistic: In the United States, the incidence of heart disease is almost four times higher than it is in Colombia. I mention this fact because when I opened the menu of Colombian dishes at Oh! Que Bueno, I swear I could hear my mother yelling, "If you don't eat your vegetables, you'll get sick!"

    Housed in a small, nondescript fast-food makeover off fast-traveled South Semoran Boulevard, the family spot was formerly the Sunrise Restaurant, a schizophrenic endeavor that served omelets for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch and Vietnamese at dinner. No such confusion at O!QB ... the bill of fare is so constant it doesn't vary from morning to 10 p.m. close.

    Housed in a small, nondescript fast-food makeover off fast-traveled South Semoran Boulevard, the family spot was formerly the Sunrise Restaurant, a schizophrenic endeavor that served omelets for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch and Vietnamese at dinner. No such confusion at O!QB ... the bill of fare is so constant it doesn't vary from morning to 10 p.m. close.

    There's not a veggie among the listings of tipicos (traditional dishes), platos (combination plates) and bocaditos (appetizers; literally "little mouths"), unless you count corn, rice and red beans. Don't look for anything green. How do the fit and sound people of Colombia go through the day without their hearts attacking them? Maybe Mom was wrong and taste does count for something.

    There's not a veggie among the listings of tipicos (traditional dishes), platos (combination plates) and bocaditos (appetizers; literally "little mouths"), unless you count corn, rice and red beans. Don't look for anything green. How do the fit and sound people of Colombia go through the day without their hearts attacking them? Maybe Mom was wrong and taste does count for something.

    Take, as an example, the "bandeja campesina" ($9.95), a "farmers meal" that's half dinner, half breakfast. White rice, savory red beans, a thick link sausage and a large slice of fried pork skin (more like thick bacon than the crunchy snacks) join a typical morning repast of steak, fried eggs and corn cake. There's enough food to last most of the day, and each bit tasted as authentic as the presentation. And I tell a slight lie -- there was green in the form of a creamy slice of avocado.

    Take, as an example, the "bandeja campesina" ($9.95), a "farmers meal" that's half dinner, half breakfast. White rice, savory red beans, a thick link sausage and a large slice of fried pork skin (more like thick bacon than the crunchy snacks) join a typical morning repast of steak, fried eggs and corn cake. There's enough food to last most of the day, and each bit tasted as authentic as the presentation. And I tell a slight lie -- there was green in the form of a creamy slice of avocado.

    The "mariscos" menu offers fried red snapper (frozen rather than fresh), mojarra, a small tropical fish, and various shrimp dishes. I tried camarones al ajillo ($10.95) and was rewarded with several plump shrimp swimming in a garlic and butter sauce liberally spiced with cilantro and excellent when spooned over the rice. Green plantain fritters -- CD-sized disks of fried cooking bananas -- were surprisingly moist and tasted great dipped in the garlic.

    The "mariscos" menu offers fried red snapper (frozen rather than fresh), mojarra, a small tropical fish, and various shrimp dishes. I tried camarones al ajillo ($10.95) and was rewarded with several plump shrimp swimming in a garlic and butter sauce liberally spiced with cilantro and excellent when spooned over the rice. Green plantain fritters -- CD-sized disks of fried cooking bananas -- were surprisingly moist and tasted great dipped in the garlic.

    The bites of sweet plantains ($2) were fried almost to caramel without turning to mush, and a sugary delight. I have yet to really acquire a taste for arepas, the flat, grilled corn cakes that are like a thick tortilla and are served with everything from shredded beef to a slice of bland queso blanco, but they're available in all their permutations. A popular treat for carnivores is the morcilla black sausage ($2.50), like German blood sausage or English black pudding with a hot-pepper kick.

    The bites of sweet plantains ($2) were fried almost to caramel without turning to mush, and a sugary delight. I have yet to really acquire a taste for arepas, the flat, grilled corn cakes that are like a thick tortilla and are served with everything from shredded beef to a slice of bland queso blanco, but they're available in all their permutations. A popular treat for carnivores is the morcilla black sausage ($2.50), like German blood sausage or English black pudding with a hot-pepper kick.

    Service is polite and prompt, and protein fans will shout, "Oh! Que bueno!" for the ethnic cuisine.

    I owe many of my favorite meals to my husband's penchant for monster movieplexes with stadium seating. For months, our friend, who happens to be Cuban, had been trying to get us down to his part of town to eat at his favorite Latin place, Pio Pio. The problem was, he lives in a southern part of town I generally refer to as the BFE – the Bad Food Extravaganza. Snobbishly and repeatedly, we refused the invitation.

    Then one night, we were leaving the Cinemark Festival Bay Theater – after watching a loud movie in which humans outsmarted aliens, natural disasters abounded and everything else blew up – and, suddenly, I was hungry. And there it was – Pio Pio (which translates into "Chick Chick"), sequestered in a wasteland of deserted shopping malls off a six-lane highway. Later, I realized my friend was right about this place, to which I would return again and again, like a sequel junkie.

    Pio Pio, a Peruvian and Colombian restaurant, opened its first Orlando location in October 2000. After successfully running four restaurants in New York, the Diego family decided to try their luck here and opened close to a dollar theater near Kissimmee (11236 S. Orange Blossom Trail; 407-438-5677). Months later, another family member opened a location on International Drive near Kirkman Road, strategically situated on our driving route home from the movieplex. This past summer, another site popped up on the southeast side (2500 S. Semoran Blvd., 407-207-2262). Let's hope they have a Godfather-sized family, so they can keep them coming.

    The menu choices are the same at all the Pio Pios, and they are limited; but in my experience, this is exactly what makes them so appealing, because everything is good. The "pollo Pio Pio a las brasas" ($8) is some of the most exquisite rotisserie chicken that has ever crossed my lips; consistently tender and moist, its crispy, herbed skin is the treasure. Juan Diego, owner of Pio Pio on I-Drive, claims the secret is a family recipe. But he agreed that the original marinade, a mixture of spices, vegetables and herbs, does make the difference.

    Their beans and rice ($4) are a homemade Colombian-style mainstay. The beans are plump and supple, seasoned with just the right amount of pepper and garlic, in a brackish broth of their own flavorful juices. I've never tasted rice so consistently tender, devoid of the starchy mushiness that so many restaurants try to pass off as rice. Orders of tostones, maduros and yuca ($3 apiece) are best when dipped in the worship-worthy sauces that come with every meal: tangy garlic, and a green-tinged hot sauce made with jalapeños and habañeros.

    Although chicken is the star at Pio Pio, they serve a very decent grilled steak with french fries for a mere $9.50. Also on the menu: pork chops ($9.50), empanadas ($1), posole-style chicken soup ($3) and saffron rice ($3).

    Tucked away behind a curved bar littered with chicken statues, wine bottles and plants is the giant rotisserie. There is a row of wall hangings at eye level on the bright-orange walls – letters from customers and New York Times reviews – that we had to lean into awkwardly in order to read. The atmosphere is comfortable and complete in its family modesty.

    For dessert, the exceptionally tasty flan ($4) and the tres leches ($4), both made in-house, are recommended. A good flan has no air bubbles and is doused in deep-amber caramelized sugar, and Pio Pio's is flawless. My favorite dessert, by far, is tres leches, dense yellow cake soaked in three milks (condensed, evaporated and half-and-half). Please, skip the crème brûlée – you're at a Latin restaurant, after all, and a good one.

    It's a rare movie – never mind the bombs and brains – that isn't worth a try, when there's Pio Pio waiting afterward.

    Some of the best-kept dining secrets are hidden in the crevices of huge, obnoxious shopping plazas. Pollo Rico is a delicious example. Sitting in a corner of the Lake Fredrica Shopping Plaza on State Road 436, the restaurant's tiny storefront gives no indication of the treasures within.

    Inside, the humble eatery's off-white walls are adorned with colorful Peruvian tapestries, crafts and dolls. But the festive decorations barely hint at the feasts that await.

    Inside, the humble eatery's off-white walls are adorned with colorful Peruvian tapestries, crafts and dolls. But the festive decorations barely hint at the feasts that await.

    The bountiful cuisine of Peru -- a country with a high poverty rate but a wealth of good cooking -- is characterized by lots of hot peppers and root crops like yams, yuca and countless varieties of potatoes. It bears strong resemblance to Cuban food but has an unexpected Chinese influence. The flavors and textures are surprisingly comforting.

    The bountiful cuisine of Peru -- a country with a high poverty rate but a wealth of good cooking -- is characterized by lots of hot peppers and root crops like yams, yuca and countless varieties of potatoes. It bears strong resemblance to Cuban food but has an unexpected Chinese influence. The flavors and textures are surprisingly comforting.

    On this particularly cold and rainy night, the "caldo de pollo" ($4.50), Peruvian-style chicken soup, was the perfect remedy. Big enough to be a meal itself, it's loaded with noodles and large chunks of carrots and potatoes in a rich, deeply seasoned broth.

    On this particularly cold and rainy night, the "caldo de pollo" ($4.50), Peruvian-style chicken soup, was the perfect remedy. Big enough to be a meal itself, it's loaded with noodles and large chunks of carrots and potatoes in a rich, deeply seasoned broth.

    Next came the "yuca a la huancaina" ($5), which are thick, hearty slices of yuca (a root crop similar to a potato but denser, with more of a bite), deep fried and served on a plateful of spicy cheese sauce.

    Next came the "yuca a la huancaina" ($5), which are thick, hearty slices of yuca (a root crop similar to a potato but denser, with more of a bite), deep fried and served on a plateful of spicy cheese sauce.

    Meat-and-potato people -- which I am -- will enjoy the "lomo saltado" ($9), tender strips of beef stir-fried with tomatoes, onions and french fries in a savory brown sauce with a Chinese flair.

    Meat-and-potato people -- which I am -- will enjoy the "lomo saltado" ($9), tender strips of beef stir-fried with tomatoes, onions and french fries in a savory brown sauce with a Chinese flair.

    Hot peppers, or aji, are a Peruvian staple. The "aji de gallina" ($7) is a delectable blend of shredded chicken and thick potato slices in a creamy sauce with tantalizing specks of red aji. The texture is like a very thick chicken and dumplings -- perfect on a cold night.

    Hot peppers, or aji, are a Peruvian staple. The "aji de gallina" ($7) is a delectable blend of shredded chicken and thick potato slices in a creamy sauce with tantalizing specks of red aji. The texture is like a very thick chicken and dumplings -- perfect on a cold night.

    The high point of the meal was the "papa rellena" ($3), so amazing, I'd throw down a sumo wrestler for one. This is without a doubt the best rellena I've ever had: a huge mashed-potato ball stuffed with ground beef, sliced egg, olives and raisins, and then quickly fried until the outside is crispy. The potato pocket is served with thinly sliced lime-marinated onions and a very hot sauce made from green aji.

    The high point of the meal was the "papa rellena" ($3), so amazing, I'd throw down a sumo wrestler for one. This is without a doubt the best rellena I've ever had: a huge mashed-potato ball stuffed with ground beef, sliced egg, olives and raisins, and then quickly fried until the outside is crispy. The potato pocket is served with thinly sliced lime-marinated onions and a very hot sauce made from green aji.

    I don't believe any meal is complete without dessert. My server, who was friendly and eager to help, suggested "alfajor" ($1.20), a "sandie" cookie with a dulce de leche filling -- totally to-die-for. An Inca Kola (which tastes a bit like red cream soda) made the perfect chaser.

    I don't believe any meal is complete without dessert. My server, who was friendly and eager to help, suggested "alfajor" ($1.20), a "sandie" cookie with a dulce de leche filling -- totally to-die-for. An Inca Kola (which tastes a bit like red cream soda) made the perfect chaser.

    Peruvian fare is famous in South America, but I predict its popularity will steadily grow on this one. It's the new "Southern comfort" food. And with Pollo Rico on the map, the South will rise again.

    When we first drove up, we were greeted by harsh fluorescents dipping into the strip-mall parking lot. Surrounded by rental cars, timeshares and newly built hotels, this area of the Orlando dining scene is difficult to figure out. There are mostly chain restaurants, but somehow they fit together – Olive Garden and Taco Bell alongside Marriott and Hilton. But a family-operated Venezuelan hole-in-the-wall? Q'Kenan (pronounced koo-ke-nan) certainly adds something unique to this mix but, even better, the cuisine is deserving of special attention.

    Although Q'Kenan is nothing more than a sparse room with brightly colored walls and intense overhead lighting, the food speaks rapturous volumes. A long counter with chafing dishes full of homemade Latin stews runs the length of the restaurant. It's also part grocery store, and there is an assortment of candy bars and T-shirts with "Venezuela" scrawled across the front in red, blue and yellow. In fact, the owner previously operated a Venezuelan grocery on State Road 192, but sold it because she wanted to introduce Central Floridians to a wider range of food from her homeland.

    The restaurant name refers to a plateau-type mountain in the highlands of southern Venezuela. At Q'Kenan, you ARE likely to get a mountain of food, so come hungry. Take, for instance, the parrilla tepui mixta ($10.99) that my friend ordered. The mountain range of a dish came with a hearty portion of pork chop, chicken breast, skirt steak and sausage, all nicely seasoned and expertly grilled. It was served with a heap of french fries, yuca, green salad and – last but not least – a grilled arepa, the Venezuelan sandwich staple.

    Before delving into any of the entrees, we sampled the tequeños ($4.99) starter, described as cheese sticks. Neither battered nor deep-fried, these finger snacks were covered in a yeasty bread that tightly wound around homemade Venezuelan cheese. The bread was slightly sour and salty like a Bavarian pretzel, and the cheese had a soft, mellow tanginess. Another starter, and the one that will keep me coming back again and again, is the cachapas: sweet corn pancakes folded in half crepe-style and stuffed with a delicious assortment of cheeses and meats. We tried the cachapas with queso rallado ($4.50), a strongly aged Venezuelan cheese. Sweet corn peeked through these quarter-inch thick pancakes. The cheese within made them moist and bright in flavor. Dipped in homemade crema, a sauce much like seasoned sour cream, they were wonderful.

    My husband talked me into getting madurito ($4.99), and I wasn't all that excited about it until I took the first bite. Basically, it's a sandwich of shredded beef, lettuce and tomatoes between two large pieces of fried plantain (in place of bread). You can't really hold it like a sandwich because 1) it's dripping with a tartar-like sauce, and 2) fried plantains aren't very sturdy. But I loved how the sweet plantain tasted against the backdrop of the spicy shredded beef, called pabellón.

    Q'Kenan has a wide selection of arepas, another type of corn pancake that's savory and dry. They can be served plain but are often opened like a pocket and stuffed with fillings, then wrapped in paper to munch down one-handed. I tried one with cold chicken salad and avocado ($3.99) stuffed into a crisp, warm, freshly made arepa. Our waitress suggested the one stuffed with pabellón, black beans and cheese ($4.25), and if I hadn't already been so full, I would've indulged. I did manage a bite or two of tres leches ($2.50), but by the time I got up to leave I was feeling quite like a mountain myself.

    Some images naturally evoke romance – not the Harlequin variety, but a more decadent version made up of long, luscious nights of freedom and beauty, love and passion. For me, this fantasy is colored in a tropical patina that conjures Havana in the 1950s, something the Samba Room also effects. OK, so you're not exactly sitting oceanfront at a deco hotel sipping mojitos: You know you're in a suburban strip mall that sidles up to a sinkhole. But you don't really care because you're having fun, eating good food, and the atmosphere is convivial and very romantic.

    Samba Room's change of ownership back in 2003, from Carlson Restaurant Group (TGI Fridays) to E-Brands Restaurants, has done it justice. E-Brands has a careful hand in the kitchen and a wonderful way of creating ambience.

    "Would you like to sit inside," the smiley hostess asked, "or out by the lake?"

    Inside was festive and enticing with loud Latin music and brightly colored Diego Rivera-esque murals. Airy white curtains, so gossamer that every draft becomes a tropical breeze, bring life to the darkest corners. But it was a beautiful night, so we chose to dine outside by the lake. We sat, sipping cocktails beneath white rattan paddle fans, and peered inside at larger parties crowded around tables, talking loudly, laughing, engaged in each others' company under russet-orange lights. This is what you call casual elegance.

    We started with an order of Samba ceviche ($8.95), which mixed market-fresh fish, shrimp, red onions and colorful peppers in a lime marinade. Pleasantly tangy, the dish swelled with flavor, balancing acidity and salinity. My mouth never puckered with displeasure. The roasted hominy on the side added satisfying texture to the delicious dish.

    The empanada sampler ($7.95) consisted of both sweet corn and pork varieties. Surprisingly, we liked the nontraditional sweet corn because it had fuller flavor and more filling. Both of the delicious sauces served with the empanadas were delicate fusions. Listed as "sofrito" (annatto-infused lard with vegetable garniture) and "aji amarillo" (a lemony capsicum from Latin America), they were modern streaks of emulsified flavor, distant cousins to the traditional varieties, running down an edge of the plate.

    For my main course, I tried Spanish paella ($25.50). Tiny red strands of saffron spattered the mound of rice laced with calamari, shrimp, white fish, chicken and some of the biggest mussels I've ever seen. The deep, earthy, subtle perfume of saffron followed the dish out of the open kitchen into the air. Half of a Maine lobster was the crown jewel of the dish.

    My partner got the pork barbacoa ($18.95), marinated and roasted in banana leaves. Unwrapping the leaves, he found a tender piece of pork nestled under a blanket of sweet, citrusy barbecue sauce.

    We were intrigued by the shiitake mushrooms al ajillo ($3.95) that spectacularly showcased traditional Asian mushrooms in Latin garlic sauce.

    I was about to burst when the espresso tres leches ($6) and guava cheesecake ($6) were delivered. I ate half of the excellent Kahlua-spiked tres leches before switching plates for a bite or two of the zesty cheesecake. The server brought café con leche ($4.50) to end our meal, and we sat looking over the still Florida water, slowly sipping the creamy, sweet coffee.

    "We should plan a trip to Cuba," I said, as we walked under industrial fluorescents across the vast suburban parking lot.

    The story of the churrascaria starts in the high plains of Brazil, the Pampas, where land is rich and soil fertile. It became tradition for the ranchers there to host feasts to celebrate their bounty. Especially enjoyed were the plentiful meats from animals that grazed the land. The cowboys, or gauchos, developed an out-country method of barbecuing fresh cuts of beef, pork, chicken and lamb on skewers over open-pit fires to bring out intense flavor and aroma. This churrasco cooking style was soon adopted by restaurants across Brazil, evolving into the popular steakhouses they are today: no menus, just an array of roasted meats on skewers brought around to the tables for guests to graze upon. "Rodizio" is the name for this type of service – it's like a buffet, only they keep bringing the food to you until you say, "Enough."

    Texas de Brazil elegantly brings the churrascaria to Orlando. Started by a Brazilian family in Texas, the chain has been around since 1998 when they opened their first restaurant in Addison, Texas. Now there are eight restaurants around the country and in Aruba, including Orlando. Preserving the churrascaria's roots while upscaling the experience, Texas de Brazil uses rich but rustic design elements – heavy wrought-iron doors push open like horse stalls, riveted metal adorns the bright walls and ceiling; copper bowls of fire sit aside gorgeous sprays of fresh flowers.

    Pleasure and overindulgence are the rules here. The music is loud, the colors vibrant. The smell of garlic and wood charcoal waft through the room like a pair of lovers dancing the samba. Walking past the sprawling salad bar that rounds out the meaty main course, one is overwhelmed by the sense of abundance: Fresh items such as carrots, celery, tomatoes, spring greens and cucumbers lie next to specialties like fresh buffalo mozzarella, shrimp ceviche, green beans with walnuts, artichoke and raisin mélange, and mushrooms sautéed with wine and garlic. And there's a huge section dedicated to Latino favorites, such as succulent black beans, garlic soup, tender rice, farofa and yuca.

    Back at the table, they dropped off cinnamon-sprinkled sweet fried plantains, garlic mashed potatoes and a small disc that looks like a coaster – one side green, the other red. In keeping with rodizio custom, the green signals an onslaught of servers to bring oversized skewers of top sirloin, Brazilian sausage, roasted lamb, chicken wrapped in bacon, Parmesan-encrusted pork, filet mignon, pork ribs, flank steak and at least six other cuts of juicy, scrumptious morsels, including the unforgettable garlic-marinated picanha. If there were an Olympic category for cooked meats, Brazil would win with this heavenly beef rump cut. Feeling full? Turn the disc to red, and they'll give you a break, so you can head back up to bar.

    The churrascaria meal fits well in the low-carb diet craze, but I wouldn't set foot in one without downing at least a half-dozen pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese rolls). And there is enough starchy yuca in the place to carb-load an army. Actually, all food groups are tastefully represented. Dinner is $39.99 per person and worth every hard-earned penny for the excessive amount of quality cooking it buys you. So come with an appetite, and remember: Brazil is known as a country of gorgeous people who like to frolic in scantily clad fashion – they must be on to something.

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