Latin American in I-DriveUniversal with Kid Friendly

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    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.

    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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