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.