In Orlando, we are so lucky to have amazing Mexican food in so many different styles and price ranges. I have reviewed some of our best establishments already, like the beloved Hunger Street Tacos and MX Taco, as well as hidden gems like Tortilleria El Progreso. But with all due respect to those wonderful restaurants, my all-time favorite might be Tortas El Rey (http://www.tortas-el-rey.com/), an unassuming drive-through establishment on Orange Blossom Trail north of the Florida Mall near Lancaster Road, almost an hour from where I live. Maybe it’s because I’m so rarely on that side of Orlando that it’s a rare treat, but I dream about it often and recommend it even more often.
Housed in a former Checkers location, the small white and red building has a few outdoor picnic-style tables with large umbrellas providing a bit of shade, but other than that, it’s strictly a to-go operation. Sometimes the drive-through line can get quite long, but they make all their food fresh to order, so your patience will pay off. On top of being fresh, authentic, and amazing, it’s CHEAP. I don’t know how they do it, but I encourage you to venture out there, arrive hungry, and over-order. Try everything you can. You’re not gonna regret it!
My wife is a big fan of the sopes, thick fried shells covered with the meat of her choice, crumbled queso blanco, sour cream, and shredded lettuce. I almost never see sopes on menus elsewhere. And she’s really partial to the carne asada, marinated, chopped, grilled steak with a distinct lime flavor from the marinade.
Here is a carne asada sope ($3.95) I brought her home this past weekend:
A different sope from a different visit:
Did I mention she loves carne asada? Here’s the carne asada quesadilla ($6.25) in a soft, lightly grilled flour tortilla, served with sour cream and shredded lettuce. It’s quite large, with big wedges camouflaged underneath the ones you can easily see here.
The tacos are quite small, but super-cheap, at $1.80 each. On your first visit, you might decide to try each of the meats in a different taco, and then you can branch out to other dishes once you figure out your favorite meat. They come wrapped in two soft, lightly-grilled corn tortillas and garnished simply with diced cilantro, diced onions, and a spicy red hot sauce.
This is a carne asada taco (slightly higher at $1.89, unless that was a typo in the printed menu), hold the onions and hot sauce (for my wife, of course):
I almost always drive through and get my food to go, but this past weekend, I lingered at one of the tables just to get this shot of taco nirvana to share with my Saboscrivner Squad. I ordered three tacos ($1.80 each) with the works (cilantro, onions, and hot sauce): chorizo (crumbled Mexican sausage) at the top, cabeza (tender, braised beef head) on the left, and al pastor (pork marinated in pineapple juice with a slight sweet taste) on the right. These tacos are everything tacos should aspire to be. If these sound a little intimidating, fear not, because they also offer grilled chicken, carnitas (fried pork), and that old faithful, carne asada.
I’ll almost always order al pastor when I see it on a menu, and I’ve tried it several ways at Tortas El Rey. This was an al pastor burrito I ordered on a previous visit. The burritos ($6.99 each) are huge — soft flour tortillas stuffed with the meat of your choice, seasoned rice, refried beans, and cheese, then lightly cooked on the griddle. By the time you unwrap them from their foil wrapper, they are soft, chewy, gooey, melty pillows of deliciousness. It’s almost too big and heavy to eat in one piece, especially since it will start to sag as you get deeper into it.
And this is a beautiful torta al pastor from my most recent visit, which I brought home after enjoying those three tacos al fresco. Tortas ($7.25 each) are Mexican sandwiches served on bolillo rolls, and at Tortas El Rey, they come with refried beans, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced pickled jalapenos, avocado, and sour cream.
I always love tortas, and I’ve tried several of them here. They even serve a Milanesa torta with steak pounded flat, breaded in cracker crumbs, and deep-fried until crispy. I associate Milanesas more with Cuban food than Mexican (as in my Rey’s Cuban Cafe review), but I always love a good crossover — or fusion, since we’re talking about food and not comic books!
All orders should come with tiny plastic cups of house-made red and green hot sauces (I prefer red, but do try both), and little plastic baggies tied up with some pickled carrots, grilled onions, and lime wedges inside. I rarely use the limes, but I’m always happy to add the onions and carrots to my torta. Make sure you ask for these, so they don’t forget to give them to you!
I didn’t photograph the large styrofoam cup of a pineapple-flavored agua fresca I gulped down in the unseasonable October heat and humidity, but trust me, grab an agua fresca when you come here. (A medium is $2.65, but be a big shot and pay $3.50 for the large; you will happily drink it all.) They are some of my favorite soft drinks ever, non-carbonated and often made with real fruit and other fresh ingredients. They are cool and refreshing and sweet, but never as sickly-sweet as sodas made with high fructose corn syrup. They also offer a tangy limonada (limeade), horchata (sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, perfect for cutting through the heat of spicy food), and jamaica, a fruity, tropical-tasting red drink made from hibiscus flowers. Especially because I don’t drink, I always treat myself to an agua fresca when I visit a Mexican restaurant that offers them, and they pair perfectly with any dish I’ve ever encountered. I’m also a sucker for anything pineappley.
I am smiling just thinking back to how amazing this food tasted and smelled, and I’m smelling it now as I write up this review at 1 AM on a work night. It’s funny how closely our sense of smell is tied to memory. Tortas El Rey is definitely one of my favorite places to eat in all of Orlando. If it was closer, I’d go far more often, but maybe it’s a good thing it’s all the way across town. It makes my infrequent visits that much more special, especially since I have to plan my errands to make it the last stop before heading back home. If you’re looking for fancy, upscale, indoor seating, air conditioning — keep driving. But if you want authentic Mexican food, cooked from scratch, made with love, full of flavor, and so very cheap, it’s worth venturing out of your proverbial and physical comfort zone onto OBT and looking for the tiny white and red building. Tell the nice ladies behind the heavily fortified window that I sent you… and they’ll have no idea who or what you’re talking about. But if you like tacos (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?), you really need to experience the humble majesty of Tortas El Rey for yourself.