By Rachel McRady
Nestled between the Olive Gardens and Outback Steakhouses on International Drive in Orlando is a tapas restaurant that rivals those in Spain. Parked right next to the Convention Center and a stone’s throw away from the Disney and Universal parks, Café Tu Tu Tango seems rather out of place. But the lively, colorful restaurant, which boasts an expansive, diverse menu, refreshing cocktails with a bite, floor-to-ceiling paintings from local artists, and live performances from belly dancers, has become both a tourist destination and a local hangout over the past two decades.
I first happened upon it in 2013 on a trip to Orlando where I began my secret love affair with the spiced alligator bites and the vicious temptress that is the Key lime mustard dipping sauce. So when I returned this year on a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with my husband (I swear, we’re adults), I booked a hotel within walking distance to the restaurant to ensure maximum meals and, therefore, maximum alligator bites.
Shrimp in a sweet chili-garlic aioli. (Photo: Flickr/Brianna Mewborn)
I’m not the only person who has a long-standing romance with the restaurant. In fact, by general manager Troy Wilson’s standards, I have not even brushed the surface of having a history with this place. The Orlando native came to Café Tu Tu Tango two years after it opened in 1996 as a waiter; almost two decades later, he’s running the place.
“I had just graduated UCF, and I didn’t really want to get serious and be a manager yet. I was in a band, and I was working at restaurants and I was dating this girl,” he explained. “I hated the restaurant I worked at, and she was like, ‘Let me take you to my favorite restaurant,’ and she brought me here. I filled out an application, started two weeks later, and I’ve been here ever since. Then I married the girl.”
Wilson worked his way up and now is the general manager of the only remaining location. There were once spots in Miami and Atlanta, and now the location in Orange, Calif., is run by different management, though they have the same general concept.
Local artists’ work being displayed at Café Tu Tu Tango. (Photo: Flickr/Brianna Mewborn)
The vision for Café Tu Tu Tango started back in 1991, when the original owners took a trip to Barcelona, Spain, eating at tapas restaurants and seeing the community of local artists there. Today, the trendy Orlando spot has daily shifts for local artists to come and paint in the restaurant, then sell their pieces with only a 10 percent commission for Café Tu Tu Tango versus the 40 percent commission they’d find at art galleries.
“Some people come in here who have never gone out of their way to go to an art museum before, and now they get to actually interact and watch an artist creating on property,” Wilson said. “The whole idea of art just goes all the way through. Our menu, everything is made from scratch so the chefs are doing their art in the back. That makes a big difference in the quality of the food and the experience people get.”
Related: How to Enjoy Orlando as a Grownup
And though eating at Café Tu Tu Tango is partly about the ambiance and energy, it’s really all about the food. With an expansive menu of items from all over the globe, you can be noshing on a Cajun chicken egg roll (another personal favorite) one minute and cooling off with the Alforno roasted pear salad with pecans, blue cheese, and arugula the next. The late night haunt hasn’t skimped on the drinks either. In addition to the flavorful (and affordable) sangria choices, there’s also the screaming jalapeño margarita, which features jalapeño-infused tequila with muddled cilantro, and Wilson’s favorite, the spicy old-fashioned with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, muddled orange, and black walnut bitters. Not fancy enough for your taste? They even make their own maraschino cherries by soaking them in Luxardo Maraschino liqueur.
Tapas meal at Café Tu Tu Tango. (Photo: Flickr/Brianna Mewborn)
Not only do tourists in Mickey Mouse T-shirts stop in, but Café Tu Tu Tango also has a devoted pack of regulars who live in Orlando — a rarity, considering the restaurant’s location.
“I’ve lived in Orlando basically my whole life, and as a local, we sort of avoid International Drive, but we’ve got a really good following with the locals,” Wilson said. “I’d say our biggest form of marketing comes from word of mouth. Everybody who lives here knows somebody who’s coming here to visit. I’m always out talking to the guests, and I’m always talking to people who are like, ‘I was on a plane with a guy from Chicago, and he heard I was coming to Orlando and said I had to try this restaurant out. Now I’m here and it’s awesome!’ It’s so cool to have fans from all over.”
For more details (and to drool over the menu), visit the restaurant’s web site.
Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad