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Tropic Chicken
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five
$

A taste of the tropics on Taylor

Although Mexican cuisine is a staple of the American restaurant landscape and is often more American than truly Mexican, Caribbean food is still foreign to most.

Unless you watch a lot of food travel shows, you probably have never heard of such delights as mofongo or tostones. And although I found both of those dishes at Tropic Chicken, the food that impressed me most at the restaurant was not at all exotic.

This Puerto Rican-owned restaurant hiding in a strip mall on Taylor Street, just west of Broadway, specializes in rotisserie chicken, which the sign says is “the best.” I wish I could tell you whether it lived up to its billing, but it is so popular that they were sold out of it both times I dined there. But there were several daily specials on display in a deli case next to the ordering counter that were simple dishes.

There was a whole roasted pork leg seasoned with just salt, pepper and garlic; slow-roasted chicken and pork ribs cooked in tomato paste with onion, celery, garlic and cilantro; and flank steak with the same basic ingredients, along with green peppers. Customers can choose one of those meats and pair it with stewed pinto beans and rice – basic white, yellow or yellow dotted with pigeon peas – for just $4.95.

The pork leg was stringy but moist and had a wonderful intense pork flavor. The ribs were even better as they clung nicely to the bone with a little pull but were also moist and succulent. The chicken, also offered pulled from the bone and chopped, sort of like pulled pork, really worked well with the somewhat smoky sauce; it fell from the bone with ease. And the flank steak was much like Chinese pepper steak, absorbing the flavors of the onions and peppers well. It, too, was tender and tasty.

The beans – soupy and hearty – could not have been better. All of the rice was perfect with the pigeon pea variety being the most interesting; the tiny little green peas added a little textural diversity. But what made all of the food so great was the price.

Go have all the $5 foot-longs you want; not a one of them will be as hearty and filling as a plate of food from Tropic Chicken.

The unique dishes also impressed. The tostones – sliced green plantains flattened and deep-fried – were addictive. They were lightly salted and crisp like a potato chip on the outside, but the fruit inside was still soft and slightly sweet. Be sure to get a cup of garlic butter to dip them in. Sweet plantains were also offered. They were also fried and had a dry exterior, but they were not smashed or salted. They melted in your mouth and were wonderfully sweet.

Although I would suggest either as a side with every meal, I would highly recommend the fried yuca instead of the french fries. This starchy root was cut into steak fry-sized portions and fried until lightly brown and crisp. They looked just like steak fries and had the same soft, fluffy texture. The flavor was much like potato, but just a little sweeter – kind of like a carrot. They were delicious and even fooled my finicky first-grader, who munched away thinking he was eating fries.

The most interesting item Tropic Chicken served was easily the mofongo, which I have never seen in this area before. Mofongo is green plantains combined with garlic, some olive oil and/or broth, salt and pepper, all mashed together in a huge mortar with a pestle. It is removed from the mortar in one piece and topped with shrimp with red sauce or garlic sauce.

It had sort of the same consistency as bread stuffing but was just a bit heavier and very starchy. The sauces moistened it and added a layer of flavor to the fruit, which lost most of it sweetness when combined with the other ingredients. The six plump shrimp that accompanied it were tender and delicious. It also came with a little iceberg salad that I really didn’t even want or need.

I also loved the homemade hot sauces offered with the mofongo: one typically red and the other bright green, which I could only assume was predominantly jalapeño. The green was great and added a burst of freshness to the heavy dish.

Empanadas were another item on the menu that I have not seen anywhere else. These stuffed pastries came with either cheese or chicken filling. The crust on these beauties was so flaky and light, it easily outshined the filling. The creamy cheddar was great with the crisp dough, but there was too little of it and what there was settled on one side of the crescent-shaped pastry. The chicken version was filled with the same pulled chicken from the deli case, so you know it was good. Both were definitely worth trying, and let’s just say they are pretty much the finest Hot Pockets you will ever eat.

The only dish I really did not care for at Tropic Chicken was the fried tilapia. Served whole, head and all, it was fried until the zesty batter was dark brown. The fish was super moist and the combination of seasonings in the batter was great, especially when topped with some of the green hot sauce, but it had a strong fishy flavor that I did not enjoy.

The restaurant is pretty much self-serve with a basic, sandwich shop-style look with its tile floor and standard restaurant service tables. Customers order at the counter and choose from canned or bottled beverages from a cooler, but the employees brought the food to the table and did check back a few times to make sure my party didn’t need anything.

There was also some pretty tasty coconut flan and three-milk cake, made from scratch by a woman for the restaurant, in that cooler with the beverages.

Restaurant: Tropic Chicken

Address: 1122 Taylor St.

Phone: 422-3012

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Caribbean

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol served: None

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes; no children’s menu, however

Menu: Tostones and sweet plantains ($2), fried yucca ($2), mofongo ($4.50), fried fish ($6.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3 star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call 461-8130 or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the Web site, and you can hear Ryan from 5 to 6 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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