A whole chicken family meal with rice and beans from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street.
Rotisserie chickens sit on the hot bar from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street with rice, beans and other goodies.
New owners took over from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street last year.
A Pambazo grilled sandwich from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street.
Stewed verde pork with rice and beans from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street.
Chocoflan from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street.
Stewed pork ribs from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street.
The odd Torta Cubana sandwich from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street had a scrambled egg and hot dog among its unique ingredients.
Cheese empanadas from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street.
Chicken empanadas from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street.
Gorditas from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street.
The lentils from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street were a real highlight.
A carne asada, left, and al pastor pork taco from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street.
The crust on the empanadas from Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street was light and flaky.
Sunday, June 11, 2017 1:00 am
New owners keep Caribbean flair, add twist
RYAN DUVALL | The Journal Gazette
Out of a possible five
Usually when I hear a restaurant has new owners doing new things, it is those new things that I have to check out.
But in the case of Tropic Chicken on Taylor Street, I had different thoughts.
At the time this once Dominican-owned eatery opened, it offered items no other place in the Fort had, such as mofongo and empanadas. And it had some of the best rotisserie chicken in town; hence the name.
But last year, a quiet change of ownership occurred. The new owners are Mexican, and the name appears as “Tropic Chicken Labastida” on Facebook and Google searches now. The menu reflects that Mexican influence, but the tropic dishes remain. So even though I had to try the new, it was more important to see if those Caribbean favorites still passed muster.
They did. And now this little niche spot has even more to offer.
The shining stars at Tropic Chicken are still the chicken and cafeteria-style daily hot specials.
The rotisserie chicken had crispy skin with just the right herbs and spices to make it unique without being obtrusive and it was still a great bargain. A family meal costs just $12.95 and includes a whole chicken and big servings of rice – of which there are three varieties – and beans – lentils or pinto – from that hot bar.
The pigeon-pea rice is my favorite, but all three were perfectly cooked, which is hard to pull off in a steam table. The plain white with peas, carrots and lima beans scattered about is the least interesting of the three with the bright yellow more standard Mexican rice being nearly as good as the pigeon-pea version.
The lentils were so good I would eat them on their own as a soup. The pinto beans were also of good quality – not too thick and not too runny – but lacked seasoning.
There are five stewed meats on that hot bar that can be had with rice and beans for just $6.95. The newest variety was my favorite and it had some Mexican influence. This dish featured strips of pork simmering in a green, tomatillo-based gravy with potatoes. The flavor of the sauce was brilliant, and when they ask you if you want that gravy over your rice, you should nod vigorously.
The pork was not super tender, but it kind of worked as a change of pace because the other hot bar meats had been braised so long that it left little for me to chew on.
That was a good thing when it came to the pork ribs, which fell from the bone with barely a touch. They were cooked in a timid red sauce that was not barbecue but still had just a touch of sweetness. Other options were stewed chicken and a dish with potatoes and carrots that looked like a classic beef stew.
The empanadas also had not changed. The dough surrounding stewed chicken or oozing white Mexican cheese was still flaky, crispy and as good as it gets. The chicken ones were stuffed more and that filling, like the hot bar stewed chicken, was great. But I prefer the cheese because I am a sucker for that rich, creamy white queso.
When it came to the new Mexican offerings, the results were mixed.
My favorite item was the Pambazo, which was a torta-like sandwich filled with chorizo, potatoes, lettuce, cheese and sour cream. What separated the Pambazo from a regular torta is that its bun is coated in red sauce before grilling.
The bun was crispy, packed with flavor and really played well with the zesty chorizo and creamy cheese and sour cream. There was not enough lettuce to add the necessary crunch, however, and, thus, it had little texture. Next time I will see if I can add some meat to it because I think that would make it complete.
Steak was my first thought, but it was pretty lackluster in my carne asada taco. The pastor pork, however, was top-notch with a smoky, spicy red sauce coating the tender bits of meat.
The gorditas were decent, but not as good as a similar Mexican favorite of mine. They had chicken, rice, beans, cheese, lettuce and sour cream sandwiched between a split grilled masa dough patty. The ingredients were decent, but – unlike a sope that has masa topped with meat, cheese, lettuce and sour cream – the sandwiching sort of hid those ingredients as the crispy masa was most prominent.
What sounded like an exciting mix of Caribbean and Mexican offerings was anything but. When I saw “Torta Cubana” I was eager to try it because I love the Mexican sandwiches and classic Cuban sandwiches so much. But what I was served was just weird.
Tropic Chicken's Cubana had a paper-thin, breaded pork cutlet, packaged processed ham slices, a scrambled egg, a split and grilled hot dog – yes, a hot dog – beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fresh avocado and mayonnaise in its pressed and grilled torta roll.
It was a salt bomb, for starters, thanks to the ham and hot dog. The pork patty had that low-grade pork funkiness and was really dry and tough. I took two bites of it and could stomach no more.
Given I ate so little of it there was plenty of room for dessert. Tropic Chicken offers milkshakes and flan, which was quite tasty, but the must-have dessert was the Chocoflan. This unique meal ender featured the same tasty, caramel-coated custard as the regular flan sitting on top of a thin slice of dark chocolate cake. That cake soaked up all of the syrup-like caramel sauce and became a thing of beauty.
Tropic Chicken still looks the same and you still order and pay at the counter next to the hot bar before grabbing a seat and having your food brought to you.
And it still has the same great service it had under the previous regime. The food was served quickly, and the folks working there didn't neglect me after they brought the food to the table.
Restaurant: Tropic Chicken
Address: 1122 Taylor St.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Empanadas ($1.50), gorditas ($6.95 for 2), pambazo ($4.95), tacos ($2), Torta Cubana ($7.95), flans ($2.75)
Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
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. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.