To view more photos in Troy Fields's Tropic Thunder slideshow, click here.
During the last tropical depression, I talked a friend into meeting me for lunch at Tropical Diner and Cocktail Lounge for some tropical cuisine. The rain was coming down in sheets. I sidled up to the bar and asked the woman behind it if she had any tropical cocktails. She recommended the house specialty, rum punch. Sipping it and looking over the menu, I wondered if it contained actual Hawaiian Punch.
My friend arrived, and I ordered two more rum punches and a beef patty, a sort of fried meat pie. We chewed on the patty, sipped our punch and talked to the half-owner of Tropical Diner, who was also our server. She said she was from Jamaica but had been living in Canada for the last 30 years. "So how do you like Houston?" I asked her. "It's so hot," she said. "It gets hot in Jamaica, but nothing like this." My friend and I laughed as the tropical weather raged outside the restaurant.
We tried to order jerk chicken wings, but our server said they're only available on the weekends, so we opted for the fried shrimp, which were made with a cornmeal-like batter and crazy-good. I swear, every time we ordered something — cocktails or an app — she would disappear into the kitchen for a while, then come back with these delicious foods. It was like your friend's mom was cooking for you at their house.
I worked for a chef at a tropical restaurant in Austin, and he used to tell me that all the spices in the world originated between 15 degrees below and 15 degrees above the equator. In fact, he didn't call his cuisine "tropical"; he called it "equatorial." We cooked really simple dishes on a mesquite grill — jerk chicken and fish, mango salsas and shrimp dumplings. These flavorful peasant dishes, made from basic ingredients cooked simply, struck a chord with me. This chef used to say that necessity was the mother of invention.
Imagine living on an island like Jamaica, 150 miles long and 50 miles wide — it puts being a "locavore" into perspective. Jamaican cuisine is heavy on oxtails, salt fish and fried plantains. At Tropical Diner I ordered the oxtails. My friend ordered the jerk chicken because I suggested it. What better way to get a good taste of a tropical diner than to see what the jerk is about?
Our dishes each had a heaping mound of island soul food, including a dome of rice and peas and a couple of fried plantains. The jerk chicken was tender, falling off the bone and smattered with a thick jerk sauce that just kept getting better with every bite. My oxtails were curried, and just a slap away from being too tender. I picked the bones up with my fingers and chewed the meat off from around them. The spice was just right — I added a little of the Scotch bonnet condiment, but it really didn't need it. I just like the flavor of Scotch bonnets, that musty, dry-heat pepper taste before the burn sets in. When the heat got to be a little much, I just nibbled on the tiny salad that came with my meal. The juicy tomatoes and crisp, sweet iceberg cleansed my palate enough to make me wreck it all over again with meat and spice.
On my second visit to Tropical Diner, I passed up the cocktails and battled the midday heat with an ice-cold Red Stripe. I sat at the table in the large dining room with my lunch date and again tried to order some jerk chicken wings, only to be shut down again, because the chef had just put them in the marinade and they wouldn't be ready for a couple of hours. Damn!
I ordered the goat curry with a side of callaloo. Callaloo is a traditional dish of tender stewed greens that are usually eaten as a side. Tropical Diner makes its callaloo with salt fish. I was prepared to douse it with Scotch bonnet sauce, but after the first bite I realized that wouldn't be necessary. The callaloo was so spicy, I could have used it as a condiment. The combination of curried goat and the greens was spectacular.
Lots of cuisines — Thai, for example — are often dumbed down for our "American palates." But Tropical did not hold back. After my second visit, I came to the conclusion that with the exception of the fried shrimp, almost everything served here is laced with heat from all the spices I associate with tropical cuisine.
On a third visit to Tropical Diner, I called ahead to make sure the elusive jerk chicken wings were available. I brought along a couple of friends, and we ordered the house specialty cocktail. Without even the slightest hint from me, my friend looked at me and said, "Is this Hawaiian punch?"
I ordered the jerk wings with much anticipation, and we also got some fried dumplings, which I gather were made to order, chicken curry and ackee with salt fish. Ackee, like many of the traditional dishes in Jamaican cuisine, was brought over by the slave ships from Africa. Its unripened seeds are poisonous, but the canned version is perfectly safe. It looked like scrambled eggs and tasted like salt fish. I think it is comfort food for those who grew up eating it.
The dumplings, basically fried bread, were a good accompaniment to the curried chicken, which was overly tender and not very spicy. I was happier with the oxtails and the goat. As for the jerk wings, when I finally got them, I was surprised that they were baked instead of fried. They were covered in spices, with a pleasant heat that made the side of jerk sauce unnecessary.
I'd stop by Tropical Diner to sit at the bar, drink Red Stripe and eat jerk wings and plantains any day of the week.
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