Dominican flavors rule Tropical Island
There is no bar at Dorchester’s Tropical Island Restaurant and Bar. Customers are told, with a motion to the soft drink cooler, that no alcohol is served at all. The food is described as “Spanish,’’ but that’s also not quite true. If the color scheme (peach, lime, purple, and plaids) doesn’t give it away, the mofongo balls will. The unstated tropical influence here is the Dominican Republic. The men are big, the servings are huge, and it takes a while to figure out what is going on.
Consulting the detailed menu will only draw a smile and an eye roll from Rosa Brito, the young manager. “It’s better just to ask me what we have,’’ she explains, “You can also look over here.’’ Brito is talking about the mini-steam table at the register, today featuring pollo guisado, spiced stewed chicken ($4.82); sauteed red onion; caramelized plantains ($1); and carne guisado, spiced stewed meat ($4.82). Another dozen dishes are available from the kitchen.
Until recently, Brito, who is from Santiago in the Dominican Republic, was a regular customer. Some six months ago she suggested to the owner that she take over as manager, waitress, and occasionally, chef. She redesigned the space, hired her god-sister to help out, and introduced some dishes. Her whole fried fish with coconut escabeche, which isn’t on the menu ($17.50), is a 1 1/2 pound red snapper pan-fried in an inch of hot corn oil until golden on each side, then smothered with a sauce of green and red peppers, tomatoes, coconut milk, red onion (“red has more flavor than white’’), a bit of sopita (concentrated chicken bouillon), and a dash of vinegar. The dish has a marvelous balance of crisp and creamy, sweet and acid, and the fish is, on most occasions, expertly fried.
Many dishes are the work of master chef Juana Chavez and her quirky apprentice, Augustin “Benu’’ Lopez. Stewed meats - chicken, beef, and goat - are braised in a complex sauce of finely chopped (and eventually liquefied) vegetables, garlic, and spices. The chicken is tender and flavorful, the inexpensive cuts of beef mercifully tenderized, and tasty. Goat deserves its own paragraph.
Goat is served in most of Boston’s Caribbean restaurants. There are any number of Jamaican, Haitian, and Dominican preparations most Bostonians have never tried. Tropical Island is a good place to start, not for reasons of adventure, but because goat is a genuinely tasty meat when prepared correctly. In Chavez’s stewed goat, chivo guisado ($4.82), called “cabrito guisado’’ by the restaurant’s many Cape Verdian fans, the meat is rendered mild and tender, like roast lamb with a rich, beef-like color. The braising liquid is spiced to elevate - not cover - its flavor.
Mofongo is a traditional Dominican dish of fried plantain, mashed and rolled into a serving the size (and often weight) of a bocce ball. It is one of the reasons Dominican eateries from Lowell to Boston have names like “Strong Belly.’’ Tropical Island’s somehow lighter mofongo ($5) contains lots of crisp-fried pork belly bits, making an improvement even better. In any form, it’s a manly dish. The barber who works next door reportedly comes to impress Brito by doing the impossible: eating two mofongo balls, smothered in garlic sauce, at one sitting.
Not all the dishes work. I found the oddly popular spaghetti ($3) to be hopelessly overcooked with too-sweet tomato sauce. So-called “curry’’ (goat or chicken, $7.49 each) contains no curry leaf or coriander, or, in fact, any flavor we would normally associate with the word curry. I found the dish bland, but it can sell out midway through dinner.
Prices can be as attractive as the best dishes. One night I’m given an off-menu combo of excellent roast chicken with sauteed red onion, caramelized plantains, yellow rice with black beans, and a mango-orange juice. Like so much here, the unexpected is a pleasant surprise. The check comes to $7.80, after tax.
Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org