First I had to get past the cheesey name and the location, waaaaaay down Houston Road. But I was surprised when I walked into Tropical Flava.
The look might be called “Sophisticated Islands,” with cherry-finished wood tables, upholstered chairs, silver-and-frosted-glass lighting, and a gentle canteloupe-and-honeydew color scheme. Digital pictures depicted islands and waterfalls, complete with lapping water and twittering birds. The entire Southern-exposure effect was heightened by huge skylights, a brilliant choice that definitely makes you forget you’re in a strip mall.
Our enthusiastic waiter told us the owner/chef was from Jamaica, and the dishes seemed pretty authentic. The platters are served with generous, although rather dry, portions of rice seasoned with pinto beans, as well as plantains and a “stir fry” of cabbage and peppers that was slightly sweet and crisp-tender. The plantains were perfectly sauteed until just caramelized at the edges.
The specialties seem to be chicken and seafood. The menu is confusing, as it contains lots of things you can’t actually order. I was excited to try the conch fritters (made from shellfish that construct those shells big enough to be used as horns), but those aren’t available out of season. In addition, the “tropical garlic crabs” and a similar shrimp dish are available only four days a week, at night. When my friend tried to order lemonade off the menu, they were out of that too.
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The menu lists side dishes such as macaroni and cheese and Jamaican hush puppies, but you have to pay extra to get an order of any side besides those that come standard, which seems a little disingenuous.
Our curiosity was piqued when we were told that even the mac ’n’ cheese was a Jamaican recipe. The dish was actually ziti, not macaroni. It came in an extremely cheesey slab that may have featured cream cheese as the secret ingredient and weighed a metric ton.
What I did order WASN’T on the menu: the brown stew fish suggested by the waiter. He warned me it would come with its head attached, and asked if I wanted it removed. I said yes. He forgot. But I’m a big girl, so I decided to get acquainted with my meal and we ate eye to eye. Warning: If you can’t smile back at your fish, don’t order it.Fish heads aside, the entrees were all juicy, many with a slow but not overwhelming heat, and plenty of interplaying flavors.
The portions were all enough for two meals.
Purists might be disappointed in the jerk chicken, which came wet with barbecue overtones (delicious nonetheless). We also ordered some tasty but bone-riddled oxtails.
The dessert menu featured cakes, sweet potato pudding and mango-passion fruit cheesecake. We enjoyed the cheesecake, which had a tang that offset the wetness.
You can sip some unusual juices with your meal, such as watermelon, cucumber and sorrel. Tropical Flava also has a wine and beer menu but, counter-intuitively, doesn’t carry alcoholic tropical drinks.
There was a group party in a back room the day we ate there, and the wait for our food was loooong. Once you included the drive time from downtown, it took almost two hours to eat lunch there.
Nevertheless, I’d call it a good destination for the slightly adventurous.
Address: 5201 Houston Road
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2-9 p.m. Sunday
Price range: $9.50 to $19.50
Payment: Cash, credit
Kids Menu: No
Noise Level: Low
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Health Rating: 100