A Day in the Life

Tropical on the Beach

South Beach, Sunday, 10:30 a.m. I walk into Tropical on the Beach, on Washington Avenue between Fourteenth and Fifteenth streets. It's a massive space, with some 200 seats and 50 silver Deco light fixtures hanging from the lofty ceiling. The bulbs are muted now, as more than enough natural rays are streaming in through large storefront windows. Although billed as "La Casa del Churrasco," this is not what you'd consider your average steak house; there's not a fat businessman in sight. Tropical is, in reality, a 24-hour Cuban restaurant serving breakfasts, soups, salads, sandwiches, stews, meats, seafoods, rice dishes, beer, wine, shakes, and desserts -- 107 items in all. I'm here, alone, choosing a breakfast from numbers one through six: small selection, just eggs four ways, ham croquettes, or pancakes. When I say alone, I mean not just at the table but, excepting the workers, in the restaurant as well. This being South Beach, I assume the breakfast crowd will shuffle in later.

There are two breakfast specials: One features eggs, toast, ham or sausage, French fries, and coffee for $3.68; the other, at $6.46, substitutes a baby palomilla steak for the pork product. I go with a ham, onion, and cheese omelette, which comes to the table promptly (the friendly waitress is very attentive, perhaps owing to her wont of anything better to do). The white plate contains one yellow circular disk in the shape of the sauté pan -- no home fries, orange twist, or frilly parsley sprig. The omelet is delicate and barely seasoned -- which is good, because the ham within yields its own brininess, easily enhanced with the salt shaker. A basket of Cuban toast comes on the side, sharing table space with a cup of steamed milk and a tin of gutsy Cuban brew. An exemplary café con leche, a fresh, satisfying omelet: $6.

While I finish my coffee, the Tropical begins to fill the row of glistening stainless-steel steam tables that take up the length of the restaurant's left side. They really are shiny, and this place quite clean-looking, though points gained on sterility are lost on atmosphere, of which there is practically none. I scout the freshly cooked lunch dishes being brought out: bright, steamy white and yellow rice; whole roasted chickens crisply bronzed, smoke still rising from their backs; various stews whose garlic and tomato aromas swirl across the room. The roast pork looks particularly succulent, so I pretty much know what I'll order when I return for lunch.

Sunday, 3:00 p.m. The place is fairly crowded now, and light Latin tunes chirp through overhead speakers -- I imagine this is what Cuban elevator music must sound like. I choose the pork in sandwich form: soft, freshly pressed Cuban bread, juicy wedges of very garlicky meat, and thinly sliced onions. With a plate of skinny, golden, flawlessly crisp French fries: $5.53.

Sunday, 5:00 p.m. With great foresight, at lunchtime I order a trigo batido to go (think sweet vanilla shake with Wheatina blended in), which I figured would make for a nice late-afternoon intermezzo. It does: $2.77.

Sunday, 9:00 p.m. Having tired of my own company, I invite a companion for dinner. There are maybe twenty other diners in the restaurant, but the room is so spacious it looks empty. The foods still appear perky, however, as does the kitchen crew, who work in a space that stretches behind the row of steam tables and pump out fresh dishes as the day drags -- I mean flows -- on. There are plenty of seafoods, like whole snapper for just $9.21, a few shrimp dishes for $11.06, and, at the highest end, roasted lobster for $23.04. All sorts of meats, too, mostly steaks made from beef, chicken, ham, liver, and pork. I order what one would assume is the specialty of the house: churrasco. It's a generous skirt steak, savorily seasoned and garlicked, but the flabby flank simply and limply lacks sizzle from the grill. Vaca frita, the traditional fried and shredded beef dish, packs far more flavor. With sides of rice, black beans, and sweet plantains, a stellar raisin-studded bread pudding and middling rice pudding for dessert: $31.32.

Monday, 3:00 a.m. I had planned on returning during the wee hours to check out the scene, but hey, I've got my limits. This doesn't mean I resent having spent much of my day here (a day which, I might add, I will never get back). Nor should it imply that Tropical is less worthwhile in the middle of the night -- to the contrary, this figures to be the best time of all to drop in. In fact I can recommend grabbing a meal at this bright spot any hour at all, though I believe once a day should suffice.

 
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