Food News

Thirty Years of Tropical Chinese: "Chinese Way Is to Fill the Tummy"

A five-year restaurant run in this city is quite an accomplishment. Now multiply that times six and you'll get the magic number of years Tropical Chinese has seen steamed dim sum carts roll throughout its crimson, lantern-lit interior.

The 30th anniversary came with a celebration last night that invited community members who've supported the business throughout the past three decades to revel in the successes of owner Mei Yu and her brother Gregory. Tropical Chinese was the endeavor of their parents, who migrated to Miami from Taiwan in 1984 when Mei and her brother were teenagers.

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The anniversary celebration of the neighborhood Chinese restaurant was filled with four generations of dim-sum-craving gourmands who've walked through the doors and become more than just customers. They are family and friends.

"Atmosphere and friendship is number one -- after family, of course," Mei says.

When Mei's parents opened Tropical Chinese, they didn't necessarily intend to become one of the best and most authentic Chinese restaurants in the city, let alone the nation. They didn't even speak English (and still don't all too well), but they loved food (and still do).

"They had nothing better to do, so they went for it," says Mei, who at first was hesitant to get involved in the family business. "I ended up coming back because to us, family is most important."

When her brother graduated from college after studying construction, the two decided it was time to continue pushing dim sum, so they expanded the dining room to its current size. Years later, they would remodel it to include a glass-encased kitchen and updated furnishings, but the original flair of Hong Kong is still felt evident from the moment you walk in. Even so with the new mural and 20-foot bar that were unveiled last night as part of 30 years of Tropical Chinese.

The mural, which is the work of local artist Steve Saiz, is a representation of all the things that Tropical Chinese stands for. You'll find palm trees, representative of Florida's tropical climate, which inspired the restaurant's name, as well crimson lanterns, animated dim sum, pineapple, and Peking duck. You'll also see Chinese characters (those stand for family), the word "love," wine (because Mei loves wine), ByeJoe (the national spirit of China), and other symbols to sum up the past three decades.

A step-and-repeat encouraged families, couples, and children to stop and capture memories for the evening. It was a glamorous affair.

Food at these types of events is usually scarce, but that's not the Tropical Chinese way. "The Chinese traditional way is that we wanna fill the tummy. If we don't do that, we didn't do a good job." Barbecued pork buns flew off trays, and just as quickly as they went, others arrived. All. Night. Long.

Same goes for the xiaolong bao steamed buns, which were pockets of perfection.

A Tropical Chinese staple, Peking duck, was churned out via a full-on assembly line wrapping crisp skin, scallions, and cucumbers into steamed pancakes. You won't find any honey chicken at this joint, just authentic Chinese cuisine, although Mei has had to fight some battles, particularly on Yelp. "We get comments from people saying this isn't authentic Chinese, but many people think Asian food is all Chinese or that honey chicken is Chinese," she says. "Honey chicken isn't a Chinese food. It's chicken and honey."

In the back, pork was being cupped and balled into dumplings just as it was 30 years ago. "Food hasn't changed. We've stayed true to what we are."

Scallion pancakes with beef.

Inaugurating the new 20-foot bar in proper fashion with ByeJoe cocktails and lemon drop martinis.

Mei and one of her dearest friends look fly after 30 years of Chinese food. Asked how it feels, Mei remains humble. "It feels amazing. Not amazing for our accomplishments, but amazing to have friends that we've shared our life with." And about her maintaining that great physique with all of that delicious food around? Her secret is in the cuisine itself. "Chinese food is actually very healthy. We eat a lot of vegetables, steam everything, and use mostly water- and rice-based ingredients. It's the Americanized Chinese food that adds a lot of oil and gives Chinese food a bad rep, but have you tried the real deal?"

If you haven't in the past 30 years, it's about time you did.

Follow Carla on Twitter @ohcarlucha

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Carla Torres found her inner gourmand voice while writing for Miami New Times in 2012. She has also worked with Travel & Leisure and Ocean Drive and today is involved with a tech startup. She balances passions for wine, sweets, yoga, and kayaking.