To be fair to the folks at Sabor Tropical, I'll admit that both visits were at the end of their day. But it must be noted that when I called to check the hours I was told they closed at around 7:30, which made our 6 p.m. visits reasonable--except that closing time actually seems to be closer to 6:30. Being the almost last people in a restaurant isn't necessarily the best way to judge a place, but due to the misinformation this is the way it worked out. But misinformation, or better yet lack of information, crops up again and again here, which is too bad. Sabor Tropical has potential.
As an example of "mis-info," the sign from the space's previous incarnation (Cabo Taco) hangs brightly above the door. Yes, there are a few signs with the name Sabor Tropical and the proclamation of "Latin American Food" on the front windows, but nothing that really catches the eye.
The tiny room holds a total of seven tables with minimal decoration--a few mini sombreros and serapes, family photos on one wall and a huge metal sun on the other. It's all very mom and pop Latin style.
There's one well-worn, slightly dirty menu at the counter where you order. The rest of the food is listed on two menus hanging behind said counter. There are also two pieces of paper behind the cash register that explain some of the unfamiliar items on the menu (arepas, plantains, pantacones), but they're not easily accessible.
They were out of the Columbian tamales, a house specialty. So John ordered the mojarra frita ($8.95), a coastal specialty of a whole fried tilapia. Now I have to admit neither of us noticed that the fish was served whole, but we'll discuss that later. I ordered the cazuela de mariscos ($6.95), seafood stew. Both dishes come with sliced tomatoes, onions and avocado. We opted out of any of the tropical drinks.
My dish arrived first but I had to wait for my silverware until John's fish arrived.
And what an arrival! Poor fish. Tilapia isn't the prettiest of fish anyway, but this guy had been deep-fried to the point of frightening. All the skin on the fins had been cooked off, resulting in boney spikes poking out all over, and getting to the flesh was next to impossible. The plantains that accompanied the fish were OK, but I have had better.
My stew fared only a little better. Instead of a thick, rich broth there was a pale white watery broth that, yes, was filled with every kind of seafood imaginable (shrimp, whitefish, oysters, octopus, whitefish, fake crab, etc.), but that's about it. Missing was that the deep, rich sea aroma that makes one almost swoon. Even with a little salt, pepper and hot sauce, the dish was pretty tame.
The second dinner, with Karyn Zoldan, was better. Again they were out of the tamales and one of the other dishes we asked for. So she ordered the pollo guisado con papa ($5.99), described as a chicken stew. She also ordered the pantacones, or green plantains. I went with the mix-and-match dish of shredded beef, Spanish rice, red beans and an arepa. Arepas are traditional cornmeal cakes, made from either white or yellow cornmeal (in this case white); they can be fried, baked or, as it was here, griddled.
We ordered fruit drinks this time: guanabana for Karyn ($2.50) and passion fruit for me ($2). The difference in price has to do with the drink being mixed with either milk or water, although which is which was not explained on the menu.
Again the dishes were brought to the table separately (something that should really be worked on). Mine arrived first. The beef wasn't shredded like in, say, carne seca; instead there were thin strips of beef cooked tender with more strips of onion, tomatoes and red pepper. The dish was enjoyable, but lacked zest. The beans and rice were nothing to write home about, and the arepa was slightly overcooked, so it was hard to use it as a scoop for the rest of the food.
Karyn's chicken wasn't a stew, but more like stewed chicken, and there were no papas. She described it as "adequately tender and the sauce was nicely piquant." She had black beans and the regular rice, which she thought was OK. The plantains were "not quite as greasy as one might expect." While we agreed that we were full, we weren't really satisfied. We were disappointed that the tamales weren't available; they might've made up the difference.
And I think that's one of the problems with Sabor Tropical. They are offering something unique and different, something beyond the ubiquitous Mexican fare we all love. But where are the deep flavors so intrinsic to Latin American food? I don't necessarily mean "heat," but with ingredients like passion fruit, plantains, seafood of all sorts and all manner of other exotic goods, the food should knock the diner out--in a good way, of course. And why is availability of many menu items so scattered?
Just a few easy changes would go a long way to lure customers to return (which is essential to succeed in any business). For example, written explanations of the dishes right on the menu. What is the difference between sweet and green plantains, for example? What are arepas? Adding all the prices to the hard copy of the menu--and not having more than one menu--would be a big plus.
There is a loyal following at Sabor Tropical, as witnessed by the steady flow of "to go" orders on both visits. But as far as the rest of the world is concerned the place is still called "Cabo Taco" and still serves Mexican food. And that's a damn shame.