I've never been to Latin America, but my stomach has. Actually, it traveled from Cuba to Argentina with a stopover in Brazil and parts in between, all in the course of a meal. For a girl with wanderlust but not enough funds in the travel budget, a dinner at Tropical Star Restaurant & Specialty Market is like going on an international greatest-hits food tour without ever leaving my seat.
Located in a modest Balboa Avenue strip mall, Tropical Star is a family-run place with casual and friendly service. Only a few small tables are available for dining, and you'll be eating with a plastic fork amongst hanging aprons, knick knacks and shelves of spices and other foodstuffs from South and Central America that are sold out of the small market.
You'll have to wait a bit for your food, too, but it's worth it. The pace just means you'll have more time to digest between dishes. It feels like someone's mom or dad is back in the kitchen preparing the food, so how can you complain? Being a market and restaurant enables Tropical Star to keep its prices low: The majority of the menu is so affordable that it's really hard not to just start at the top and eat your way through, as some friends and I attempted to do on a recent visit.
Our first stop was the Caribbean, where we started with Puerto Rican tostones: twice-fried green plantains doused in garlic marinade. They were a little bland, but comforting in that carbolicious, deep-fried way.
Next up were batons of fried yucca root, for which I'd drop french fries like a hot potato if yucca were more readily available. These instantly addictive, crispy yet chewy fries have a creamier interior and loads more flavor than their starchy French cousins. Yucca root also figured deliciously into the rellenos de yuca, round puffs of fried yucca filled with tender ground pork and beef.
We then moved on to El Salvador for a brief snack of cheese-filled, thick corn tortillas called pupasas, topped with a pickled cabbage slaw. Empanadas from Argentina followed: crunchy pockets of chicken, beef or spinach served with a tangy chimmichurri dipping sauce. Next up was a heaping portion of Peruvian pollo saltado, an intriguing stir fry of chicken, tomatoes, onions and french fries (the standard kind) flavored with cumin, paprika and soy sauce and served with rice. Cuban ropa vieja-shredded beef pot roast seasoned with garlic and spices-came with more starchy goodness in the form of sautéed sweet, ripe plantains. Our foray into Cuba also brought the best dish of the night and a member of my Hot Sandwich Honor Roll, the Cuban sandwich. Roast pork, ham, swiss cheese and pickles are pressed hot between bread into one singular crunchy, tangy, melty whole. Tropical Star's version reminded me of how much I love these sandwiches and I looked into getting a sandwich press the very next day because I must have the ability to create one on a whim.
There's no liquor license here, so I made do with tropical fruit shake of guanabana, which, besides being extremely fun to say, is also a delicious native South American fruit with a floral strawberry-pineapple flavor and a creamy texture. Aside from beer, I can't think of a better beverage to counter the rich, spicy cuisine. You can also choose from other exotic fruits including tamarind, passion fruit and the pumpkin-esque mamey.
The market portion of the store holds all sorts of goodies so you can take a taste of Latin America home with you. To satisfy any late-night-sweets cravings that might develop later, I took home a guava soda and a jar of creamy dulce de leche.
It was a stormy night, but we happily waited out the rain with cups of good, strong Cuban coffee and sticky bites of sweet cocadas, Brazilian cookies made of coconut and condensed milk. We made plans to return again, and soon, for another journey by taste bud.
Tropical Star is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday. Prices range from $2 to $2.50 for appetizers and $6.50 to $10 for entrées.
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Tropical Star Restaurant & Specialty Market
6163 Balboa Ave, Clairemont