If you’re a blog fan, you know that while we do sometimes write about stereotypically southern food, we are much more drawn towards food from other places. Lately, we’ve been thinking about why this might be. Maybe it’s because we love to travel, or that we seek variety. I’m sure that’s true. But most of all, we think it is because we love to experience the creative self-expression of someone’s personal history and culture.
We first discovered Tropicaleo last year at the Birmingham Caribbean festival, and have been following them ever since. We have watched them find their culinary identity, and refine and expand their menu. But the moment of truth for us came a few weekends ago, at the Big Pitch.
The Big Pitch is a small business pitching competition held annually by Rev Birmingham, a business accelerator. A limited amount of tickets are sold to the public, and we’ve always wanted to go. After realizing that both Domestique, an amazing local coffee roastery that we love, and Tropicaleo would be there, we bought tickets.
The Big Pitch was held at the newly renovated ballroom of the beautiful Thomas Jefferson Hotel. The building itself is inspiring, having gone from vacant ruins to a nearly fully renovated masterpiece – the perfect atmosphere for an event meant to stimulate the local economy and encourage entrepreneurs.
The way it works is this: everyone mills around and meets the people behind the businesses that are contestants, and then listens to each business give a brief pitch. Luckily, we came hungry and thirsty. After grabbing some amazingly smooth Domestique coffee, we headed for the long line at the Tropicaleo booth. We were welcomed with huge smiles and an array of food offerings. I chose a tasting of the BBQ pork on plantain chips, and then went back for the bread (made from a 100 year old family recipe by the continental bakery so the Troipicaleo kitchen can stay gluten-free) and vegan coconut custard dessert. The food was comforting, with bold but not obnoxious flavors, and thoughtfully prepared (meaning: they had a vegan dessert!). They had our attention.
Then we listened to their pitch. It was clear that the husband-and-wife team who are at the helm are using food to allow others to explore their culture, and to re-create a comforting piece of home in Birmingham. Natives of Puerto Rico who moved here a few years ago, they noticed a relative lack of good Caribbean food (other than Southern Caribbean and Tropical Grill, of course), and a complete lack of Puerto Rican restaurants (not to distract from the present topic, but Miami Café appears to be coming back, this time on 5th Ave N Downtown!). This inspired them to create Tropicaleo. The energy from their pitch sizzled through the room. No surprise, they won first place.
In anticipation of their upcoming debut in our beloved Pizitz Food Hall’s Reveal Kitchen food incubator stall, and their recently-announced permanent location in Avondale, they’ve been having regular pop-ups. We attended a brunch (yes I said brunch) pop-up the following day at the new Ghost Train Brewery (which is becoming a regular event). We were excited not only because we were pumped to try Tropicaleo for a second day in a row, but because as you know, Sunday brunch options in this town are meager. A successful Tropicaleo brunch would be a huge deal.
And a huge deal it was. Here’s their menu:
We ordered one of everything (obviously). This was our one and only meal that day, intentionally. We ate every single bite.
First, a nod to the sauces. All homemade, of course. BBQ, guava, and an aoili. All could be put on anything, but the suggested pairings were BBQ with the pork, guava with anything, and aoili with tostones. Luckily, we had ordered all of those things. There was also the delicious vinegar-y hot sauce that we put on everything.
Now the food. First, the mofongo. Let me just take a moment to say that two years ago, we spent 4 days in San Juan. This by no means makes us knowledgeable about Puerto Rican food in any way. However, I will say that I do have a lovehandle dedicated to mofongo. I prided myself on trying it every place we went. This delicious, rich, indulgent dish is a huge mound of smashed plantains mixed with oil/fat that is covered in meat (Tropicaleo also offers a vegan option). They suggested we try the chicken. The whole thing was outstanding – the mofongo was moist and flavorful, and the meat was tender and complemented it perfectly.
Next, the sandwich. They used that amazing homemade bread again, this time with pulled pork in between. Speaking from a southern BBQ perspective, this was up there with any of the best BBQ places in town (probably better….but let’s not get into any heated arguments about the best BBQ). At any rate, it was objectively outstanding. Tender meat, delicious sauce with a bold flavor that I couldn’t put my finger on.
And then of course, fried sweet plantains. There can be nothing better. Goes with everything. A must. Fresh fried tostones in the background. Salty, not too dry, crispy, delicious.
Finally, the beef a caballo. I understand this means “mounted on horseback,” which according to this website, refers to the egg perching on top. Tender beef, with over easy egg as promised. Mix in that egg for maximum flavor. Amazing.
To sum it up, Tropicaleo is bringing something very unique to the Birmingham food scene – an authentic Puerto Rican experience. As the first stall to rotate in Reveal Kitchen, it also represents Birmingham’s first foray into the food incubator. Thank you, Tropicaleo, for taking that important step for our city. Until Reveal opens, we will be enjoying your numerous pop-ups (check their Facebook page for updated information).