Tropicana Club has been open since fall of 2017. It’s part of the historic, restored, revamped and renovated Hotel DeFuniak. I had lunch there near the end of the year, and followed up last week with dinner. Tropicana Club also serves brunch. Last month, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking briefly with Chef Tavita Lemapu, who catered a private party I attended in DeFuniak Springs.
My pre-New Year lunch consisted of a Cuban sandwich, something I find very hard to resist anywhere I find it. It’s the genuine south Florida article, roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles. Chef Lemapu does a slight variation on the mustard, using a Creole mustard aioli in place of the traditional yellow mustard. It adds a bit more texture, along with that essential tang to counter the richness of the meat.
When we talked, I asked Lemapu if he was planning on adding any more south Florida Cuban dishes. He said he was thinking of putting ropa vieja, (“old clothes” or “old rags”) on the menu as a special. I did not tell him I was planning to review the restaurant, but the prospect of ropa vieja was a powerful motivator.
My wife and I ate at Tropicana Club on a weeknight. We got there around 6, and it was fairly quiet, but the place was filling up by the time we left. There are two dining areas as you enter on Nelson Avenue. There’s a smaller room to the left, and the more formally decorated main dining room, where we had dinner. There’s also a cocktail lounge and a lounge for cigar aficionados.
The main dining room is a rectangle, anchored by a bar on one wall, with tables comfortably spaced along both walls. The floors and the walls are dark wood paneled (my wife called it a “deep purple eggplant” color), with copper, gold and crystal chandeliers and fixtures. On each table is a vase containing a bouquet of white plumes. Wooden chairs with carved backrests add to the clubby atmosphere, and one feels like a member almost instantly.
Our server (Amber) showed us to our table, gave us menus and told us about the night’s specials—a fried baby portobello mushroom starter and, yes, ropa vieja. We took some time to look over the menu, but my mind was made up.
Tropicana Club’s dinner menu offers appetizers, sandwiches, salads and soup, and assorted main course items. All but the main courses are also on the lunch menu. We settled on the portobellos to start, my wife chose Jamaican jerk chicken with rice and green beans, and I got the ropa vieja, which comes with yellow rice and flour tortillas.
The portobellos arrived, fresh from the fryer, one- and two-bite sized mushrooms, with a greaseless, crusty batter that paired well with the chewy, savory morsels. They are served with a choice of ranch or bleu cheese dipping sauce, but Amber gave us samples of both.
Other starters include St. Lucia ceviche, buffalo chicken dip, Caribbean quesadilla, and chips and salsa.
The entrees arrived. My wife’s chicken was juicy, mild to mid-level spicy. I tasted a bite, and it’s good, but I had ropa vieja on my side of the table.
It’s called “old rags” because that’s sort of what it resembles. It’s beef (filet, I was told) slow cooked with peppers, onions and spices until it falls apart and shreds like old rags. It’s a deeply traditional Cuban dish, the kind that probably has a different recipe for every family in the country. At Tropicana Club it has a rich, a warm-spice flavor, the kind to take your time with and try to figure out what all’s in there.
Other menu choices include muffuletta, Jamaican jerk chicken sandwich, club or chicken salad sandwich, fish or pork tacos, Caribbean or jerk chicken Caesar salad, Cajun gumbo, broiled grouper, blackened chicken alfredo, creamy crawfish pasta, and an eight-ounce filet.
For dessert the night we ate there, they had red velvet cake, coconut cake, molten lava cake, brownie, and peach cobbler. My wife decided to skip dessert, so I went for the cobbler.
I got some vanilla ice cream on it. It was fresh-from-the-oven hot and bubbling, and the ice cream melted down into it like Mount St. Helens. The crust was crisp, the interior fluffy and buttery, filled with spiced fruit. My wife did take a small bite, and I cleared the rest. It’s my personal Leave No Trace policy.
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