Moreland Avenue between I-20 and Glenwood is a filthy jumble of gas stations, package stores and fast-food outlets. It's amazing that so much fried food can be crammed into these two blocks. This is the hub for grease in this part of town, and the lines of cars that snake around the McDonald's and Wendy's drive-thrus seem almost permanent because they are always present from early morning until late at night. I drive through this part of town every day on my way home, and at that time of day when I am tired and hungry, it always seems like such a tease. So much food, and nothing to eat.
A few weeks ago, I noticed a small splash of color at the corner of a rundown strip mall that's crammed between two large fast-food restaurants. The tiny Tropical Flavors Restaurant advertised Jamaican specialties on its windows. It seems that someone, a person with an actual face and name, has decided to set up shop among these corporate giants.
Rhinestone in the Rough: Tropical Flavors is a tiny space with just a few tables and chairs, a rack with some random Jamaican goods, and a counter with a steam table. Menu items are written in Magic Marker on cardboard that's tacked to the wall behind the counter. Through a window to the kitchen you can see a woman and a man stirring huge pots. It may be a fluke, but every time I have been in Tropical Flavors, most of the customers appear to be bachelors, hungry for something that tastes like a home-cooked meal.
What a Jerk: The Jamaican specialties served here include jerk pork and chicken, chicken curry, beef patties (a pastry filled with beef that is also available filled with chicken or veggies) and whole fried tilapia. Each entree comes with a choice of rice (yellow or rice with peas) and a side of veggies. Order the jerk chicken and you will be given the option of smothering the dish in oxtail gravy, a rich, dark gravy that is meaty and comforting. The chicken curry is tender and full of flavor. All of the dishes I tried tasted like food I have eaten in people's homes -- not perfectly spiced or executed, but honest food that is soul-satisfying.
Sidestep: Side vegetables include cabbage, spinach, mixed veggies and "stir fry." The side I expected to like the most -- the spinach -- was that breed of spinach that scared you off the stuff when you were a kid. Its major attribute was its slimy consistency. The side I expected to like the least -- the mixed veggies -- was the best. The mix of carrots, green beans, corn and lima beans looked like it went straight from the freezer to the steam table, but the veggies were firm and tasty, their individual flavors managing to shine through.
For the more adventurous, there are some Jamaican beverages for sale that might be of interest. The restaurant serves fresh juices, including sorrel juice. It also sells large bottles of aloe juice. But the best thing about this little restaurant is its pioneer spirit -- a small island of sincere food in a sea of greasy commercialism.