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Taste the flava

Tropical Flava's bets Snellville's ready for Caribbean fare

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Things get more and more curious on the Gwinnett dining scene. Whereas in previous years the only thriving restaurants appeared to be chains -- what a bore -- the places I have stumbled upon in the last month are unique. Funky, even. And they are making surprisingly good food. The latest example is Tropical Flava's, an operation that is both cautious and daring, relatively speaking.

The modest surroundings belie a kitchen devoted to producing food with actual flavor. Who would expect that, looking around the large dining room that was obviously once a bar, complete with thatched-roof island motif? It is an odd juxtaposition with the otherwise sedate burgundy and green color scheme. Another contrast: cloth napkins on green and cream trellis-patterned vinyl table coverings.

The Tropical Flava's menu exhibits even more of a dual personality. On further thought, this is a treble personality menu. Hedging its bet that Snellville is ready for authentic (meaning spicy) Caribbean fare, Tropical Flava's also offers chicken salad, a $10.95, 8-ounce filet mignon, traditional sandwiches -- for instance, cheeseburgers -- even at dinner, and the ubiquitous hot wings.

Ignore these. I do not know whether they are good because I have not ordered them, because these are things that can be ordered elsewhere. What you need is something from the more schizophrenic portion of the Tropical Flava's menu. Ox tail with roti plantains and calalloo (steamed spinach with okra) or curry tilapia or mango chicken.

Or you can swing over to what could be considered the exact opposite in tone and taste: roast loin of pork; grilled farm-raised quail; pommery chicken; grilled filet of salmon; pear, endive and romaine salad.

After zigzagging among the possibilities, we began a recent lunch with a plate of conch fritters, determining that the Caribbean skein was the greater of the varying influences. But if we had not decided that ourselves, the fritters would have done it for us. These are very nicely done. Very nicely, indeed. The conch flavor is distinct, but then, so are the (hot!) seasonings. And the texture is pleasantly mealy, not doughy. Best of all, the golf ball-size nuggets are expertly fried -- not greasy in the least. Hallelujah!

Frying is not all that Tropical Flava's does well. It also caters to vegetarians with, among other things, a steamed vegetable plate -- a good value at $5.95 -- and curry vegetable medley (also $5.95), a fat envelope of mildly spicy vegetables and tofu.

Spicy in yet another culinary direction is the pommery chicken. This is nothing more -- though nothing less -- than gently sautéed pieces of chicken bathed in a mustard cream sauce. The sauce is delicious; the chicken on the day of our visit was slightly watery. Still, I consider the dish a find, given the gastronomic standards and ambitions of the neighborhood.

I must say, though, the garnish is weird. Every plate comes to the table sporting a thick, diagonally cut wedge of cucumber, a wedge of pale tomato, and a triangle of pineapple with a sprig of thyme sticking out of it. Frankly, I don't get it. But if this is the worst thing that comes out of the Tropical Flava's kitchen, that is pretty good.

Tropical Flava's, 2262 E. Main St., Snellville, in the Snellville Plaza shopping center, 770-736-5515. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.- 11 p.m.; closed Sundays. Inexpensive. Average price of dinner entree, $11. Credit cards. Dress: casual. Ambiance: converted bar, faintly Jimmy Buffet. No-smoking section. Reservations suggested for dinner Fridays and Saturdays, when there is live reggae. Wheelchair accessible.

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