Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday. Closed Monday.
Price Range: Inexpensive. Appetizers: 75 cents to $3. Entrees: $3 to $4. Filling side dishes: 35 cents to 95 cents.
Atmosphere: Simple, friendly, family-oriented.
Special facilities: Highchairs and boosters. Plenty of parking out front. No children's menu. Management will be helpful to handicapped.
Credit cards: Visa, Master Charge.
Reservations: Not necessary. Service is fast.
Our lives have been suffused with the distinctive flavor of Latin life -- food, language and artifacts -- since my husband's days in the early 1960s as a Peace Corps volunteer in Latin America. It all came back briefly on a recent trip to Takoma Park.
We were headed for the Tropicana Restaurant. Knowing that the Tropicana does not serve beer or wine, we stopped first at the Casa Veiga, a Latin-style "tienda" (store) up the street at the corner of Piney Branch and Flower.
The place was vibrant with people animatedly speaking Spanish and gesturing to each other with an intensity and lack of reserve not seen in American supermarkets. We edged past open baskets overflowing with green plantains, yucca roots and fat salt-fish, 20-pound bags of rice and beans piled three feet high and shelves of dozens of types of hot sauce.
In the back, we found a large stockpile of Latin American wines. We chose a dry white Argentine, Casa Orfila, $3.25. Some of the cold Mexican beer in the refrigerator compartments, such as Dos Equis, would have been an equally good and less expensive accompaniment for our dinner.
As we left, we bought some beautiful hand-made Guatemalan cocktail napkins. You rarely see them in the U.S.
Once at the Tropicana, we were reminded that it bills itself as a "Cuban-Italian" restaurant. The owner is Cuban; his wife Italian.
In spite of its name, resonant of the flamboyance of pre-revolutionary Cuba (the Tropicana was the biggest nightclub in Havana), this Tropicana is small, bare and simple: just a few plants, some brickwork, formica tables, paper napkins.
But it is immaculately kept, including the kitchen you can see from the back tables.
The menu is written in Spanish, with English translations for most things.
Many of the dishes are typical of different parts of Latin America. These include "escabeche" (pickled fish, usually served cold); "ensaladas" (salads, the best being the avocado topped with onions and vinaigrette); "empanadas" (deep-fried pastries shaped like half-moons, stuffed with spiced meat); "tamales" (cornmeal and meat turnovers wrapped in paper or leaves); plus roast pork and chicken-and-rice combinations.
There are distinctively Cuban specialties too: "picadillo a la criolla" (spiced ground meat with raisins, olives, tomatoes); "boliche" (Cuban pot roast), and "medianoche," a classic Cuban sandwich of sliced pork, ham and Swiss cheese served warm on a hamburger bun that approximates Cuban soft egg breads.
We made sure to order that most Cuban of foods: deliciously addictive "frijoles negros" or black beans. They are long-simmered in garlic and spices, but the flavor is mild and pleasing. Served with rice, they constitute the basic staple of the Cuban diet. They also form a complementary protein that the modern day North American vegetarian would approve.
Our very American children made a nourishing dinner of black beans and rice, plus an empanada each.
The Tropicana offers acceptable though uninspired Italian standards, such as lasagna, spaghetti and manicotti. But we were more interested in the house specials, which are listed on hand-written notes posted above the kitchen door.
Thus, we ate grouper fish in a sauce "piquante." Grouper is a large fish found in warm waters in the Southern Atlantic. It is not a typical restaurant fish in the Washington area. At the Tropicana, it was flaked into a peppery tomato sauce with a generous mound of white rice beside it. "Bueno," said my husband.
My stuffed peppers were covered with a similar spicy tomato sauce. The peppers were giant in size, with lots of meat (no fillers), capers and raisins. In fact, they were flavored more like a "picadillo" than an American meat filling.
They were too large for me to finish.
House specials run $3.95 to $4.95. All entrees come with garlic bread, and most with rice.
We were distressed that the restaurant was out of plantains that night. These are large green banana-shaped fruits, but not sweet nor eaten raw. In Cuba, they are thinly sliced, crisply fried and salted. We had looked forward to a side dish of "platanos."
Another Cuban staple on the menu is yucca. It is a white, dense root, bland tasting, usually steamed and served plain.
American subs are also on the menu.
The Tropicana offers creative, nutritious and inexpensive nonalcoholic drinks. There is a pina colada without rum; papya juice and sidra (Spanish cider). There are tropical fruit milk shakes, delicious, sweet and refreshing. The mango is excellent.
Desserts include flan, a caramel custard that was too starchy the night we ate it, and guava paste and cheese.
We ate a variety of savory dishes and left the Tropicana very full with a bill that's a bargain: $23.43 for four, including wine bought elsewhere.