When I heard the rumors on Facebook that a Puerto Rican couple was bringing a Puerto Rican restaurant to Birmingham, I was stoked! Years ago my mom and I had been musing about opening our own Puerto Rican restaurant, but musing in the same way one might muse about filling up a backpack and spending the rest of one’s life as a nomad—wistfully and with very little likelihood. Honestly, brainstorming over a decade before Birmingham became a “foodie city,” we didn’t think it would be successful. There hasn’t ever been a huge Puerto Rican population here, and we weren’t confident we’d have a huge market—the foodies were here, of course, but we didn’t see them like we do now.
Today, though, Gabriel and Maria Marrero have taken the city by storm, and Tropicaleo has been a huge success. Not only have they boasted 130+ popups around the city, but they recently won REV Birmingham’s Big Pitch and will be the Reveal Kitchen’s first guests in the Pizitz building!
One of the best qualities of Tropicaleo is that they’re super vegan friendly, and they offer vegan dishes at every one of their popups. I followed them around for a while, and here’s what I tried:
My mom, Kent, and I made our way to Crestwood during their inaugural popup session this past summer. While mom got (and enjoyed) the meaty Jibarito, I tried the vegan version, and I. Was. Hooked!
First of all, I have no idea how they get their tostones, which are fried in coconut oil so delicately that my mom was convinced they used butter, so freaking huge! Sometimes my regular-sized tostones fall apart, so the fact that Tropicaleo uses tostones as BREAD FOR A SANDWICH was really impressive. I was also impressed by how they cooked the eggplant. Sautéed eggplant is not my go-to sandwich filler (because the texture often reminds me of my bad experience with Portobello mushroom burgers—a story I might tell eventually), but the eggplant was cooked to perfection—not too squishy-firm and not soggy. The seasoning was the star, though—the eggplant was deliciously flavored and paired perfectly with the hummus spread, spinach, and tomato toppings. Spread on top was a squiggle of their “De La Casa” sauce, a delicious aioli, which set off the flavors well. I had mine with Wholesome Soda.
This is kinda a cheat, but since I didn’t take notes the first time, I went back for the same dish during Birmingham Restaurant Week; they had a deal this time, though, so I got to try their bread pudding as well.
The sandwich was just as wonderful as the first time, and the service was much better—they actually had some wait staff there to help, which was great because the word about a new Caribbean restaurant in town seemed to be spreading fast.
Now we’re on to my fangirl-following-the-tour bus special. Because the Tropicaleo trio (including Chef Orlando) is trying to get the restaurant’s name out there, they’ve been setting up shop everywhere, and I mean everywhere! I already mentioned their mini mofongo stand during Bryant Terry’s visit at the Eat Read Drink Write Festival, but that same day Gabriel and Orlando had their tent service at ¡Fiesta!, Birmingham’s annual Hispanic culture festival.
There they had meat stuffs, but I got a plate of cilantro rice and tostones, and I enjoyed having a chat with Gabriel about his past veganism, and I was really heart warmed to see how much thought they put into ensuring that all of their customers could find something to eat at their restaurant. The rice was fine, if unremarkable, but the tostones were again fried to perfection.
This late-night tent fest was at the Alys Stephen’s Center for the free outdoor Tiempo Libre concert. I really came just to try Tropicaleo’s pastelitos (a specialty of mine and my mother’s), because I had an event right after, so I had to miss the concert.
The star of the night, I’ll have to say, were the condiments—before this night, I actually never added anything to the pastilitos we made at home, so adding their pepper-infused vinegar was a lovely new experience. The empanadas were good; if not as flavorful as the ones I make at home, they were filling and tasty with
textured vegetable protein and maybe bonaito or some other non-potato root vegetable inside. Make sure to add some of their fantastic sauces to your empanadas—the condiments really set off the low-key flavors inside. So goooood!
For the weekend of the Day of the Dead Tropicaleo was set up at the massive Cahaba Brewery, and here they served what I think is the pièce de résistance of my Tropicaleo experience—their mofongo, which is the best I’ve ever eaten from a restaurant.
The super filling mofongo was perfectly salted and the platanos were hand-smashed, leaving some chunks (which is the perfect texture),and topped with various bell peppers and some of their newly-developed homemade soy protein. The pepper-infused vinaigrette paired wonderfully, as did their BBQ and Guava sauces.
Their new soy-from-scratch toppings/filings were subtly flavored, and the texture was nice; often chicharones are added to mofongo, so that tends to add a salt and a crunch that wasn’t really in the soy, but the flavors were great, and the chopped peppers added a nice alternative crunchiness.
So, now it’s your turn! What more can we ask for than a local, unique, vegan friendly, healthy, and friendly restaurant offering Puerto Rican and tropical flavors?
Check ‘em out at a popup around town, or visit them at the Pizitz building! ¡Wepa!