Tropical Latino, Lakeland

When you live in Central Florida, you can probably think of about 30 to 40 storefront Latin restaurants, where you don't know the name, but the odds are high that they've got authentic cuisine.

Along 98 North in Lakeland, I know of several and keep meaning to visit a few, one that is reported to have really good Arepas, and another with really good Ropa Vieja. Basically, you think of a cuisine from the Latin world, and you probably can find it within a half hour of your front door.

Meanwhile, I've been looking at Tropical Latino for months. It is next door to the laundromat that I go to, alas, I typically do my laundry when they are closed. A few weeks ago, I went in the early afternoon and had an empanada and chatted with the girl behind the counter.

She showed me all the delights in the steam table and we talked of their specials. As the saying goes, el restaurante huele bien, and I knew I'd be back the next time. So, the other day, I loaded up the laundry and planned on lunch at Tropical Latino.

I was in luck, because the menu had Mofongo con Pernil. Pernil is a roasted pork dish that is so good, rubbed in a paste of garlic, salt pepper and oregano and slow roasted for hours-kind of a Puerto Rican pulled pork. Mofongo comes from Cuba and I've been looking to try an authentic representation of the dish, because the one time I had it-I was served little hockey puck things that sort of tasted like plantains, but definitely didn't look like what Mofongo is described to be.

In short order, my meal came out, accompanied by this nice, light salad. It had a tasty italian dressing on it and the lettuce was crisp and cold. It made a nice complement to the warm items in my entree.

The Pernil was darn near perfect. Tender, with a slight vinegary flavor and light hints of the garlic and oregano. You definitely knew they were part of the rub, but neither seasoning overpowered the pork.

The mofongo was good, definitely much better than the one I had last time. Still, it was underwhelming. It's supposed to be garlicy and traditional recipes use bacon fat, but I didn't get much of either. I think if I'd asked for some Cholula or hot sauce, I probably would have chowed down on more. That said, the rest of the meal was so good that if Mofongo isn't exactly what I thought it would be, no biggie.

Here's another thing that I like about the place: The whole time I was there, every patron who sat in the dining room or ordered take out was speaking Spanish. I was picking up snippets of conversation, but to me, if you're serving a traditional cuisine and everyone patronizing you is from that culture-that's the blue ribbon seal of approval.

What is surprising is that I did not find a listing for them in Urban Spoon, so I had to ask for them to be added. Food this good should not be a secret!

Tropical Latino on Urbanspoon


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