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May 26, 2003 05:37 PM

Dominican "Tropical Taste" + Humboldt Park trucks + valorizing the Chicago streetfoodscape

  • r

I was at Tropical Taste yesterday for the traditional Sunday sancocho and came home very enthusiastic about it. This Dominican "soup" is now one of my favorite meals-in-a-single-bowl in the city, along with the chicken ginseng soup at Ssyal, Guerrero-style green pozole, Filipino tripe congee (Goto con tokwa't baboy) at Ruby's. On a previous thread, JeffB had provided the following link to a recipe:

The version I sampled yesterday is the poor man's and not this deluxe, feast-day "siete carnes" version. In my "soup", I found a few chunks of beef (mostly shank, cut as cross-sections) and one piece of chicken neck. Among the tubers recognizable in the bowl were calabaza (squash), yautia blanca, yautia lila (this is the type speckled with pink) and plantains. The starch in these "viveres" (the Dominican word for all these root vegetables in general) add body to the stew without weighing it down with heaviness. It is deeply-savory and satisfying. There are two sizes (corresponding roughly to the two bowl sizes for pho), the larger (which I had) costing $6.50.

While chatting with "Eli" (Elisabeth) the owner, I learned that they are opening a branch this Friday on Ashland! The new location will actually feature a set, printed menu. The current location has generic, popular items (including many Puerto-Rican items, as Jeff pointed out) written on the board above the kitchen. These are your roast chicken, your sandwiches etc. For the daily Dominican specials, one has to peek over the counter at the dishes in the steam table. Usually, they would have Dominican specialties like carne lipiada (their version of ropa vieja), their version of cola de res (oxtail) or mangu. Mangu is described to me as "platano sancochado": plantain sections very simply sauteed/stewed with onion. Eli also said that the kitchen is set up to prepare any special orders for coconut-milk-based dishes (fish in coconut sauce, rice in coconut etc).

I get a kick out of the clientele here. Everyone seemed to talk at the same time and with such high drama. While I was eating my sancocho, this guy (obviously from the colonial/Spanish caste) walked in and ordered a sancocho as well. But he did it with such florid instructions and such over-exaggerated pickiness that it elicited friendly banter and hilarity all around. One of the teenage cooks threw up her hand and rolled her eyes in mock exasperation. Another pouted, glared at him and shook her hips at him flirtatiously all at the same time. The talk seemed doubly outrageous to me because I learned my Spanish in Spain and Mexico and was completely unaccustomed to all those strictly-Dominican words and turns-of-phrases. I had not been entertained with such table-side theatricality in a long time!

Tropical Taste Restaurant
3330 W. North Ave
(773) 395-0804
(773) 395-0801
Mon-Sat 10:30-7:30, Sun 10:30-5:30


Tropical Taste Cafe
1024 N. Ashland (?
)(Opening on May 30)
(Pls reconfirm exact address by calling above number. My scribbling here is a bit mangled)


I also spent a wonderful day at Humboldt Park yesterday and had a chance to check up on the food trucks. For the sake of coherence, I decided to post about them on the old thread from last week and link to it here.



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  1. v
    Vital Information

    I was a bit on the low side today, the inevitable come back to earth after a fantastic weekend of exploring, grilling and fighting.

    We had a few choices for dinner including some Silver Seafood leftovers, but I was aching to get out. Originally it was to be Gene and Jude's, and the Mistress of Spices even had packed away enough points for a dog and fries, but believe it or not, I got edging for something else.

    All the talk of Humboldt Park and related items had me hynotically lured to Tropical Taste. My first return visit since it changes hands/formats.

    To be honest, I have barely any clue besides yellow rice and red beans about Domincan food. I was thinking roasted chicken. It turns out the chickens were still cooking when we hit it early in the night. We still got chicken though, chicharron de pollo and pollo ajillo (so are these more on the PR side?)

    Who can resist a dish called chicharron de pollo? It was chicken fried about five times, giving it mostly the taste and consistency of chicharron, crispy fat. It contained a nice salty-spice element but needed some kind of sauce. My asking got me ketchup and pickled jalepeno's. The other dish was a sauteed chicken breast in a white garlic sauce, think Carribean veal francese, extra garlic. About 1/2 way through the meal, the chickens finished and we also ate a half a roast chicken. Good, but no threat to Mr. Pollo or the Colombian chicken places.

    I was amused that the walls contained photos of several Dominican ball players including Julian Tavaras, Angelo Jimminez and the patron saint of DR superstars, Roberto Clemente, but no Sammy. I thought maybe there was some kind of slight. It turns out that all the other players, including Mags Ordonoz, who is pictured in civvies, actually eat there. Sammy's too chicken.


    8 Replies
    1. re: Vital Information

      They actually eat there? How did you find out? What's with Sammy?

      carne ripiada not lipiada.

      For the Dominican stuff, stand on a stool and peek over the counter. It's on the steam table on the other side. Or ask for asopao. I think that she will make it. The stuff on the board is mostly PR/generic as Jeff pointed out.


      1. re: RST
        Vital Information

        RST asks how I knew about the baseball players eating at Tropical Taste. I asked. It was primarily because of Sosa, surely the most famous DR ballplayer being absent.

        I've noted before that the Cub's Hee Sop Choi is a denizen of the dolsot place on Lawrence.

        It has also been noted that the owner of the cemita place on North Av. is a former sports reporter on Spanish radio, and his place is filled with autographs.

        Do people know of other places associated with atheletes, besides the obvious like Harry Carey's, 160 Blue and Gibson's. For instance, does Bartolo Colon get his mornng coffee at Care Mariano?


        1. re: Vital Information

          Of course, there's always the Ambasador, which is a base hit away from Wrigley Field. Lots of signed autographs there as well. BTW, last year Celia Cruz ate there. Now *that's* a celebrity chowhound coup. Rob, you happened to have nailed one of the (relatively few) Dominican classics: the chicharon de pollo. That's basic Dominican street food, IME. It's nice to have a Dominican place around, but the cuisine isn't too complicated. The most important Dominican contributions remain ball players, merengue, Rubirosa and Presidente. I'd add Brugal, but it's not as good as Barbancourt from the same island.

          1. re: JeffB
            Vital Information

            What about A.Fuente?

            1. re: Vital Information

              The Fuente family is Cuban first, Tampan second, and Dominican third from what I can tell. They've done their best work in the DR, however. I'm a Don Carlos fan.

          2. re: Vital Information

            Hey VI, I read ALL of your posts but must have missed those. I tend NEVER to look at those pictures on the wall. I swear that if I see another picture of Oprah or Daley or worse, some small-time starlet or bureaucrat or newscaster, it'd ruin my day. Who wants to look at an alderman's picture while eating. I guess I should pay SOME attention from time to time.

            Are those pictures a Chicagoan thing, by the way? I've seen them in some other cities, but they don't seem to be as common elsewhere. Is this a manifestation of the very Chicagoan (political) practice of "patronage"? Does it go back to some old idea such as: "I bestow my picture on your establishment, as a sign of my patronage and my protection"?

            1. re: RST

              One of the best meals I had in Madrid (can't speak for himself, he misordered) was in a place that was plastered with framed pictures and bios of bullfighters. I've always steered away from bullfight memorabilia restaurants; this was a pleasant surprise. It fight right into my restaurant picking criteria: people who've been married for over 15 years, a medium price point. Gotta figure that if they're still eating together after all those years, they must at least share an appreciation of good food.

              We saw other places in both France and Spain with pictures of celebrities. I would rely on instinct in choosing meals. As always.

        2. re: Vital Information

          A little sidenote- Roberto Clemente was Puerto Rican, not Dominican....

        3. Richard, thanks for the Humboldt Park information. As always, no stone left unturned or undocumented. The park itself and the environs are very special. Always a revelation to people who think they know the city, especially now that the park is in pristine condition. I know that the community around there has some misgivings about gentrification, but on balance I think the city has done a great job with both the park and the neighborhood.

          6 Replies
          1. re: JeffB

            Except for the community that is priced out of a place to live and, increasingly, homeless.

            It that's a success, then you need to question what the city's policies are.

            That said, my favorite truck is on Munoz Marin on the southwest side of the park.

            1. re: annieb

              I didn't intend to get off topic. However, if you mean the CHA kicking people out of their homes, that's one thing. But the *park* is Chicago's park, and while cleaning it up might raise property values (including for PR landlords), and then rent, I still can't see the renovation as a negative thing. The pork trucks seem to be a good example of the political compromise that is happening in HP now. The community is quite well represnted politically and seems to be intent on preserving its culture,thank goodness. I could be wrong but I don't see HP suffering the same fate as Maxwell St. and Taylor St. (to use two Chow-centric neighborhood references).

              1. re: JeffB

                The Pork Trucks-- what a great name for how the city dispenses services to neighborhoods.

                (Oh, you meant actual trucks selling actual pork?)

                1. re: Mike G

                  Re: "political compromise"

                  Well, I don't have the whole story about those trucks: it was merely a speculation. This is not the kind of story that the Tribune would touch. I wish the Reader would cover it. I also point out that these "clean, well-lighted" trucks, which obviously require a certain amount of capital, might already imply the stifling of a lot of street food vibrance and inventiveness. It might already indicates TOO MUCH regulation and bureaucracy. As a city, it is very important to develop a reasoned civic discourse about such things. You cannot simply have policies that demonize all street food as unhygienic and that attempt to create strangleholds of asepsia. You cannot have policies so short-sighted as to consider merely the amount of tax revenues that could be gleaned from a certain food business. The demolition of whole blocks of entertainment districts in the Loop did away with what the older Daley called "honky-tonk". It generated huge revenues for the city from the new tenants of immense skyscrapers. It consolidated the status of the Loop as the great city center: a great achievement at a period of suburban flight. But it also killed the life and the eating in this part of town, to the point where the only options up to this day seem to be Sbarro, McDonald's and Burrito Beach. It pains me to walk along Michigan/Adams to see the members* of one of the greatest orchestras in the world grab a quick lunch at Panda Express for lack of any other options. This is the same wasteland of food that tourists and visitors to our great institutions (the Art Institute, the Architecture Foundation etc) see. On another thread, we discussed the gradual opening of the banks of the river for development. This is a fantastic opportunity for the city and promises extraordinary enrichment of our lives. The problem is that the food business will almost certainly be farmed out unthinkingly to highest-bidding corporations, chains, big consortia. Like the Loop, like today's Navy Pier, like the godawful Taste of Chicago (with its umpteenth pad thai and ribs stands), the river will turn into another "confected playground" of Sbarros, sports bars with microwave pizzas, Disneyesque faux-Italian or faux-Japanese. We need to start developing enlightened ways of discussing such issues and of insuring that this immense resource, a resource that belongs to everyone in Chicago, is not also wasted. Simple steps resulting from a reasoned discourse could go very far. Allowing food carts to ply the banks could help in stimulating creativity and true diversity. Being less Draconian about fees/taxes/permits/licensing for certain classes of businesses could also work wonder. Advocacy and protection of more "spontaneous" kinds of food businesses will yield many "intangible" returns of the sort that will magnify and enrich the urban landscape in fundamental ways. It is time to reaffirm those forms of urbanism that have made our city great. It's time to fight to regain that greatness.


                  *Quite hilariously, by sheer coincidence, I always catch Henry Fogel (the outgoing director of the Chicago Symphony, who served the city honorably) slurping down a bowl of pho at a certain Argyle joint. There's no lack of good taste in the symphony!

                  *I owe my understanding of the developments in the Loop to Ross Miller (author of "Here's the Deal: the Buying and Selling of a Great American City".)


                  1. re: RST

                    I agree, the Loop is a wasteland of sorts. Even people from such antiseptic cities as Atlanta comment on how clean and relatively sterile it is. Don't forget, though, that the average diner is a suburbanite with 20-30 minutes to eat. Also, the last time I was in NYC, wandering around downtown, I remember thinking the Loop seemed suddenly vibrant. The Disneyfied Times Square isn't much better than the Disneyfied State Street, either. I know this is damnation by faint praise. I guess the really important point, and a point of real difference between the cities, is the dearth of good carts and lunch trucks. Granted, we have some good ones and probably many compared to most American cities, but we obviously could have many, many more parked, e.g., near the museum campus, the exchanges, the train stations, etc. Daley has a chance to do something great with our own white elephant (sorry to stretch the refernce), Block 37, and I hope he does. FWIW, the new food court at Midway shows some neighborhood sensitivity and a bit of originality. Even though I would have picked others, I still think it's the best dining area in any airport. Manny's, Potbelly, Lalo's (with a bigger selection than some of the chain's other links!), a Stefani's concession (of course; talk about pork), Illinois Bar & Grill (after the Taylor St. place), a Chinatown place of no particular note, Gold Coast Dogs and a few others. No Cinnabun, no Chili's. They could do better with the Block 37 project, whatever it is. But you never know with the semi-enlightened despot that is our mayor. (Soldier Field, casinos, the Meigs destruction... he's due for a change in luck.)

                    Ironically, you might have read over on the NYC boards that the best hot dog cart in the Manhattan might be Danny Meyer's Chicago style wagon. (Meyer also used the downstate Illinois Apple City BBQ guys (Murphysboro) to set up his Blue Smoke.) Speaking of street food, Johnny Apple's ode to Philly's contibutions in today's paper isn't his best work, but it was deep enough to include a trip to Tony Luke's on Oregon for one of my top three sandwiches, the roast pork w/ rabe and provolone. I can't help but think Apple has a big Chicago article in the works, as he seems to be in the area quite often and his wife is from Wisconsin.

                    1. re: JeffB

                      Yeah, it's funny about that Midway concession area, I was thinking how good it looked by comparison when I got to the one at the airport in Cancun and my choices were Burger King, Domino's, KFC... even if it's a somewhat plastic version of Chicago, at least it's not a plastic version of nowhere!

                      The weird thing about the Loop is the way at some point it became taken for granted that, regardless of where you actually work, if you have under 30 minutes or under $7, you eat in the Loop, and over 30 minutes and over $10, you go north of the River. You'd think there'd be a fortune to be made opening a P.F. Chang's or a California Pizza Kitchen in the middle of the Loop (I say that and someone will say that it has finally happened), but it's so weirdly stratified between long lunch sitdown places north of the river and short lunch takeout places south, even though the audience, it seems to me, is largely the same folks (I've certainly worked the same sorts of jobs on both sides of the river). And presumably tourists going to the Art Institute are as hungry as ones walking north Michigan Ave., since they're the same people on different days...

          2. btw, no signs of life on ashland location. big sign's been in the window for months, but i see no furniture in the storefront when i drive by.