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Fusion Done Right at The Tropical Restaurant
Fusion, Pacific Rim — those are culinary buzzwords (more so in the late 1990s than now) but most places get them wrong. The Tropical gets it right. Fusion means a marriage of Asian and American ingredients and cooking techniques, but all too often the vibrant, exciting flavors of the East are dumbed down in the process. At Tropical, those flavors shine. One reason, perhaps, is that the chefs and owners of most fusion restaurants are American. At Tropical, they are from Thailand (although the owner, Tana Karnchanakphan, grew up here and attended Holland Hall, which is a fusion of sorts).
It’s easy to miss. Cruise down Memorial on a sunny summer evening and make a turn into a road as narrow as a Soi in Bangkok and you’ll find a tiny house that could be on one of those tiny Bangkok streets.
On the right you can see a garden that stretches around the house. Perhaps you’ll see a Thai lady planting flowers. We did. (And maybe it was the chef! It’s her garden.) The garden also provides greens and fresh herbs for the restaurant. Walk through those unassuming doors and you’ll get a surprise.
Suddenly you’re in a flashy sports bar. Chances are you’ll see the manager Gerrod Kennedy pouring drinks. You can dine there if you like, or you can walk farther back to the spare modern dining room.
It’s decorated with antique Cambodian wood bas-reliefs. (The one in the photo is 300 years old and is in the style of much older Khmer stone sculpture. It shows a scene from the Ramayana, an attack by the Monkey King Hanuman and his armies.)
Don’t miss the appetizers. They showcase Chef Renu Jansala’s artistry. (And they’re half-price on weekdays between 5 and 6.) Here’s the Thai Tofu ($7).
The blocks of tofu have been breaded and lightly fried to give them a lovely creamy texture. This isn’t a Thai technique. You’d be more likely to find it in Hong Kong. But the topping is pure Thai. Thai cooking favors a blend of sharp, distinct flavors. Here the salad provides that. You can taste the crunchy green apple and, by contrast, the sharp red onion and herbal cilantro, all marinated in ginger and lime. Another great appetizer is the Rambutan Chicken ($6).
Chicken meatballs are wrapped with noodles, then deep-fried. They don’t contain rambutans. They are designed to look like rambutans, a kind of fruit found only in southeast Asia. Here’s a rambutan.
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You can see the similarity. The meatballs, juicy with crispy breading, are just fine by themselves, and the Thai peanut sauce, made with peanuts and not just peanut butter, makes them even better.
On to the entrees. We focused on the section of the menu entitled “Fresh Off the Grill”. You can choose from a list of eight fish, including Chilean sea bass, swordfish and mahi mahi. Then there’s a list of five sauces including lemon butter, rainbow herb, and sweet and sour. You also get one side; sides include corn cakes, asparagus and basil fries. Here’s what I got.
Scallops with red curry sauce, beautifully and perfectly presented. The scallops were just about perfect. The rich sauce, made to order and made like a traditional Thai curry, features lemongrass and coconut milk. The sauces, the owner told one newspaper, are meant to accent the fish and not overwhelm it. The rich intense curry leaned more to the overwhelm end of the spectrum… but it was a lovely sauce. Betty’s sauce might have been a better choice.
This is salmon with sweet pepper mango sauce. The salmon was nicely cooked, succulent. The sauce was wisely put in the salad on the side rather than being poured over the fish. That salad, featuring red onions, mango and cilantro, and that sweet mango dressing, was the perfect accompaniment to a lovely fish.
There are other entrees too, all of them creative and far from the humdrum norm, including duck with tamarind sauce ($19), strip steak with a sweet Thai steak sauce ($19), fried chicken with yellow curry and spaghetti ($12), and catfish sandwich with Thai peanut spread ($10). Cathe got the Shrimp Macaroni ($14)
Big lovely shrimp with elbow pasta in a sweet and sour sauce. Good flavors but in my opinion overshadowed by the grilled fish. Along with all this, they gave us a plate of greens fresh from the garden.
I have quite a few friends in Thailand right now. I bet they wish they were eating here.
The Tropical Restaurant and Bar
8125 E 49 Street (just east of Memorial)
Open daily from 11 AM to 3 PM and from 5 PM to 10 PM
Brian Schwartz: Author
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.