For a new restaurant that serves unfamiliar food, the safe strategy has always been to spread your bets.
If you want to serve Korean stew, open a teriyaki restaurant and use chicken teriyaki as the culinary Trojan horse for more exotic dishes. Better to have Thai food on the menu alongside Japanese sushi and Chinese stir fry, each cuisine acting as a hedge against the popularity of the other. One restaurant in the University District, Cedars, pairs Indian food with its not-so-close cousin, Middle Eastern food.
The phenomenon is a curious one, but one that makes plenty of sense for a place like Seattle that is home to a diversity of cultures but not in the thick concentrations that would support an entire district of, say, southern Indian restaurants, or a restaurant with a menu entirely of Colombian food. The mix here is gentle, a smattering here and there, with small clutches of wayward Russians, Somalis, Iranians, Laotians, and Latin Americans who come from places beyond Mexico, countries like Peru, Guatemala, Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, and El Salvador.
What most of us experience of Latin food here is mostly Mexican, of relatively low variety. Mexican food is often the gateway to Latin food in Seattle — what teriyaki is to Asian food. Pedro Vargas serves tacos at his Cuban food truck on 90th and Aurora Avenue; Guanaco'ês Tacos Pupuseria melds El Salvadoran with Mexican, serving pupusas and other El Salvadoran specialities with tacos, burritos, and enchiladas.
Not all Latin restaurants give in to the obligation to serve Mexican. There are taco-less and burrito-less places like Paseo, La Casa del Mojito, La Isla, and any number of vaguely Spanish restaurants that serve food that more or less qualifies as Latin, most of it perfectly delicious but lacking specificity, an identifiable soul, an edge that sets it apart. It is not Venezuelan food, or Puerto Rican food, or Cuban food exactly, but Latin-style, or Caribbean-style food.
Among the few establishments that have resisted the tendency to either Mexican-ize or homogenize its menu is Mi Chalateca, an El Salvadoran restaurant which had two locations, in north Seattle and Federal Way. It served rustic, home cooking without a taco in sight.
So when new owners took over the Seattle Mi Chalateca restaurant on Aurora Avenue North — there is still a Mi Chalateca in Federal Way, no longer affiliated with the Seattle restaurant — they decided to change the name to Tropicos Breeze so it could draw a wider audience. The decision backfired.
'êIt was a big mistake,'ê said Tony Reyes, one of the new owners. 'êWe lost a lot of customers. They stopped eating here because they thought it was a new restaurant.'ê
In fact, Tropicos Breeze is exactly the same place with the same menu. While the name suggests something more generic and American, its understated food is among the most distinct you will find around here. The presentation is neither dazzling nor elegant. The atmosphere is about as seductive as that of a Denny'ês. But to expect different would be to miss the point.
The most familiar feature of El Salvadoran food is probably the pupusa, a flat griddle cake, the size of a small hamburger, made of corn meal and stuffed with various meats, beans, or cheese ($2.45 to $2.99). The El Salvadoran diet is not unlike that of other central American countries. Corn meal, black beans, plantains, cassava, rice, and white cheese are staples.
Tropicos Breeze makes its own cheese every day on premises, as it does its own chorizo. The tortillas that come with most of the entrees are not thin like the Mexican variety, but thick and dense, more like a cake than a wrap. El Salvadoran food, like most Latin food, is generally not spicy, an expectation many Americans hold because of our associations with Mexican food. The flavors are not overly complex; preparations are fairly simple.
The yucca con chicharron ($7.99), or fried cassava and fatty pork, is just that, the Latin equivalent of potatoes and bacon, but heartier and more satisfying. Cassava is to much of Latin America and Africa what rice is to Asia. Filling if not nutritious, cassava is a starch that works well in poor nations. It grows easily in drought conditions — cassava is the root of a woody shrub — and does not require much care to cultivate. After rice and wheat, it is the third largest source of edible starch in the world. Salty but unsmoked, chicharron is a popular breakfast and lunch meat in most of central America and parts of South America. Tropicos Breeze serves chicharron in chunks rather than slices.
Curtido, a kind of cole slaw, comes with most of the dishes. Made with cabbage, carrot and onion, the condiment is gently pickled and tangy, a useful counterpoint to the salt and the starch it is served with. At every table there is a bottle of what looks like ketchup, a slightly spicy, thin, tomato sauce that is also meant to be eaten with every meal. It tastes particularly good squirted over the restaurant'ês tamales ($2.45), stuffed with either pork or chicken. The meat is whole, not ground; the tamales are also stuffed with a chunk of potato and pepper, and steamed in a banana leaf rather than a corn husk.
Another typical small dish is the platano frito ($4.99) or fried plantain, served El Salvadoran style with beans and cream. Tropicos Breeze is open for breakfast, incidentally, with plates ranging in price from $7.99 to $10.99, containing items like beans, plantains, chorizo, ham, avocado, yucca, and eggs. (The next time you are in the mood for a heavy breakfast at one of those hipster diners, skip the inexplicable lines of people waiting to eat home fries and mediocre omelets, and go to Tropicos Breeze, where your money is better spent.)
The menu includes seafood — El Salvador is on the Pacific Ocean — in simple dishes like fried fish ($11.99) and seafood soup ($13.99). The soups at Tropicos Breeze ought to be enough for the place to earn a following. The chicken in the chicken soup ($10.99) is grilled and served separately, on the bone with a side of rice, which seems counterintuitive but makes more sense once you taste the broth. It is so rich and satisfying, you really want to drink it in alone. Large chunks of carrot, green beans, zucchini, potato, and chayote are cooked in the broth. After eating most of the meat off the bone, I then surrendered the remains of the chicken to the broth.
Reyes proudly reported his restaurant serves only organic, free range chicken — you get one quarter, either the breast or the leg and thigh, with each serving of soup. His chicken supplier, he said, is a secret, but it got me wondering if he raised the birds himself. It might be my imagination, but indeed, the meat had a gamier, deeper flavor than most of the chicken I'êve eaten. Tropicos Breeze also serves a beef version of the same soup, using tail and rib meat.
The showcase entrÃ©e is no doubt the molcajete ($14.99), tender grilled beef, chorizo, cheese, avocado, green onion, and cactus, arranged artfully in a large, heated bowl carved from volcanic rock — El Salvador is a country of volcanoes and earthquakes located on the Pacific ring of fire — with corn cakes and a puddle of tomato sauce.
El Salvadoran food skews toward starch and meat, either grilled or sautÃ©ed. Onions, peppers, tomatoes, and a few other vegetables generally make it into an entrÃ©e or two, but in general the cuisine is not heavily reliant on a variety of vegetables. The place is more of a meat-eater'ês pleasure. Your vegetarian friends can, however, watch you eat while sipping on a variety of juices ($2), all made from scratch from mango, pineapple, sour cherry, passion fruit and cashew fruit. The place also makes its own horchata from roasted and ground pumpkin seeds.
Old customers are finding their way back to Tropicos Breeze, Reyes said, along with newcomers, some from other Spanish-speaking countries. The Venezuelan customers have asked for plantains served whole with a ribbon of cheese cooked down the middle; the Peruvian customers ask for extra rice and skip the corn cakes; Asian customers like extra chorizo. Eaten with a tortilla and cheese, they are a meal in themselves.
Reyes has been happy to accommodate every quirk, as he is discovering that to make it in Seattle as a restaurant serving traditional, old-world food, it doesn'êt hurt to play to a wider audience after all.
If you go: Tropicos Breeze, 9710 Aurora Ave. N., 206-524-3046, tropicosbreeze.com. Open 10 a.m-10 p.m. daily.