I’m always trying to find different and interesting places to dine and luckily my co-workers are willing to go with me to untested places for lunch. Tropical Star Restaurant & Specialty Market caught my eye because it offered an interesting number of Latin American foods. They feature Puerto Rican food but also have a little bit of “this and that” from other Latin cultures, creating an interesting mix of items available for feeding your belly.
Tropical Star is located in a little strip mall near Balboa & Genesee, near the IHOP. It’s not a very big place and also doubles as a market.
There are about four tables inside with a couple of tables outside. Initially we were sitting outdoors since all the indoor tables were taken, but once they freed up we moved instead since it was quite windy that day.
This photo shows probably half the restaurant/market. It’s quite cozy in here! Upon first glance you wouldn’t really even know they served food here, since the counter/register is kind of hidden on the left. No one greets you and you just grab a menu, stand around awkwardly trying to figure out what to order, place your order when someone finally comes back to the counter and hope there’s a seat left for you.
They sure don’t waste any space here. Every nook and cranny is filled with product. These license plate holders, books and other items were above our heads at our table.
[arroz con pollo / pieces of chicken cooked with rice, seasoned with tomato, onions, and bell peppers. served with red beans and green salad – $7.95]
This is David’s lunch. I didn’t try it. But it looks good, doesn’t it? I need to like, interview everyone about their meal afterwards so I can say if they liked it or not. I don’t remember!
[guava juice – $3.25]
David also got a Guava Juice. I don’t know many places were you can get guava juice. I feel like I tried this. Curse my memory today.
[papa rellena / potato puff, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, filled with seasoned beef – $2.50]
I ordered a papa rellena for an appetizer. The look, taste and feel of these makes me think of the potato balls from Porto’s in Los Angeles. These maybe look a little more “homemade” though!
Here’s a look at the papa rellena’s innards. These are a little different from Porto’s since there’s “other stuff” inside of them. There were some veggies and other seasonings in the middle there. The surrounding potato was nice and creamy and the inner filling was quite delicious. I think I still like the Porto’s version a little bit more, but these are another take on a really delicious item.
[pernil de cerdo asado / sliced roast pork served with white rice and red beans – $8.50]
For my main lunch, I opted to try this sliced roast pork dish. It was covered in a marinade/sauce that I don’t think was really evenly distributed over the meat since I had some really “intense” bites where all I could taste was the very strong flavor of the marinade (a combination of citrus, garlic and other flavors). Once I got under the top layer, the pork was almost devoid of seasoning. There were also some really dry pieces to the pork and the inconsistency just made for a very “meh” dish. I ate the red beans with the rice and while I’m not a huge fan of beans, I found these to be pretty acceptable. They had a pretty mild flavor. Overall nothing to write home about.
[ropa vieja / cuban style shredded beef seasoned with garlic, onion and bell peppers served with white rice, black beans, fried ripe plantains, and green salad – $10.50]
Here’s Matt’s dish! I believe this is the Ropa Vieja based on the menu description since I forgot to write down what he ordered. I didn’t try this one either. Sorry. Ain’t it pretty, though?
[tostones rellenos / stuffed tostones filled with black beans served with a side of avocado – $4.95]
Lauren ordered off the vegetarian menu and let us all try some of her tostones rellenos, which ended up being my favorite thing! I think she ordered the rice on the side. I’ll have to ask her later about that.
The little tostones cups are made with fried plantains and stuffed with black beans and some kind of cheese. The cups tasted nothing like plantains to me. They had a bit of sweetness to them and were quite crunchy. I loved the crunch and texture of them and were surprised that I liked them at all since plantains are not exactly my favorite thing ever. I like seeing how things can be produced in different ways though to make you go, “Aha! I like it when it’s done like this!” I didn’t put any avocado in with it, but I have a feeling that would have made it even more delicious.
For an afternoon treat, I bought one of these alfajor cookies that were under a glass cake stand at the register ($1.50 each). David and I went up together to get a few cookies to go and kind of had to wait around awhile until someone wandered back up to the register… I started wishing they had one of those bells to ring for service!
It was worth the wait to get one of the delicious cookies though. It has a thick caramel filling in the middle and the outer layers had a very rich, nutty flavor with the consistency and taste of crispy, buttery pie dough crust. I managed to get an embarrassing amount of powdered sugar on the front of my shirt as I ate these. Luckily I don’t care about such things. Pure deliciousness!
While I didn’t love everything I got, I did manage to try a few really tasty things that would entice me to come back here to have those things again and possibly try a few other items on the menu. There’s definitely a feeling of “homemade” and cooked to order food here, something I always appreciate and am on the lookout for.
Plus… cookies! Nom, nom, nom.
Tropical Star Restaurant & Specialty Market
6163 Balboa Ave.
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 874-STAR (7827)