Saturday was the saddest day of the year: the day my uncle Arturito goes back home to North Carolina. Of course, you have to give the man what he wants, and when we asked him where he wanted to go for his farewell dinner, he said: El Tropico.
Cuban food is a nightmare for vegans rivaled only by that great triumvirate of corporate vegan apocalypse, Applebee's, Chili's, and the OG (where even the salad dressing has cheese). Cubans looove meat, hate vegetables. I have had interesting conversations with Cubans where there have been claims such as "corn is what we feed the pigs." Moreover, the traditional cooking oil is lard, although some restaurants have moved (thank God) to less psychotic choices such as olive and corn oil. Though some of the traditional menu items may look vegan, such as, say, moros (white rice cooked with black beans), most cooks toss in bacon or lacon (pork shoulder) "for flavor."
Yet, you can't live in Miami and avoid Cuban food forever, especially when you have visitors from other places where Cuban food is either less readily available or less authentic (most Cuban restaurants in Miami are run by actual Cubans). So, one must find a way to navigate that large, meaty menu in such a way that you can get more than just a salad out of it, especially given that what Cubans consider salad is usually just a bunch of iceberg lettuce with tomatoes (remember, the pigs get the other veggies).
Enter El Tropico in Sunny Isles. I know I said I would stick to places close to home, and Sunny Isles verges on the edge of the land beyond which there be dragons. But it's the home of my aunt Bebita, and she's the one who discovered El Tropico. It's a typical Cuban restaurant, but the vegan choices are tastier than some other places we've been.
What are the vegan choices at a Cuban restaurant? Apart from the plain salad (avocado or "aguacate" salad is also vegan when available) with oil and vinegar, you can usually rely on some sides for a good meal. There's always white rice, which is vegan, and traditional black bean soup is accidentally vegan, although some places, like Casa Larios, have decided to pollute it with meat, so you better ask. "You better ask" is the motto here, especially when it comes to the kind of oil they use for frying and whether everything's fried together in one big gross vat. Be prepared to be looked at quizzically; these are not questions Cubans ask. We prefer to ask for the No. 4 and be done with it, but nevertheless both times we've been at El Tropico the server has been kind and forthcoming, and, best of all, gotten the unusual orders right.
My mother and I opted for black beans, white rice, and the best gosh-darned tostones con mojo (fried green plantains with garlic sauce) I've ever had:
I have no idea how they get these things so big. Usually tostones are the size of your palm; these are the size of your face, and they are yummy, thin and light. The portions are HUGE--here is what the tostones looked like before I put them on the plate with the rice:
Tostones are very bad for you, as they are basically a deep-fried starch. My husband tried to be healthier and got a nice pig's portion of sauteed (in oil) veggies, an unusual menu item:
These included broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and yellow carrots, which we'd never had before and were quite tasty and fancy. He also had some black beans (sans rice, very unCuban), splurged on some yucca (which is also very bad for you given its starchiness, but at least it's not deep-fried), and ordered some corn off-menu, which they have around because it's an ingredient in some dishes:
I tried the yuca and it was delicious, soft and creamy. Yuca is difficult to make well--it can come out hard and the whole thing depends on the mojo. This yuca is very, very good.
There's some other vegan sides you can have. You can have the quintessential platanos maduros, the sweet fried plantains that are so good (and so bad for you!). There's French fries, although French fries at Cuban places tend to be frozen (we did not try them here). You can also get mariquitas con mojo, the green platain sliced up thin like chips, or the fried yuca. They're also vegan. But stay away from the moros and yellow rice unless you ask how they are seasoned, and be aware that the tamal has pork, even the plain one. All the fruit shakes are prepared with milk, and if you ask for soy milk at a Cuban restaurant they'll think you're a Communist and throw you out. Don't eat the bread, either. Cuban bread is made with lard and prepared with butter.
Let me tell you, the three vegans at the table ate like pigs.
I highly recommend this place if you are in the Sunny Isles area. They have live music on Saturday night, and the ambience is laid back and comfortable. The carnivores loved their food, too. Arturito had a bistec empanizado (chicken fried steak) bigger than a hubcap. I wish I had a picture of him, but for some reason his pictures came out fuzzy. Here is one of my aunt Bebita, myself, and my mom:
We had a great time and would definitely go back. This place is better than either La Carreta or Versailles, which are much more popular. They get an A for making Cuban food vegan accessible.