Far Flung Correspondence: Tropical Restaurant

Nothing embodies Nigerian food quite like jollof rice

Photos by John Anderson

Tropical Restaurant is about the journey, not just the destination. Although there's a bright orange banner outside crammed with glossy photos of Nigerian specialties, the door to the dining area is always locked, despite the flaked gold letter sign proclaiming that it must be open during business hours. Entering the grocery store beside the restaurant, you have to scoot past the counter through a narrow passageway lined with Nigerian foodstuffs like smoked peanuts and elaborate bottles of red palm oil, dodging teetering stacks of bulk grains and rices. At the end of the restaurant, duck through the heavy blue blanket hung over the doorway and you'll have reached your destination – a low-ceilinged room lined with televisions blaring Nigerian news and soccer, and animal holograms decorating the walls. Men sit alone or in groups, drinking Malta (a popular malt-based Nigerian soda) and watching the game. They'll nod when you come in, and occasionally one of them might wander over to offer you a bottle of Coke or their extra napkins. Sit in the booth with the eagle – it has the best view of the TV playing Nigerian sitcoms and public access commercials. Settle in. Enjoy the antics of Professor Johnbull. You might be waiting awhile.

The waitress, when she eventually wanders over, might be on the phone, taking orders for pickup, or yelling at someone. She might leave halfway through your sentence on some mysterious errand, or begin a conversation with another customer across the room. You almost certainly will not get exactly what you order, although whatever you get will be good. The experience of eating at Tropical Restaurant is like going home for dinner after you've come home with a failing report card. The woman who runs the place is brusquely maternal, snatching a fork and knife from my hand to show me the proper way to cut up my stewed goat, opening my bottled water (they don't have tap) for me when I struggled with the seal, bringing over stacks and stacks of paper towels and clucking her tongue at me as I made a mess of myself scooping up pounded yam.

And you have to get the pounded yam. Odds are that when you order it, the waitress will drop it off without comment, the glossy warm ball of yam dough wrapped tight in plastic wrap, served alongside whatever dish you order and a plastic bowl of water. Use the water like a finger bowl to clean your hands, then pull off a warm little lump of yam. It will break off from the ball with the pleasing tackiness of Play-Doh, soft and sticky with just a little bouncy give. The taste is earthy and neutral, almost like unseasoned mashed potatoes (or library paste), satisfyingly sticky as you mold it between your fingers and use it to scoop up whatever accompaniments they bring you. Try it with vegetables, a tangle of braised water spinach and salt fish, or egusi, a fluffy melon seed amalgam with the texture and appearance of scrambled tofu. Mixed in with bony chunks of smoked stockfish, the taste is reminiscent of scrambled eggs with lox – that same rich melting of eggy fluff softening the smoked oil intensity of the fish.

You'll need some of that tongue-numbing yam blandness if you order the pepper soup. When I contemplated trying it, Nike, the Nigerian friend I was eating lunch with, shot me a suspicious look and asked me if I was sure I could handle the spice. The version served here isn't particularly deadly on first bite, but it's very rich. The fattiness of bone broth, studded with so many chunks of slow-cooked beef, bone, cartilage, and meat alike, makes it look more like a stew. As soon as the protective coating of fat melts off your tongue, an intense back-of-your-throat afterburn kicks in, making your eyes water and sinuses clear. I'd go back for more if we have another unseasonably wintry day, because it's the perfect meal for cold season.

If you only try one thing at Tropical Restaurant, it has to be the jollof rice. In her poem, "the not quite love," Nigerian poet Yrsa Daley-Ward describes mistakenly believing she's in love with a man because he "can almost make jollof rice." After trying the version served here, I understand the attraction. The rice – smoky and coated with an intense tomato reduction – is served in an enormous, oil-slicked pile, and what tastes like some kind of rendered fat, with big chunks of caramelized onions adding a soft sweetness. My favorite iteration was topped with slow-cooked goat, big chunks of fatty, gamy meat, whose thick layer of skin and fat kept the muscle tissue incredibly moist. The chicken leg version is less saucy, cooked until the dark meat caramelizes all the way through, giving it an intensely savory flavor, along with almost jerky-like chaw that made for a strangely compelling contrast to the rice.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when we ordered moi moi, which the waitress explained to us by asking, "You know beans?" and throwing up her hands, and saying "So?" when we answered in the affirmative, as if that answered all our questions. This classic dish, de rigueur at all Nigerian weddings and family gatherings, makes the perfect accompaniment for jollof rice. The pounded beans take on a springy softness, with a texture something like a tamale or a soft slab of baked polenta, studded with chunks of vegetables, smoked fish, and laterally sliced hard boiled eggs.

When we got up to pay, bellies and metal takeout boxes full, my friend pointed out that the word "hooray" was spelled out in paper letters hanging from the ceiling. "That's exactly how I feel about jollof rice," I said.

Tropical Restaurant

10805-J N. Lamar
Mon.-Sun., 8am-10pm

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Nigerian food, jollof rice

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