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Wednesday, May. 30, 2012

Flying the Puerto Rican food flag

Puerto Rican cuisine attracting international crowd

- For Weekly Surge
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Setting the Table

A new Latin ethnic restaurant has replaced a Mediterranean-style restaurant in the heart of Myrtle Beach, with Tropical Bar & Grill in the former location of Cafe M.

Now the formerly kosher cafe and its sedate surroundings have been replaced with lively Puerto Rican cuisine and style. The decor isn't dramatic or beautiful, but speaking as someone who has visited Puerto Rico, it feels like an authentic unpretentious neighborhood cafe serving delicious food.

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    Tropical Bar & Grill is at 514 8th Ave. N. in Myrtle Beach, and the number is 957-8939. It is open daily starting at noon, and stays open late.

Tropical Bar & Grill serves lunch, dinner and late-night snacks, and a dance area to the right of the front door is where partiers of all nationalities gather to salsa the nights away to the Latin licks of DJ Lui Diamante. Don't know how to salsa? There's no excuse not to learn, because from 9-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays there are free lessons.

Extremely pleasant restaurant owners Luis Rios and Liz Santana say they've been excited to welcome diners and dancers from Nicaragua, Brazil, Russia, Bulgaria, Panama, Argentina, Mexico and more, including plenty of gringos.

"We're going to have an International Night soon," said equally friendly assistant manager Jose Burgos, who was also our lunchtime server. "We already serve Israeli beer, and Russian is coming."

Down the Hatch

I love that the only nods to American cuisine are on the children's menu; for $4-5 they can choose from Chicken Strips, Grilled Cheese Sandwich or Cheeseburger, and they come with fries.

Adults get to explore the delights of Puerto Rican cuisine, and our party of three started with two appetizers ($2-$7). Pastelillos are small six-bite fried turnovers filled with a choice of beef, chicken or shrimp. We selected chicken, and it came to us piping hot and with a flaky crust. The chicken was infused with a type of barbecue sauce, and it was delicious.

I went for the Vaso de Pulpo appetizer, translated as Cup of Octopus. It's a marinated seafood salad with lots of crunchy vegetables and wonderfully tender-yet-chewy octopus chunks, and it rates another big yum. A few other appetizers are Fried Plantains, Stuffed Bananas (they're stuffed with a beef mixture) and Cup of Shrimp.

Seven sandwiches are $5-$6.50, such as the Tripleta with ham, pork and pastrami; and the one we tried, which was a pressed sandwich with shredded chicken, lettuce and tomato. It was generously sized, and my friend who ordered it couldn't even finish half.

Entrees ($10-$15) are in two categories: Mofongo Plates or Special Plates. Monfongo indicates a side that comes with the dishes, which is either plantain or yuca. We tried the Roast Pork with plantain, and were delighted with salty cubes of tender pork accompanied by a small salad of tomatoes and lettuce and a disc of moist plantain casserole that was savory and full of herbalicious flavors. Yuca, if you're not familiar with it, is a starchy root similar in texture and taste to a potato. There was also a thin lemony sauce in a ramekin, which was good drizzled on the salad and as a dipping sauce for the meat.

We also had one of the Special Plates with the fish of the day, which was mahi-mahi. You get a choice of rice with beans or rice with pigeon peas, and we took the peas, which are tiny brown beans a little bigger than green peas. The mahi was topped with a caramelized onion and vegetable mixture, and the entire dish was spectacular. Like the pork dish, a small salad was also on the plate.

Other entree choices include Fried Pork, Chicken, Shrimp, Tilapia, Octopus, Steak and Pork Chops. Vegetarians would love the plantains, yuca, rice and beans.

Check, please

Two desserts for $3.50 each are Flan and Tres Leches. We shared a piece of Tres Leches, which was even better than I remembered. It's white cake soaked in three kinds of milk (cream, evaporated and condensed) after the cake is baked. The treat was served with drizzles of caramel and chocolate sauces and a dollop of whipped cream, and it was delectable.

Happy Hour starts at 5 p.m. with $2-$3 beers and $1 discount on all cocktails. All day long house-made Limoncillo (orange or lemon flavors) are served for $3, and they taste like lemonade and orangeade. I could get in trouble with those - they go down easily.

We can't wait to go back at night and check out the salsa-ing.

Becky Billingsley serves up fresh news daily at
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