What else does a Jew do on Christmas Day when everything else is closed? Go for Chinese food, natch! Tropical Chinese, across the road from Tropical Park at 7991 Southwest 40th Street, has been around since 1984 and it is still getting hype and winning all sorts of awards. I have wanted to go for years but the place is not exactly close to where I live and I don’t particularly like stuffing my face so early in the day. Christmas was the perfect storm, everything else was closed in Miami and it was a Sunday, a dim sum eating day. So we were off.
Many Miami foodies and publications like Frommers, Zagat, Travel Holiday, the Miami Herald and CNN travel say they serve some of the best dim sum in the country.
Let’s face it, Miami is not a hotbed of fantastic Chinese restaurants, and Hakassan at the Fountainbleau is on another level, a Michelin star level. I come from Toronto where we have a huge Chinese population and some pretty incredible Chinese restaurants, as does Vancouver. Don’t even get me started on how delicious the food is in Hong Kong … what I am trying to say is I’ve been around the block a few times and am a pretty good judge of Chinese food and dim sum, in particular.
Tropical Chinese is the real deal. Run by owner Mei Yu and her brother Gregory, it’s authentic Chinese cooking, where everything is hand-crafted from scratch. Her parents started the place when they emigrated from Taiwan in 1984. The staff speak far from perfect English, if at all, but that is part of the fun. It is located in an unglamorous strip mall. There was no traffic on the road on Christmas Day, and no cars in the parking lot, until we drove in closer towards the restaurant. It was jammed packed with no spots in sight. The restaurant was mobbed, I am not exaggerating when I say I had to fight my way to the front to give my name. Thank goodness I made a reservation because there would have been an hour wait otherwise. They say Joe’s Stone Crab and Prime 112 are the two busiest and top money making restaurants in Miami. This place must be number three although technically it isn’t in Miami but Southwest of Coral Gables.
Apparently, they renovated the restaurant a few years ago. The interior is actually a contemporary-looking dining room, with a large mural feature by local artist Steve Saiz. It’s not your typical Chinese restaurant decor. The room seats up to 120 people, plus there’s a VIP room that seats another 40 guests. They had to open that room for Sunday lunch too. The bar that seats around 20 was also packed with patrons standing two and three deep. The traffic jam created between the servers trying to get the numerous food carts around the crowds was a real show and a kind of controlled chaos. The place is dimly lit with red Asian lanterns and glass cases displaying wines throughout. One wall is glass to see into the large, busy kitchen where they are rolling dough, stir-frying, and carving fruit.
I tried booking on their website, I got a reply back that they would answer my request soon, but I never heard back again!!!! So I had to call to book a reservation over the phone, which is not easy with the language barrier. But I am glad I made the effort and my table that was waiting for me.
The dim sum carts are continuously coming around, you can grab what you like and they check off what you choose on a form on your table. You don’t know how fresh they are or how long the food had been staying on the carts for. The trouble is they come so quickly you end up piling food at your table. The servers have trouble explaining every dish. Suffice it to say there was a lot of pork and shrimp items that were either fried, deep fried or steamed. I thought the food was fine but not transforming. I have had less greasy, and more delicate dim sum. I would have also liked some condiments on the table besides just chili sauce. I did try asking for some to no avail. Apparently, they are not familiar with mustard or hoisin sauce.
The prices are moderate and it was nice to see a lot of young people and families from all backgrounds eating here.
We also tried the Peking Duck at $65, in a two-course presentation. The server rolled out the golden crisp bird tableside and put on a show for us, carving it, placing it in thin pancakes and topping with the appropriate fillings. He then rolled it into cone shapes and placed it in a modern tray where we could help ourselves. No fuss and no muss. While we were enjoying these he took the remainder of the bird away to cook in a stir fry. This dish was a disappointment. The duck was dry and the dish looked unappealing. Have I had better Peking duck? Absolutely.
There wasn’t much in the dessert department, only lychee fruit and some delicious sesame balls. When I asked why, my waiter replied, they are just too busy.
Still, in a city where it is difficult to find decent Chinese food, let alone a place that is fun, kid-friendly, vegetarian-friendly, served family-style, and open 7 days a week – you can’t go wrong. It is a bit of a schlep and off the beaten track. I also should mention that you can order dishes from the regular menu. The question is, would I return? For me, it’s probably not worth the drive, I find myself only returning to restaurants that are really amazing when the drive is long.
Dim Sum- Monday to Friday 11:30-3:30pm, Saturday 11-3:30, and Sunday 10:30-3:30.
Dinner- Monday to Thursday 5:30-10:30
Friday and Saturday 5-11pm