A few things that are good early in the morning: breakfast burritos, blow jobs, strong coffee, forgiveness for last night's sins, that first cigarette of the day and banana lumpia from Tropical Grill.
I'm not going to say which of these is my favorite, which I cannot live without. But banana lumpia is right up there. Like central air or a toot of fine Colombian booger sugar, one taste of it and you wonder how you lived so long without. I got my first sample (of lumpia, not brain powder) a few weeks ago and have been hooked ever since, filling my fridge with long white takeout boxes, getting sticky fingerprints all over everything. Sometimes I will wake at six in the morning after just a couple of hours' sleep, get up off the couch and go sit out on the patio with a cup of Dunkin' Donuts' best, eating banana lumpia while I watch the sun come up. And as anyone who knows me can tell you, there's almost nothing in this whole wide world that'll get me up at such an ungodly hour — not love or money or pork products. But banana lumpia will do it every time.
Oddly, it was a craving for a much simpler dish that first took me to Tropical Grill. I wanted rice. Perfect rice, as far from the two-year-old pouch of Uncle Ben's I'd found kicking around my pantry as I could get. It was a wicked craving, the kind that crawls up from your belly like a big spider and shakes the cage of your ribs, that gets into your brain and can't be knocked loose or ignored, only sated. I wanted rice the way I used to want other, less savory things, and with the same ferocity of desire.
It wasn't easy to find. I looked at an otherwise trustworthy Vietnamese restaurant, at a Caribbean storefront that I'd forgotten had closed, at a Japanese restaurant with a drive-thru where I was served something that looked like gray-brown sarariman puke and tasted like nursery-school paste, and at a sushi bar that was so completely desolate the employees weren't even pretending to care anymore, but just sitting sullenly around one table in the back. When they saw my car pull up, they went all big-eyed and ramrod straight like meerkats, staring out the front window, and it creeped me out so badly that I immediately threw the car in reverse and tried to pretend like I was just turning around.
Tropical Grill was not on my list of potential rice-pushers, was not a place where I would've stopped at all were it not for desperation, starvation, all the other -ations driving me that night. It had opened a few months before on a busy stretch of Iliff Avenue, in a set-back suite previously occupied by a halfway good Hawaiian restaurant. Before that, the space had been some other restaurant (Japanese, maybe — I can't remember) and before that, something else. It's a space made for failing, a strip-mall Golgotha where each successive victim lays his dreams over the ashes of those who've come before. When I walked in on a Saturday night, there was only one other table in the place — a family in shorts and plastic flip-flops, smiling hugely, their table laden with all the fish-bone-and-banana-leaf wreckage of an enormous meal already devoured.
There are restaurants (like that sushi bar) where a lack of business screams danger, where the empty tables and sepulchral quiet are like a silent alarm ringing. But then there are places like Tropical Grill, where the accumulated weight of slow nights hangs almost expectantly over the dining room — a calm in advance of discovery, a great restaurant just waiting for the rush. During the next few nights, I made my way through everything on the predominantly Filipino menu except the lunch sandwiches, as well as most of everything on the Filipino-Hawaiian floor-to-ceiling chalkboard specials menu. Some dishes I had twice, some three times. The banana lumpia I ate every time.
On my first visit, though, I was looking for rice — any order that might include it. "Pork skewers," I told the waitress, touching a finger to the smudged, single-page menu in its plastic sleeve. "Chicken adobo. Sweet rice cake."
She nodded, scratching on her pad, then walked the order back to the kitchen, where, barely visible over the pass rail, a tiny woman in an oversized chef's jacket sprang into furious action. That woman was Leah Eveleigh, Tropical Grill's owner. Owner and chef. Owner, chef, greeter, occasional hostess, sometime server and president of Tropical Grill Catering, which she ran for years before deciding to take on the challenge of an actual restaurant space. And even if I hadn't been able to figure out who Eveleigh was — even if the chef's coat, her post behind the pass, her flashing grin and tone of command hadn't given it away — I would've known who she was soon enough, because her name is all over everything at Tropical Grill, spelled out in fancy script, embossed and etched in glass on more awards than I've seen displayed in almost any joint in the city. First place at the Dragon Boat Festival, first place at the Aurora Asian Film Festival, firsts and seconds and thirds on plaques displayed by the counter, on certificates hung on the walls. It was an impressive haul, and this was not bragging; it was pride of accomplishment. As soon as the food arrived, I knew that Eveleigh had earned every one.
No one can mess up pork skewers. It's a caveman dish, created when the first wise Neanderthal looked at a pig, thought it might be tasty, stuck in a spear and introduced the meat to the communal fire. But while no one can mess up pork skewers, some people do them better than others — and Eveleigh did them better than most. She'd marinated the chunks in pineapple juice, a touch of soy, lemon, sparks of ginger, then laid the pork down to char briefly over a hot grill. The meat came scarred with hash-marks, preceded by the smell of cooked and fatty pig, and served over a giant mound of plain white rice, just out of the steamer, perfect and flavored only by the drippings from the skewers, which is the best sauce in the world.
The chicken adobo followed — bone-in legs and breast quarters, boiled in a broth of God-only-knows-what that produced damp meat, flabby skin and a flavor unlike anything I'd ever tasted. Peppery and sharp with a rice-vinegar tang, traces of soy, of citrus, of savory spices that I couldn't have named on a bet, this was a deeply and powerfully flavored dish, simple but speaking of generations of peasant cookery, of long practice and national pride. The natural flavor of the dark meat came through close to the bone; the white was completely overwhelmed by its bath of spices. And it was all delicious. I ate the chicken with my fingers, pulling juicy pieces from the bone and scooping rice with my fork, completely in love with the hands that had made this and whoever had taught those hands their trade.
Eveleigh came out of the kitchen to say hello, to thank me for coming in. She asked if I'd been to the Philippines, had a Filipina wife. "Chicken adobo is the national dish," she said. "Not many people know about it."
I shrugged, told her that I'd never been to the islands, that I wasn't Filipino myself but was thinking that I could be — and that if this was how they ate there, I wanted to be. "I was just hungry," I said, "and curious."
I don't know exactly how many times you have to go to a place to become a regular. The number varies with every restaurant, measured in some by meals eaten, in others by length of dedication. And it's different for someone who does everything in his power to not become recognizable — who returns hidden in a group of friends, who sends his wife out in the middle of a cataclysmic rainstorm to pick up takeout mango salad, kare kare and boxes of banana lumpia.
But if you can become a regular purely out of love, then I already qualify at Tropical Grill. I love Eveleigh's kitchen, the long counter and fake thatch roofing that she inherited from a previous tenant (who probably inherited it from the one before him). I've returned over and over for grilled mahi mahi over rice, for whole pompano with its beautiful and succulent white flesh, for pork in all kinds of preparations: pork adobo; pork over stir-fried noodles; pork and shrimp in the pinakbet bowl with green beans and eggplant, tomato, okra and some green vegetable that I've never been able to identify. I even survived my one attempt at eating halo halo — a Hawaiian dessert that's purple, made of something like rice pudding and jelly, and most definitely not to my taste.
Unlike the banana lumpia, that perfect hit of deep-fried sweetness, that ideal combination of fruit and chocolate and caramel and sugar and crispy egg-roll skin. On that first, fateful night, I tacked on an order of banana lumpia to go after I'd stuffed myself with everything I thought I could eat, and was immediately hooked — steering one-handed while eating from the box on my passenger seat, trying to keep the lava-hot banana from squeezing out the center of the roll and scarring me for life.
I've had bad meals at Tropical Grill — mushy, sadly overcooked rice; burnt meat lumpia; a pinakbet bowl that was almost inedible, tasting strangely of dirt and tannin and smelling like musty sneakers. But never a bad meal when Eveleigh was in the kitchen. This grinning little lawn gnome of a woman has all the power and magic of a seven-foot galley genius, a native's passionate love for her hometown cuisine, a sense for perfection and beauty in plating that's rare in the most successful of restaurants, and an infectious joy for feeding people even on those nights when I am the only person there.
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