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.