Friday, December 25, 2009

Tropical Chinese - Miami (A Traditional Jewish Christmas)

It is a Jewish custom nearly as old, and nearly as universally observed, as lighting Shabbat candles and saying the Kiddush and the Hamotzi: we go out for Chinese food on Christmas Day. Unlike our Christian brethren, we are not busy opening presents, singing carols, or preparing a ham or a goose for Christmas Dinner. And while most restaurants are closed for the holiday, it seems in most places the Chinese restaurants remain open. Though I'm not sure it's actually in the Torah, it is a natural and logical tradition. And possibly the best place to observe it in Miami - whether Jewish or not, and whether on Christmas Day or any other time - is Tropical Chinese Restaurant, across from Tropical Park on the west side of Miami.

While Tropical has a full menu, I've visited (many, many times now) almost exclusively for the dim sum, which is served daily during lunch hours. Service is pushcart style, with roughly a half-dozen or more heated carts working the sizable room, a glassed-in open kitchen where you can see the chefs at work, and nicer, more polished furnishings than you'll find at many other more bare-bones dim sum houses. Frod Jr. and I observed our Christmas Day tradition this year with some other good eaters; since a good part of the joy of eating dim sum is the variety of little bites, this really is the ideal way to do it.

You can barely get your butt into the seat before people start plying you with food, so let's move to that quickly.

The selections at Tropical are fairly broad. Steamed dumplings on offer typically include shrimp har gow, shrimp and parsley, shrimp and scallop, pork shiu mai, and many others including both steamed and baked buns (bao). Their baked char siu bao, stuffed with Chinese bbq pork, have long been the favorites of Frod Jr. and Little Miss F despite several challengers. Rice pasta rolls (cheong fun) come filled with shrimp or pork (and possibly other options), sauced with a sweetened soy sauce. Fried items abound as well, including shrimp rolled in taro, spring rolls, and many others. When they're fresh, the pork and ginger stuffed potstickers are excellent (if they've sat too long they can get greasy and doughy). In the first picture above, you'll see, working roughly clockwise from the top: shrimp cheong fun; pork shiu mai; steamed pork bao; stuffed bean curd skin (x2); chicken feet; mushrooms stuffed with shrimp paste; more pork shiu mai; steamed chicken dumplings (x2); more shrimp-stuffed mushrooms; potstickers; turnip cakes; and in the middle, shrimp and parsley dumplings.

Other non-dumpling items will also make their way around, including clams with black bean sauce, roast duck, orange beef, roast pork, and Chinese broccoli. Our Round Two, pictured above, included the roast duck, roast pork and spring rolls.

I have a particular fondness for their chicken feet, braised and sauced with a Chinese black bean sauce, and full of slippery, gelatinous little chicken bits. Other favorites of mine include the turnip cake, the bean curd skins stuffed with ground beef, and the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf (studded with little nubbins of Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, mushrooms and other treats).
Tropical also has a decent selection of sweet dim sum as well. The favorite of Frod Jr. and Little Miss F is the egg custard buns (a/k/a Mexican buns), a somewhat doughnut-like shell that is filled with a super-rich, super-sweet egg custard. The egg custard tarts (in a flaky pastry shell) are slightly less indulgent but just as good, and other options include buns or dumplings filled with sweet lotus seed paste, sticky and rich like peanut butter.

There are several other dim sum options in Miami - Kon Chau and South Garden on the south end, Hong Kong Noodles to the north, plus more - but in my experience Tropical continues to be the most reliably good one. Merry Christmas to all, and for all my fellow members of the tribe - enjoy more Chinese food tonight.

Tropical Chinese Restaurant
7991 Bird Road
Miami, FL 33144

Tropical Chinese on Urbanspoon


  1. I love Tropical China so much. I wish I could go there more often. Last Christmas I was at Helen Huan's Mandarin Chinese Restaurant on Hollywood even though I'm not Jewish. It was my first time I've ever done that so it was quite weird for me.

    Now you got me craving dim sum.

  2. Maybe I'm just not a dim sum guy, but I remember the one time I went I hated the experience. The waiters descended upon us like vultures - but that is their job, so I won't really fault them. The worst part was... all the food was stale.

  3. every restaurant in downtown Hollywood was open. ended up eating some sushi...

  4. You really cant beat the dim sum experience at Tropical. It's my favorite and nothing beats the cart ladies slinging food at you before your ass has even hit the seat. Last time, we hit a little traffic on the way there, so much that it actually took us longer to drive there from Coconut Grove than it did to be served and finish our meal haha!

    Happy Holidays, Frod.

  5. Wonderful tradition. Have to agree with Hector on 2 counts: 1. stale, couple of times they tried serving me cold stuffed taro and I'm Chinese! 2. too aggressive. I dread trying new Asian restos cause they're not that good and they don't bother with decor, so eating there is not that pleasant, there I've said it.

  6. As they sing in Mott the Hoople's famous Christmas Carol, "All the young Jews" were at Hong Kong Noodle.


    : )

    Happy Festivus from the Rest of Us...


  7. Hmmmm....I'll have to check for myself about their Dim Sum. Haven't been to any in Miami yet and am pretty spoiled. Find Chinese here to be too Americanized and sweet! Thanks for the suggestion.

  8. BTW, yum cha is what you go out for (i.e. dinner, brunch) and dim sum (small bites) is what you eat. :)

  9. I've actually heard of a number of translations, more or less literal, of both "yum cha" and "dim sum." "Cha" is tea and I've typically seen "yum cha" translated as "drink tea" or "drinking tea". "Dim sum" I've seen translated as "little heart" or "lights the heart," or "touch the heart."

    Eleanor - the upside of cart service is the immediate gratification and the ability to see what you order. The downside (and corresponding advantage for checklist style places) is sometimes what you see has been sitting for a while. Fried items in particular don't always hold well. Most of the time you can request that an item be made fresh to order.

    As for aggressive service, I experience this at every pushcart place (certainly not just Miami) and find it's part of the charm and certainly better than being ignored. You can always "just say no."

    Finally, I actually think Tropical is one of the nicer looking Chinese restaurants in town. It's not Hakkasan by any means, but it's classy and comfortable.

  10. I'm really intrigued!

    The "aggressive" comments got me to thinking of all the yum cha places I've been in the U.S. and overseas and the service I've received there. I remember the opposite experience (a few times only) with some servers ignoring us or passing right by our table and going to the Asian-occupied tables first. (We are not Asian!)

    In any case, I don't go to yum cha for excellent service (or even decor) but good food fast! I've found the best places to be very busy and full of Asian families. And yes, I agree, I would order something to come straight from the kitchen if it is not hot or fresh on the cart.

    Maybe I'll get there this weekend, now I have a hankering for bbq pork buns, salt and pepper squid and egg tarts!

  11. If you don't mind a lack of ambiance,but want fresh, delicious dim sum, then go to Kon Chau instead of Tropical Chinese! It may not be a pretty restaurant, but the dim sum is amazing, service is good and prices are cheap! It's our #1 pick for dim sum in Miami for sure.