Filling Station 

Sampling Cuba at Sabor Tropical.

Sabor translates as "flavor," and at Sabor Tropical, on Lamar Avenue, there are plenty of flavors to sample. The menu offers 30 entrées, including pork, chicken, beef, and seafood dishes. While there's not an appetizer section on the menu, we chose a grilled sandwich roll stuffed with layers of pork, ham, dill pickle chips, melted Swiss cheese, and Dijon mustard to munch on while we attempted to narrow our entrée choices.

For the record, Cuban cuisine is amazing for the variety of dishes, the quantities served, and the ethnic mix of Russian, Chinese, and European influences, with a particular emphasis on Spanish and African cultures. Dishes are typically served with black beans mixed with white rice, yellow rice, or white rice and fried plantains. Plantains are closely related to the banana but have a higher starch and lower sugar content. They require a longer cooking time for savory and sweet dishes and are a staple in Latin America. (If you are buying plantains in a local grocery, be aware that if the skin is green, the fruit is not fully ripened. The skin should turn yellow and then black to ensure peak ripeness.)

The Bistec delmonico, arroz blanco, negros y maduros proved to be a steak smothered in sautéed onions drizzled with fresh lime juice and accompanied by a rice and black bean mixture circled by fried plantains. The cut of beef was a little fatty and we were not asked our preference for cooking the meat. Unfortunately, the beef was overcooked and a little tough. The Cerdo a la juliana, moros y yuca was better: succulent strips of pork mingled with red and green peppers sautéed with julienned strips of onion. The pork had been marinated in garlic and olive oil, roasted, and then served with a mix of rice and fried plantains. The pork and plantains sent my tastebuds into overload.

The Zarzuela de mariscos, arroz blanco y maduros arrived at our table in a large metal pot containing a blend of shrimp, black mussels, squid, white fish, and baby scallops swimming in a Creole sauce of butter, garlic, paprika, and a hint of red pepper. The aroma of this seafood stew gave me goose bumps, and we could not wait to dive for treasures in this dish. The seafood was fresh and perfectly tender and had absorbed the flavors from the liquid. This is a must-try for anyone who enjoys seafood. Yellow rice and plantains were served separately and offered a visual complement to the stew.

To be adventurous we selected an evening special for our final entrée. The Medallones de pargo, a red snapper fillet bathed in butter, fresh lime juice, a hint of garlic, paprika, and fresh cilantro, literally melted in our mouths. This fish was full of flavor, and to my amazement the lime juice and paprika did not overpower it. A side order of yellow rice and fried plantains again accompanied the entrée.

Sabor Tropical offers a limited dessert and coffee menu. The casco de guayaba con queso crema proved to be a guava fruit, seeded, peeled, and smothered in light corn syrup and served with a strip of cream cheese. (Guava is an inadequately appreciated, sweet, pink, hearty, and juicy fruit. So try it.) Flan, the very popular open tart, filled with caramel and cream custard, is rich, and Sabor Tropical's version is very rich and the perfect match for a strong cup of coffee. The Cuban coffee (espresso) and the Cortadito (café au lait) appeared in small, bright yellow- and blue-ceramic cups and saucers. The perfect ending to an authentic Cuban dining experience.

Sabor Tropical is at 3999 Lamar Avenue. Hours: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 7 p.m. For carry-out, call 566-0960.

food notes

by Hannah Walton

What a Dip

The Melting Pot recently opened its second restaurant in Memphis at 126-128 Monroe Avenue. The first, near the Wolfchase Galleria, is regularly packed with people who want their fondue.

Explains general manager Scott Thiele, "It's not just the normal out-to-eat routine, but a totally new experience."

Of course, Thiele is not altogether right. Fondue has recently returned in popularity after the intial craze faded out about the same time as disco. At the Melting Pot, customers can choose cheese fondues for appetizers, flavored fondues for meat and vegetable entrées, and chocolate fondues for dessert. Dippees include strawberries and lobster and bread. Dips: bouillon; Swiss and cheddar cheeses; dark, milk, and white chocolates.

Entrées range in price from $12.95 to $24.95 and include salad and vegetables. The Melting Pot is open 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Out Of Town

Talk about a fish tale. They'll be in and out of the water in Chattanooga this summer when local restaurateur Jimmy Ishii opens a Sekisui across from the Tennessee Aquarium -- the world's largest freshwater aquarium.

The 4,600-square-foot Sekisui Chattanooga will seat more than 100 people. In the front of the restaurant, a sushi bar will serve traditional Japanese cuisine; the back will have a hibachi table with additional grilled Japanese specials. Blue neon waves will be incorporated into the restaurant's design to carry out the aquatic theme.

Chef Kazumichi Sempuku is one of six chefs who will be creating new specials daily. Sempuku has worked in Honolulu and St. Louis.

"He is a long-time friend of mine and a very, very good chef," Ishii says.

Ishii says downtown Chattanooga is an ideal location because of the lack of Japanese cuisine there. He says the aquarium across the street adds a nice touch.

Since Ishii seems to own nearly every restaurant in Memphis, it's natural that he look beyond the city limits. As Ishii says, "When people become addicted to sushi I will be a happy man."

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