July 5, 2007

Tropika [Tustin]

Whether it was our Muslim guesthouse, Cantonese taxi driver, Indian saris, or Thai fruit stands, it didn't take us long to realize that Malaysia was a melting pot of cultures and cuisines. Penang had one of the most vibrant street food scenes we had come across on our travels through Malaysia and I can still remember the baos, rotis, and noodles being steamed, fried, and tossed all along multi-ethnic Gurney Drive.

And although I miss the times when food could be explored at its source, I found Tropika in Tustin to be a close substitute for a Southeast Asia vacation. I was impressed with both the interior and exterior decor, which reminded me of a tropical bungalow you'd duck in to escape the heat. The natural materials and dark wood grains that covered the walls, chairs, and shutters cast a soft light across the room while giving it textural contrast. The ambiance wasn't a far cry from some of the high-end Malaysian restaurants we dined in on our trip.

We started with the Roti Prata ($3) and Chicken Satay ($7). I had sworn off roti after ingesting loads of the greasy stuff on the streets of Malaysia, but Tropika's Singaporean version was paper-thin and crispy on the outside, doughy on the inside and with a touch of sweetness that soothed your tongue after dipping in the thin curry sauce. The satay wasn't peanut-based like its Thai version and was instead a play on sweet and sour.

The menu failed to mention brown iceberg lettuce as an ingredient in the Mango Salad ($6.95), which was our least favorite dish of the night. The salad had a good crunch to it thanks to the raw mangoes and bell peppers, but was doused with a sticky sweet and sour sauce that was less than appealing.

Although I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of fried tofu topped with seafood and veggies, the Penang Tofu ($12) was the star of the night. The tofu was fried to a golden crisp on the outside, but a single bite was all it took to reveal the custard-like softness of soybean on the inside. The thick egg sauce that coated the dish with a gaudy sheen actually had practical use in imparting even the blandest vegetable with a robust savoriness.

Penang Tofu - one of my favorite tofu dishes yet.

The Seafood Claypot ($14.95) paled next to the Penang Tofu ($12) and I'm sure the striking resemblance only added to the comparison. The seafood and veggies were combined with a light broth that was neither good nor bad, while the claypot seemed purely ornamental.

Our waiter seemed tongue-tied when asked for descriptions and recommendations ("everything is good"), though he did express skepticism at our order of two appetizers, one salad, and two entrees for three people (we weren't going to fall for that again). No thanks to him, I'll be coming back to get a better feel for the menu and other Malaysian treats such as Nasi Goreng, Hainan Chicken, and Asam Laksa. Portions were generous and prices were reasonable with entree averaging $13, though some seafood dishes were as much as $20.

17460 E 17th St
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 505-9908

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