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The lemongrass is always greener

Even on gray days, The Tropical keeps it vibrant

Green curry seafood medley and jasmine rice at The Tropical

Greg Bollinger

The ornate and sizable dining room at The Tropical was relatively empty when my dining partners and I arrived on the chilly end of a Tuesday lunch hour. Under normal circumstances, a ghostly dining room might serve as a warning sign. However, given the prestige of The Tropical—along with fanfare surrounding its sibling restaurant, Lanna Thai, and the Karnchanakphan family’s depth of cooking experience—I chalked up the day’s vacancies to the forbidding construction at the corner of 49th Street and Memorial Drive.

The barren dining room meant we had our choice of tables. It also meant we wouldn’t have to be embarrassed by the absurd amount of food we were about to order. But, most importantly, it meant we’d get to experience The Tropical’s food and service in an almost pristine, scientific capacity. How would one of Tulsa’s most revered Thai restaurants—one known for a deep-diving menu utilizing fresh ingredients grown on the premises—fare on a slow day in the thick of early winter and without a busy crowd to account for mishaps?

The Tropical fared fairly well.

For starters, we ordered the refreshing and acidic som-tum (papaya salad) with crispy chicken wings ($11) and the rambutan chicken ($8), which were tasty chicken dumplings wrapped in noodles and fried until the exterior takes on the shaggy appearance of the fuzzy rambutan fruit. Served with a peanut-y sauce, these dumplings only looked sweet, harboring a savory taste behind their playful appearance.

The rendering and crispiness of the papaya salad wings made them solid rivals to the best bar wings. While the accompanying soy-based sauce erred on the mild side compared to the beast-mode hot sauces and smoky barbecue lacquers wing joints pump out, the wings themselves were exceptionally crispy and the meat was tender enough to effortlessly pull from the bone. No rubbery patches of skin. No gnawing the joint required. The only downside to the appetizers was that instead of being starters, they were finishers; both apps arrived well after our entrees. I’m not opposed to a meal in reverse, but in this case we’d already missed dessert. Sad face.

Our entrees were balanced, flavorful, and fresh despite the fact that The Tropical’s produce garden was on temporary hiatus. The green curry ($9.95 for chicken, beef, pork or tofu) with bamboo shoots, bell peppers, snap peas and jasmine rice may strike some as a reserved choice, but with the elevated option of a seafood medley (+$11 for shrimp, scallops, calamari, and salmon) this classic couldn’t be denied. We ordered the curry at a two-out-of-five heat level and found it perfectly palatable, with more sweet than heat. Thankfully, for the self-scorching among us, the table settings came complete with salt, pepper, and a potent, red pepper paprika that matched Scovilles with ground cayenne but exhibited a far more complex depth of flavor.

The shrimp, salmon and calamari swam in a sweet coconut sauce, and while I appreciated the cook on the seafood I was disappointed that the dish only contained a single scallop when the menu clearly said “scallops.” To boot: the scallop was gritty and had a rubbery exterior with only a hint of the central silkiness within. I would have preferred no scallop and more calamari, which were scored to created a compelling texture and cooked until soft.

Once over the distasteful scallop, I set about devouring the rest of the curry, which had already begun to dematerialize as my dining partners’ spoons whisked about the table. The shrimp were of varying sizes, cooked until tender, and the velvety salmon virtually melted into the sauce.

The grilled rainbow trout with tamarind glaze and ka prao (fried basil; $21) had a crisped skin, a slightly-browned filet, and a sweet and tangy sauce for pouring over. The dish comes in multiple variants, with ranging sauces and toppings. Worth every penny, the garlic fried rice (+$1) that came with the trout had a potent aroma and was universally enjoyed by everyone at the table. We agreed that next time we’d forgo all the white rice (we’d foolishly ordered two white, one garlic) and order garlic fried rice with every dish. The toasty, sweet character of the garlic helped the rice become more than a delivery vessel for the sauce, and turned dishes into more complex endeavors.

The table favorite was the nam prik-pao fried rice with chicken ($9.95), a dark-horse dish of sweet, gingery chicken, julienned green apples, cilantro, and a thin egg omelet cut into ribbons. The dish disappeared from the table faster than the green curry.

A few days later—as I stared longingly into my refrigerator—I remembered the nam prik-pao fondly. I longed for those crispy wings. In that moment, the lack of leftovers felt like an undeserved cruelty. The landscape of my fridge was as unexciting as the view from my winter window: white rice and wilted greens. Outside, the cold wind gusted. I shut the refrigerator door and pined for something Tropical.

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