Sarasota's first Pollo Tropical opened on Saturday. Two days later, folks are still curious. At lunchtime, a line of cars wraps halfway around the building, while inside, dozens have queued up in a line that stretches from the register, around a sign that reads "Saucing Island" and back up into the dining room. What are all those people jonesing for? It's not clear right away, because the line is so long that I can't even read the menu from where I'm standing and I've never been to a Pollo Tropical before.
The chain started in Miami in 1988 and has since expanded around Florida and into Texas, Georgia and Nashville and has even set up shop in Ecuador, Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras and other Latin American and Caribbean spots. As the name indicates, the menu is oriented around the tropics, with Caribbean-style ribs ($8.19-$9.99), Cuban pork ($5.79-$7.49), chicken marinated in citrus ($3.79-$5.59) and sides like yuca both fried and boiled, sweet plantains, tostones and more. You can build a platter with meat and sides, nab a sandwich or construct something called a "TropiChop," a bowl with a protein, rice and beans, veggies and a pick of sauces.
Like at the similarly styled Chicken Kitchen, it's the sauces and condiments that make or break your meal. On its own, the mojo pork is fine, but hardly exceptional. Things improve once you add a dash of whatever seasonings you like from Saucing Island, both the bar that houses the restaurant's pick of flavorings and the name of my ideal vacation destination, a day-dreamy kind of place where I lie on the beach, sip aged rum, read novels and pour sauces on things. The "spicy poyo poyo" sauce adds a thimble of heat, while the cilantro and garlic sauce brings the cream. Those sauces are good for dunking, too: The restaurant's airy fried yuca is otherwise a bit bland. The plantains, though, are splendid as is.
It's so busy at lunchtime that the restaurant is low on forks, and the containers on the condiment bar have almost gone empty, but as the lunch hour dies away, so does the crowd. Will they be back? It's easy to see Pollo Tropical slotting into the lunch rotation for folks who work in the offices and shops in the neighborhoods near the Fruitville Road location, less easy to see it as a regular destination for folks who aren't in the immediate vicinity. But worth a try? Sure. Saucing Island is beautiful this time of year.
Pollo Tropical is located at 5415 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, and is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. For more info, call (866) 769-7696 or click here.