By Michael P Walsh
Special to the Voice
Sporting a pair of oversize scissors, Mayor Nancy R. Rossi cut a blue ribbon with Tropical Caribbean co-owner Juan Reyes on Feb. 2 to celebrate the homestyle restaurant’s grand opening at 703 Campbell Ave.
Tropical Caribbean is the life of the party on West Haven’s main thoroughfare of Campbell Avenue, enlivening the space formerly occupied by the Blue Horse bar and restaurant, about a mile south of the University of New Haven’s main campus.
The new restaurant, co-owned by Alex Brito, serves the tastes of the Caribbean — the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico — and specializes in authentic Latin cuisine prepared by Reyes’ parents, Pedro and Argentina Reyes, including Sancocho Dominicano, a popular Dominican meat and vegetable stew.
Reyes and Brito, who are best friends, hail from the Dominican Republic, where they met at age 7 and now live near each other in West Haven.
Among the time-honored family recipes on the restaurant’s savory menu are Chimi Dominicano, a traditional Dominican burger; Cuban sandwiches, known as Cubanos; Chuletas Fritas, Puerto Rican-style fried pork chops; and Shrimp Mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish consisting of fried mashed green plantains with fresh garlic, pork rinds and sauteed shrimp in a tomato lemon sauce.
Other menu favorites include beef empanadas, grilled meat, known as churrasco, and creamy Cajun shrimp over linguine.
The fusion of house-made Latin fare is enhanced by island-inspired cocktails of notable Caribbean places, events and personalities.
Tropical Caribbean exclusively brews Don Carvajal Cafe coffee, a company founded by Dominican entrepreneur Hector Carvajal, 26, and based in the Bronx borough of New York City.
The freshly remodeled restaurant and bar is decorated with festive furnishings, art and knickknacks that reflect the culture and warm vibes of the Caribbean, including Taino masks made in the Dominican Republican adorning the dining room’s dark shiplap walls, along with lamps fabricated from Brugal rum bottles hanging from the barroom ceiling above the natural stone and stained pine bar.
It is further accentuated by high-top tables and flat-panel TVs.
Rossi and Reyes marked the ribbon-cutting with his four children: Brenda, 22, Emily, 20, Justin, 14, and Julius, 11.
They were joined by City Clerk Patricia C. Horvath, city Tax Collector Dorothy Chambrelli, Rossi Executive Assistant Louis P. Esposito Jr. and landlord Skip Voss.
They were also joined by Simon McDonald, the director of membership and marketing for the Milford Regional Chamber of Commerce, and chamber members West Shore Associates owner Erin Eberhardt, of West Haven, and Patriot Bank Vice President Robert Creigh, of Milford.
While the restaurant’s opening was grand, the best was saved for last.
Reyes surprised attendees with a special performance by diablos cojuelos — or limping devils, the main character of the Dominican Republic’s Carnival celebration — that had people on their feet and dancing.
The costumed devils danced and scampered to the vibrant sound of DJ Felix Solano’s merengue music mixed with other Latin and Caribbean rhythms.
Much to the delight of guests, the limping devils spontaneously expanded their performance to the outside of Tropical Caribbean, entertaining passersby on bustling Campbell Avenue, including a school bus of children, and turning the thoroughfare into a Dominican street festival for a showstopping moment.
Tropical Caribbean offers happy hour specials on weekdays and brunch on weekends, as well as live music, open mic events and karaoke.
The restaurant has 17 employees, including Reyes’ three oldest children, and is open from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.