Man, Acapulco Tropical is jamming. Over by the meat counter, customers are impatiently tapping their toes, waiting for their turn with the butcher, while folks up front buy prepaid calling cards to the steady beat of Latino pop. Christmas-themed balloons dangle from the ceiling, ready to be plucked and hung at home. To the right, fresh veggies sit in their stalls. Straight ahead, narrow rows of canned and packaged goods stretch all the way to the back wall, where the fridge is stocked with unusual and appealing Latin American beers, as well as Buds and Millers.
All fine and dandy. But it's the lunch counter that's calling my name. It sits in the back right corner, at the end of a seemingly endless glass case protecting tray after tray of steaming goodness. There are smoked tilapia, served whole, face and all, alongside barbecued beef, racks of ribs, wide sashes of chicharrón and Flintstone-sized hunks of carnitas-style pork.
I ask for the entomatadas, something I've never tried before. Acapulco takes corn tortillas and folds them around whatever protein you like (chicken in my case) and then bathes it all in tomato sauce and dots it with queso fresco.
This spot is a regular destination for my friend, Dennis, or at least it used to be. He's trying to eat healthier, and can only justify lunch at Acapulco if he's pulling some long hours at his office—just around the corner—and needs an energy boost. He warns me that one order will probably be enough for multiple meals. Pshaw, I say. There's nothing Acapulco can throw at me that I can't handle.
Gulp. I take that back.
Dennis grabs our chow (he ordered a plate of chicken sopes) and I swear the Styrofoam bearing the entomatadas is wobbling as he brings it back. The dish is served on a rectangular plate the size of those plastic cafeteria trays we all grew up eating off of. It is literally more than half as wide as the table we're seated at. The dish is a mountainous landscape of rice, beans, cheese and tomato sauce. It has peaks and valleys, ridges and terrain. It casts shadows. There must be seven or eight tortillas buried in there somewhere. Bottom line: This thing is big—you feel me?
But size, they say, isn't everything. I stab into this monstrous pile of food and start eating. It's tasty, albeit a bit bland. It definitely need a squeeze of lime and hot sauce and some handfuls of the cilantro and raw onion that Acapulco makes available at a small aluminum bar around the corner. The meat gets a bit lost in the vast acreage of the meal, but the tortillas retain their chewy bite amid the sauce. The beans, meanwhile, are loose and fresh-tasting and the rice is fluffy and well-seasoned. I make it maybe halfway across my plate before collapsing from exhaustion. Dennis says his sopes are excellent, with big hunks of "super-tender slow-cooked chicken" set atop crispy shells and laden with fresh tomato, jalapeño, lettuce, avocado and queso.
The restaurant area is just as frantic as the rest of the store. Young guys drop in to picked up plastic bags loaded with foods; older men and women gab over full plates and bottles of Jarritos. A couple Bradenton cops take a break from the cruiser. When I first entered, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Now I know.