There's nothing subtle about Sweetwater's Tropic Zone. From the moment you step into the color-splashed space--with its lightweight cantina tables, ceiling-mounted pink flamingos and echoing reggae--you know you're on Jimmy Buffet's turf.
Billed as "laid back tropical cuisine," Sweetwater's eclectic menu--which includes Cuban, Dominican, Hawaiian, Thai and Jamaican fare--is the United Nations of island grub. When done right--like the curried avocado and jasmine rice ($14)--these varied coastal influences dance in step, rich curried coconut-milk, diced tomatoes and cilantro swaying to a spicy, peanut-y beat. When done wrong--like the dry, gingerbread-ish buttermilk cornbread ($2.25)--it's a scratched record. On a recent visit to Sweetwater's, I opted to sit in the upstairs dining area. Lit by the warm glow of Christmas lights, I watched the winter wind claw at the windows and relished the effervescent ping of champagne bubbles as they slid down my throat ($4.50, Segura Viudas cava mini bottle). At that moment, the joint's tropical theme was a welcome escape.
My date and I started things off with a half-dozen oysters, which our server let us split half Kumamoto and half Hunter Point ($10). The oysters were a refreshing indulgence, garnished with a spray of lemon and both a ginger-shallot and mango-lemon mignonette. I favored the finely diced mango, which played off the bivalves' inherent sweetness without distracting from their sea-netted freshness.
After recalling how filling the curried avocado dish had been on a previous visit, my date and I opted to split our entree, the pineapple curry seafood stew ($20), and beef it up with a couple of sides. The stew arrived looking like a musical number from Little Mermaid--singing clams and mussels perched atop a bed of tap-dancing, tails-on shrimp. The dish's flavor--sweet and creamy with a hint of spice--lived up to the presentation. Spooned over a mound of moist rice with crunchy slivers of grilled coconut, it was heavenly. But the same can't be said for the sides. The red peas and rice ($3.50), cooked in coconut milk and spices, was an unsightly and under-whelming mush, while the mashed potato, plantain and yam "smash" ($3.75) could've used a healthy dash of salt and some spicy zing.
Surveying the damage we'd done--piles of empty clam, mussel and shrimp shells--my date and I agreed that, though our culinary experiences at Sweetwater's have been overwhelmingly enjoyable, it's the context that gives us pause. With prices comparable to other high-end downtown establishments and the atmosphere of a Joe's Crab Shack, it's a rare mood that would entice me into Sweetwater's over other nearby options. On the other hand, the fresh oysters and inexpensive champagne will undoubtably turn me into a happy hour regular.
--Tara Morgan thinks the time has come to talk of many things.
Boise Weekly sends two reviewers to every restaurant we review. Read what our other reviewer had to say about Sweetwater's Tropic Zone.