When he opened Tropical Revival in October 2016, Albert Teekasingh didn’t take out ads in the local weeklies or put up fliers. Instead, he delivered trays of soft, buttery cornbread to all the neighborhood schools and businesses. It proved a prudent strategy. Teekasingh’s cornbread, along with pretty much everything else he serves out of his 12-seat Whitestone restaurant, has developed a devout following that reaches far beyond northern Queens.
A quick scan of Tropical Revival’s Yelp page reveals a bevy of emphatic five-star reviews—no small feat for a new restaurateur. It’s even more remarkable given that Teekasingh hadn’t even heard of Yelp. Not long after Tropical Revival opened, a customer told him they’d been enticed by the positive Yelp reviews. “I was, like, ‘Really? What’s Yelp?’” says Teekasingh. He didn’t stay in the dark for long. The traffic on Tropical Revival’s page attracted the attention of Yelp’s director of marketing, who personally made the trip to Whitestone to try every item on the menu. “He rented a car and drove from Manhattan,” says Teekasingh. “It was incredible.”
Crowd-pleasing cookery is a family trait. Teekasingh’s grandmother owned a restaurant back in his native Guyana, and his mother supported the family by catering soccer games and cricket matches. Teekasingh learned from both women. When he was nine, his mother taught him to make curry chicken. He spent his teenage summers working in the kitchen alongside his grandmother. With Tropical Revival, Teekasingh hoped to authentically re-create the food of his childhood while appealing to the community’s appetites.
Tucked alongside a shipping and mailing center, Tropical Revival isn’t exactly located in an area known for its culinary vitality. Teekasingh, who lives in Queens Village with his wife and children, was familiar with Whitestone because he worked for five years at the Home Depot in neighboring College Point. During that time, he also started a cleaning business. The owner of a small commercial complex on Clintonville Street was his first client, and when a restaurant space opened in the building, he jumped at the chance.
The name Tropical Revival is a nod to Revive, the organic eatery that previously occupied the space. For Teekasingh, the word has a second meaning: “What we’re offering is actually reviving and quenching that thirst for something new and different culture-wise in the area.”
Tropical Revival’s menu shifts from day to day, with stalwarts such as curry and stew chicken available daily. The stew chicken gets its signature sweetness from brown sugar, an ingredient used in lieu of vegetables during lean times back in Guyana. Oxtail, one of the most popular items on the menu, shows up three times a week. Teekasingh also incorporates dishes from elsewhere in the Caribbean, like jerk chicken and pork. One regular FaceTimes his family back in Jamaica every time he eats at the restaurant to prove he can get food in New York City that’s just as good as back home.
The side dishes further expand the menu’s geographic reach. Teekasingh makes red beans and rice for his Latin American customers as well as North American classics like mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, which he began cooking for the two preschools he caters for each weekday morning. Customers loved the way his spicy stews pair with creamy, starchy comfort food. Then there’s the cornbread. Based on a family recipe, it’s so soft, it’s more like pudding than bread. Teekasingh swears it doesn’t contain as much butter as you think (he uses yogurt as a partial substitute).
Keeping the food affordable is a priority for Teekasingh, even as meats like duck and oxtail fluctuate in price. He wants his restaurant to be accessible to his lunchtime regulars—many of whom are Jamaican, Trinidadian or Guyanese immigrants who work in the row of mechanic shops next to the restaurant—as well as the predominantly white working class Whitestone residents who make up much of the dinner crowd.
This year, Teekasingh hopes to expand with a food truck and second location. It’s a challenging proposition, though; he doesn’t want Tropical Revival to lose his signature touch. “I’m a control freak,” he laughs. Even with his mother and sister alongside him in the kitchen, he needs to make sure he has a hand in every dish. Plus, regular customers expect him behind the counter, making conversation and letting them know when a new tray of cornbread comes out of the oven.
Wherever Teekasingh expands next, his new neighbors had better hope he employs his cornbread evangelism.