In Havana, one of his favorite hangouts was a raucous bar called La Bodeguita del Medio. There, he enjoyed hand-rolled cigars, rum mojitos and the local color, which he often incorporated into his work.
Our local version of La Bodeguita del Medio was opened in 1997 by Michael and Lara Ekwall. The restaurant and bar on California Avenue bears little resemblance to its namesake in Havana. The food is well prepared, the drinks are ably concocted, and the ambiance is fit for families.
The space is bright and airy, with comfortable seating in both the separated bar and the dining room. Works by Cuban artists Rojas and Alejandro Lazo as well as photographs of Cuba by local photographer Todd Rafalovich liven the walls.
Tropical drinks come with the recipes embossed on the glassware. There is a divan in the back and a humidor with more than 40 leading brands of cigars for sale. Even the bathrooms are fun here, with bright tiles and ceramics, Hemingway memorabilia and Cuban lore.
Cuban cuisine has been influenced by Spanish, French, African, Arabic, Chinese and Portuguese cultures.The Ekwalls have invested considerable time studying the culture and the cuisine of Cuba. The menu is crafted after everyday Cuban fare: simple dishes with fresh ingredients. Little is deep-fried and there are no heavy sauces.
Many dishes employ sofrito as their base. Consisting of onions, peppers, garlic, and oregano, and quick-fried in olive oil, sofrito is what gives food its flavor.It is used in black beans, stews, meat dishes, and tomato-based sauces.
The appetizer menu is lengthy at La Bodeguita and narrowing down the choices proved difficult on my first visit. We sent the waitress away twice before coming to a decision. She was understanding and offered to explain any dish. Overall, service was efficient and friendly during all my visits.
We started with the croquetas ($7.50), crispy fritters stuffed with potatoes, cheese and green onion, and brushed with tasty tamarind-chipotle barbeque sauce. The portion was just right to whet the appetite.
Chilled spiced shrimp ($10.50) had been marinated in chilies, cayenne, old bay (celery, bay leaves, dry mustard, red pepper and ginger), cumin and olive oil. It was sauteed, then chilled. The shrimp were peeled to the tail and the thick cool sauce did not overwhelm the delicately flavored crustaceans.
Tomato-based Graycliff conch and shrimp chowder ($6.50) was zingy with pureed habanero peppers and coconut milk, which resulted in a grainy, rich soup. The recipe hails from the Graycliff Hotel, Nassau. The conch, from the Bahamas, is a sea-dwelling gastropod with chewy, firm flesh and a sweet, smoky flavor. It was an unusual, tasty tropical chowder.
Crab cakes ($9) consisted of blue crab, old bay, cilantro pesto, red pepper, sofrito and roasted corn salsa. This was blue crab and not Dungeness, with its fishier, less delicate flavors. It was too fishy for my dining companion but I liked the brininess.
Empanadas ($8.50) were deep-fried stuffed turnovers, of shredded picadillo pork (ground pork with onions, tomatoes and chilies), pepper jack, cabbage salad and roasted chilies awash in coconut-roasted jalapeno sauce. There was a squiggle of something sugary on the shell, which added a dimension of sweetness to this agreeable dish.
Some of the principal plates lacked the imagination of the appetizers and were not quite as satisfying. However, my dining experience was compressed into a short time span, so duplication of ingredients stood out more than if I had supped at greater intervals.
Ropa vieja ($16.50) was shredded skirt steak, sweet red peppers, tomatoes, spiced yellow rice and plantanos maduros (fried sweet red plantains). A plantain is a green, squash-like banana. The dish was like a stew, not unpleasant, but not especially interesting.
Arroz con pollo ($15.50) was identical to the ropa vieja, swapping overdone chicken for skirt steak. The chicken was so overcooked that the bones disintegrated into the stew. Bite after bite, I removed splinters of bone from my mouth, an annoying and unpleasant experience.
Spice-dusted snapper ($19) was excellent. The pan-seared filet came with bonito mash (white sweet potato), wilted greens and delicious pineapple-habanero chutney.
The masitas ($18) was easily my favorite. A hunk of spicy white pork was served over white rice, black beans and caramelized red onions. The broth imbued the rice with rich, luscious flavor and the juicy pork was fork-tender.
The delightful Cubano sandwich ($8.50) was made with toothsome roasted pork loin, ham, Swiss cheese and dill pickle grilled on hard-crusted, Cuban-style bread. The large, delicious sandwich was accompanied with a tossed green salad.
Desserts are made in-house save for the sorbet. Havana bananas ($7.50), caramelized sweet bananas, walnuts, cinnamon and vanilla ice cream, is the most popular of the desserts, according to Ekwall. It resembled Bananas Foster, a dish created at Brennan's in New Orleans. La Bodeguita's version is not prepared tableside, though.
Key lime tart ($6) was creamy, citrus custard, perched over graham cracker crust under a splotch of pureed guava-berry sauce. The graham cracker crust, nearly ubiquitous in restaurants, was uninspired and mushy. Overall, it was disappointing.
Mr. Johnson's chocolate rum cake ($7), was a chocolate lover's dream. The moist cake, enveloped in Callebaut brand chocolate rum sauce, was Warren Buffet-rich.
La Bodeguita features nearly a dozen rum-based cocktails as well as a lengthy menu of aged rums. When Hemingway was in Cuba, rum was his preferred drink and the mojito his cocktail of choice. Papa would have endorsed this local version ($6.50), made with rum, mint, sugar, fresh citrus juice and a splash of soda.
Other cocktails include the Cuban Sidecar, Havana Sunrise, Cuba Libre, El Presidente and Mulatta.
Besides serving cocktails and rum, La Bodeguita touts a small but impressive wine list. I was delighted to find the French Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc ($75) and the exceptional and scarce Spanish wine Vega Sicilia ($200).
Other interesting selections, from Europe and California, have more down-to-earth prices. Two dozen are available by the glass. Corkage fee is $12.
Hemingway would have approved of the food, the drink and the service at La Bodeguita. He would have embraced the cigar divan.
The ambiance, though, would have been too refined for his rough-and-tumble sensibilities. He would have been troubled by the clean glassware, the handsome decor and the family atmosphere. But then, maybe, Papa didn't always know best.
How was your mojito at La Bodeguita? Do you have other great restaurants to alert readers about? Share your wisdom at TownSquare. Go to www.PaloAltoOnline.com.
La Bodeguita del Medio
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: no
Party and banquet facilities: yes
Take out: yes
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent
La Bodeguita del Medio
463 California Ave., Palo Alto
Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Mon.-Thurs. 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Dinner: Thurs.-Sat. 5:30-10 p.m.
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