La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant brings a taste of Cuba to Palo Alto
- Submitted by: manso
- Travel and Tourism
- 04 / 17 / 2011
By Jennifer Graue. Correspondent.04/16/2011 12:00:00 AM PDT.During spring's soggy start, the gloom got to me, and -- apologies, Jimmy Buffett -- I needed a change in latitude. That's why I was looking forward to Palo Alto's La Bodeguita del Medio. There's something about Cuban cuisine and cocktails that conjures white-hot sunshine and a languid, tropical breeze
Stepping off California Avenue into the bar at La Bodeguita del Medio (literally, the bar in the middle), you're likely to find a boisterous, cocktail-sipping crowd on any given evening, one that grows in size and decibels as the night wears on.
La Bodeguita boasts an impressive selection of rums, and so the cocktail list offers almost solely rum-based drinks, including the Cubanmojito and daiquiri.
The Hemingway and Cuba's most famous cocktail, the mojito. The Cuban Sidecar ($8) is made with Flor de Caña rum from Nicaragua and served on the rocks. But this version was watery, and the rum's taste nearly imperceptible. A mojito made without alcohol ($4) was too sour, the lack of sweetness muting the flavor of the muddled mint. But one evening's drink special, a blood orange sangria ($8.50), was a delightful blend of wine, citrus juice and bits of apple and fresh berry. I'd order it again, if available.
From the wide-ranging menu, arroz con pollo ($17.50) turned out to be a main-dish standout. The large portion of moist, braised chicken had plenty of season and savor, as did the yellow rice. The dish also was served with sweet, fried plantains that were so good you'd want to order them every time -- and you can, since they're also offered as a side dish.
Owner Michael Ekwall opened the restaurant in 1997, inspired by a visit he had made to Cuba as a university student conducting research. La Bodeguita del Medio's namesake in old Havana was a popular watering hole during the 1940s and '50s for creative types, including Ernest Hemingway.
The Palo Alto outpost's decor is inspired by Cuban culture. Vibrant works by artists from the island nation line the walls of the dimly lit dining room, and the bar and bathrooms feature photographs of old cars and old men from Cuba's pre-revolution era. The floors, of part stone and part polished concrete, resemble the images of Havana's dilapidated architecture, which convey a country where time stopped 50 years ago, at least in the eyes of North Americans.
Time may not stop at La Bodeguita, but it does seem to move slowly on occasion. On both visits, after we were seated, a greeting from our server took longer than necessary, as did gaps between courses and delivery of the check. The entire meal could have been shortened by 15 minutes without feeling rushed.
Although not as loud as the bar area, the noise level in the dining room is elevated, which might explain why our server missed half our appetizer order one evening. We wound up getting only the shrimp ceviche ($11.50). Served in a tall parfait dish, it was in a slightly soupy mixture of key lime juice and coconut milk; all the black beans had slipped to the bottom, so it lacked cohesion, although the flavors were good.
Empanadas ($10.50) were a bit disappointing. The pork filling was wonderful -- well-seasoned with a hint of sweetness -- but they were no longer hot upon arrival. This rendered the pastry flaccid, and it was made more so by squiggles of an overly sweet coconut-jalapeño sauce drizzled on top. I had to agree when a friend said it tasted like frosting.
Camarones con mojo ($12), shrimp served over toasted bread with a butter and wine sauce, was very spicy because of the addition of habanero peppers. Despite the heat, the dish had well-balanced flavors, thanks to the quality of the shrimp; it turned out to be my favorite appetizer.
Portion sizes on main courses are quite large, and I'd be willing to trade a quantity of food for a little more flavor in most dishes. Caribbean curry ($22), which is described as spicy, was not. In fact, there was little discernible heat, but it was still an enjoyable dish, with its generous portion of fat shrimp served on a bed of fluffy rice with a mild, not-too-sweet coconut-milk broth.
Seasoning was an issue on other dishes, too. Tierra y mar ($25), a marinated skirt steak with coconut shrimp, was cooked well but begged for more flavor, either from the marinade or some salt. It was served with a very good avocado-cilantro pesto, which did add zest to the plate.
The coconut-crusted snapper ($21) was also under-seasoned. Thankfully, there was salt on the table. The snapper comes with mashed boniato, a cream-colored Caribbean sweet potato that makes for an unusual and tasty side dish.
For dessert, the Key lime tart ($7.50) was huge -- enough for two or even three or four people to share. Its sweet/tart custard filling was good, but not significantly better than myriad Key lime tarts served far and wide.
Mrs. Johnson's chocolate rum cake ($8.50), served in a puddle of chocolate rum sauce, was rich without being cloyingly sweet, nor was it overpowered by rum. A hint of mild canela cinnamon added an intriguing aroma and flavor.
La Bodeguita has a festive vibe that makes it a fun place for an evening out with friends. While not everything hits the mark, there are some good dishes that are well worth trying. With a little more attention to proper seasoning and pacing in the service, this bar in the middle could move to the top of the heap on California Avenue's busy dining scene.