Every now and then, we find a little gem that transports us from our immediate reality to a better place. Central Park on a warm May afternoon? Midtown Manhattan is miles away. Skiing Squaw Valley on a sunny morning? I'm pretty sure that sales meeting got canceled. I recently found one such place in the middle of my hometown, and I suddenly feel like I've been missing out on one of the best restaurants Palo Alto has to offer- namely, La Bodeguita del Medio.
The Cuban-inspired restaurant on California Avenue has been the anchor for a blossoming culinary scene away from Downtown Palo Alto. Neighbors include the lovely French eatery Bistro Elan, Italian perennial Caffe Riace, and the recently opened Baume, led by former Chez TJ executive chef Bruno Chemel. After receiving one Michelin star at TJ, Chemel's latest venture into the molecular gastronomy world makes no bones about its goal to secure at least one star.
Did La Bodeguita del Medio inspire these great Palo Alto restaurants? Hard to say, but its presence in the neighborhood can't have hurt. La Bodeguita attracts patrons of all Palo Alto stripes: geeky tech types with more money than they know what to do with, old timer Palo Altans in rusty Volvos looking to connect with Cuban culture, and Europeans tired of the University Avenue scene. In fact, La Bodeguita lures so many guests that last Saturday night we could have waited an hour for a table in the dining room.
Happy with a corner table in the bar, we stayed put. As any Cuban restaurant should, La Bodeguita specializes in Mojitos, that minty, sugary, summer delight that makes bottles of rum disappear. Wanting to appear original, I bucked the trend and ordered a Sidecar. While satisfied, I couldn't help but feel like I had gone to In-and-Out Burger and ordered a small side salad.
With the next round of cocktails, I went for the Mojito and wasn't disappointed. La Bodeguita doesn't muddle their mint (perhaps after a bartender's revolt over the sheer number of mint leaves they had to muddle; they do a pretty brisk Mojito business on a weekend night). I can only deduce that the mint leaves are left whole on purpose. If you chew on a rum-soaked mint leaf at the end of your drink, you get a shot of rum and minty fresh breath.
This kiss-ready cocktail, I'm convinced, is part of La Bodeguita's master plan. The ambient noise somehow encourages intimate table conversation without drowning it out. The lights are flatteringly low. An older gentleman with a guitar sings melancholy but sexy music. It sounds like the Buena Vista Social Club, except it's the soundtrack to your Saturday night.
La Bodeguita does feel authentic as well. Could it have been the server's slight accent or was it the seafood-centric menu? No, it was the mango-cilantro salsa; instead of being on California Avenue between El Camino and the train station, I was convinced I'd just stepped off El Malecon in La Havana.
While La Bodeguita has nailed the inviting ambiance ticket, their food is great, if inconsistent. Perhaps they are resting on 13 years of success, or perhaps it was a busy Saturday and a few things were rushed through the kitchen. Near-perfect dishes confounded at every step. I could not eat enough of the roasted corn salsa and cilantro pesto accompanying the crab cakes, while the cakes themselves were less than memorable. I expected the classic Spanish croqueta, filled with bechamel, ham and cheese. Instead, I bit into a sweet-potato filled, tamarind-chipotle hybrid. Tasty enough, but not what I had in mind.
The embutido plate was excellent. Their Castillian charcuterie flew me back to Barcelona with the nutty jamon serrano and the rusty red chorizo. A seared tuna entree dazzled with pineapple chutney, but the tuna steak itself was an inch or two too thick. The empanadas are the highlight of the menu- crispy, golden half moons of pulled pork and roasted chilis, topped with jack cheese and jalapeno salsa. Next time, I'm ordering six of these, a Mojito and a cold beer to top it off.
I'll be interested to visit La Bodeguita in July or August to see if Chef Lord Stevenson (really? that's his name?) decides to lighten up his fried food focused menu. I love fritters and plantain tostones as much as the next girl, but hot summer weather calls for more than just fries. He seems to have the fresh, inventive salsas down; he should play to his strengths. With summer's harvest just around the corner, I can't wait to get back to see how the menu changes.
La Bodeguita would be the perfect place for a date, an anniversary dinner or a post-wedding party. Don't worry if they don't have a table in dining room; if it's a Friday, they likely won't. Grab a bar stool or corner perch, and survey the scene as it's meant to be: lively, just loud enough and lusciously Latin. If the tasty food and the sparkling drinks don't have you half way to Havana, the man on the guitar will.