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Caribbean Cruising

La Bodeguita del Medio
Christopher Gardner

Havana on California Street: Steven Rodriguez brandishes the tools of La Bodeguita del Medio's trade.

Fueled by rum, beer and black beans, La Bodeguita del Medio provides Palo Alto with a Cuban-style watering hole

By Andrew X. Pham

KNUDSEN--MR. K to most, and K to anyone with whom he ever split a fifth of rum--mounted the high stool and bellied himself up against the slick black bar of La Bodeguita del Medio with more alacrity than any 75-year-old has a right to. It wasn't my promise of Cuban food and a couple fingers of rum but the restaurant name that lured K, whom I haven't seen in years, out of his hilltop hermitage. "Hmm," K had said, "Bodeguita--some kind of watering hole, eh?"

I know K from way back in my aeronautic mechanic days: him an old geezer chock full of the adventures of yesteryear, me a swashbuckling greenhorn out to change the world--the both of us routinely knocking off a pint behind the gutted jet engines, mulling over K's glory days following his WWII tour in France, the days when he was bumming through the Caribbean and drinking it up in Cuba, long before trouble descended on paradise. By his own admission, K doesn't possess a "finicky" palate, but I thought his presence would properly christen this month-old "little bar in the middle of the block."

A tight squeeze, but bright under a large skylight, the restaurant-bar is sized and configured like a lot of trendy San Francisco eateries. Latin horns sass somewhere above as lazy ceiling fans feign batting a warm breeze against walls the color of summer corn stalks. Placed in the yellow walls like windows, the framed red-green abstractions rendered by an artistic soul named Rojas pumped salvos of Cuban aura at a dozen tables lining the corridor. K thought it was all "kinda slick," but he grew rather fond of it.

K and I both jumped for Cuban sandwiches ($7), which at first glance looked like large piroshki. Four slices of Virginia ham and three slices of roasted pork were stacked on the Swiss melted center of a house-baked Cuban bun lined with a gossamer sheet of dill. (K said it was pretty good, although he remembered the ham being thinner and saltier in Cuba.) The pile was press-grilled until the whole assembly measured an inch and a half thick. On the side, a fistful of mixed greens, lightly accented with vinaigrette, provided color relief. Very munchable with rounds of Hatuey--La Gran Cerveza de Cuba ($3.25).

On another visit, this time with a younger friend, the waitress tempted me into ordering Mojito ($4.50), a Cuban lemonade made with citrus, rum, sugar and crushed fresh mint. Absolutely delightful.

Entrées arrived with little fanfare, the chef opting for simple, photogenic presentations. For instance, the tamarind-seared chicken ($12), crowned with an avocado fan, arrived on a plate paved with baked black beans without any other sidekick. Likewise, the seared Chilean sea bass ($14), teased with zucchini hay and mounted on a pedestal of mashed potato, was a virtuoso a cappella performance, but lonely on its porcelain stage among 10 inert black beans. The fish was flake-perfect, every tender bite good enough to summon Hemingway prose on the joy of eating fish.

The same couldn't be said about the poultry, which had no hint of tamarind. Filleted and spread flat, the chicken breast was press-grilled and reduced to a dry, chewy disc. We abandoned it altogether because there was plenty more on the menu: whole baked crabs, rack of lamb and heaps of raw oysters and clam. However, on both visits the kitchen had run out of a good fourth of the menu. We most enjoyed the seared ahi tuna served with zesty chile and mango ($8), a rich and creamy lobster bisque ($5) and a nice Cuban version of Caesar salad ($6).

La Bodeguita del Medio is a neighborhood sort of place where what comes out of the bottles is as important as what comes out of the kitchen. Plus, it's awfully cute. K and I are planning to warm barstools there on a regular basis.

La Bodeguita del Medio
Cuisine: Cuban and Californian
Ambiance: Cuban hip and casual; could get rowdy
Menu: Starters $7-$14, entreés $7-$20; lunch $6-$11
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2pm, dinner 5:30pm-9pm; closed Sunday
Address: 463 California Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650/326-7762
Extras: The bar stocks more than 30 brands of rum.

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From the Oct. 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro.

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