I’ve been meaning to try this local Cuban restaurant for quite some time now, and every time something or the other gets in the way. Mostly it’s been a case of “let’s go explore what San Francisco has to offer” – the side by-product of which is that local (or almost local) establishments with some amazing culinary offerings go unnoticed, unexplored, unsampled.

One of these days, I put my foot down, found a friend willing to forego the allure of San Francisco, and we headed to Palo Alto during lunch time. La Bodeguita Del Medio is comfortably ensconced among quite a few other culinary delights along California Avenue in Palo Alto, a stone’s throw away from downtown Palo Alto, and a hop-skip-and-jump away from Stanford University. There are some outdoor seating options, but faced with a day with high 80s to low 90s weather, we decided to sit inside.

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The menu claims that this restaurant is a copy of the original version in Havana, where it is a popular hangout for cigars, food and cocktails. Ernest Hemingway was apparently a frequent patron – hm. In an attempt to recreate that environment, this restaurant opened its doors to its California patrons in 1997, offering a cigar lounge, authentic Cuban flavors and rum cocktails. You pick up your drink at the bar in the front of the store, and can amble onwards to the “Cigar Divan” – the separate lounge, where you can help yourself to their well stocked humidor.

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I arrived on time, and while waiting for my friend, I picked out the corner table – the better to get a good look at the rest of the restaurant as I waited. The decor is cheerful, with artwork lining the playful yellow walls. Ceiling fans whirr with a barely perceptible pleasant hum. The bar seemed well visited, even during lunch hour. I did like they have high chairs with backs at the bar instead of the standard stools – makes for a more inviting and stay-longer vibe.

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The light fixtures looked pretty stunning. Beyond the main dining area, beyond heavy curtains that coordinated with their ceiling color, there seems to be more dining space. A fairly spacious venue – with potential for private events for much larger groups. Note to self!

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Interestingly enough, I really liked their table settings. Simple elegance seemed to be the central theme, while the choice of colors helped inject a burst of playful energy to buoy up that elegant vibe. You never really think of playful and elegant together, until you see it so well executed and well presented!

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I always think that I will like Cuban cuisine. I am not sure I really understand what is typically Cuban, but I do have some mental images of tomato based curries and strong flavors, yet mild on the heat. I think of plantains, beans, sweet and smokey. I think mainly of a confluence of several influences – Spanish and African, with some Carribean thrown in for kicks.

We started off with shrimp ceviche. It came out adorned in a glass, heaped high with lemony shrimp and plantain chips. Not your ordinary ceviche at all! This one has black beans in it, for that Cuban flair. In addition, there’s coconut milk and cilantro. And then, if that was not confusing/thrilling enough for your palate, there’s habanero layered throughout the dish. Oh yes: spicy! The tang from the key lime and the warmth of the chile settling down at the back of your tongue and throat all combine into a firework of an experience. That’s when you crunch onto that plantain slice! Lip smacking good.

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I had ordered the arroz con pollo – chicken rice. It might sound a tad humdrum, but hello, have some faith! This was no ordinary chicken rice. The menu reads it as “Cuban braised chicken” with plantains and yellow rice. A deceptively simple description.

You had me at “Cuban braised”. I imagined all sorts of fall off the bone tender meat, marinated masterfully in amazing spices that combine together in a cacophonous melody of sheer perfection of flavors. My choice was pretty clear.

And I wasn’t far off. Cuban cuisine boasts a pheasant-style: a lot of slow-cooked items, less of a focus on technique and more on the freshness of ingredients, and a clever combination of spices, flavors and textures. Conceptually similar to Bangladeshi cuisine, in my opinion, though the flavor profiles are actually quite distinct. Culinary philosophical cousins of sorts, if you will. I am a HUGE fan of the slow-cooked tenderness in meats. From a technique standpoint, the braising, when done right, can bring out these hidden flavor profiles from the meat and bones that will transform the experience. But I digress. Back to the arroz con pollo.

The chicken came slow-simmered in spices in a thick tomato based curry sauce. I could barely touch with the top of my fork before it disintegrated off the bones. Not in strands of over-cooked dried out sadness, but rather in clumps of moist and flavorful chicken chunks. I dug in, marveling at the infusion of flavors into the meat – masterfully marinated, as I had anticipated. Would the dish have been closer to perfection if there wasn’t a pool of oil lying at the bottom of the plate as I worked my way through? Probably 🙂 I stopped eating 75% way into the plate, so there was a protective layer of the arroz between the grease and my fork: I was pleased.

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My friend ordered the Fideos con camarones: thin pasta with shrimp. Again, innocuous, bordering on the humdrum, you say? Oh not at all. This was a creamy pasta dish with sauteed shrimp, with asparagus and avocado. The pasta was generously coated with manchego that imparted both a nutty flavor and a dense creamy texture. The asparagus was crisp tender and tasted fresh. The avocado helped with the overall creamy texture of the dish, lending both a vibrant touch of green to complement the asparagus, as well as a subtle variation on the creamy texture of the cheese.

Yet the show-stealer was the jalapeno-conch butter sauce. Layered with the mild heat and flavor of jalapeno, and heavily infused with the seafood depth of flavor from the conch, this butter sauce opened my eyes (and taste buds) to a brand new flavor profile. Oh. So. Yum.

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La Bodeguita Del Medio – I’m still debating whether it was an “authentic” experience or an exceptionally well executed fusion experience based on Cuban influences. I may need to mull that over a bit – but it does not take away from the remarkably tasty culinary foray into a tastes of Cuba.

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