I’m starting this blog with the end of the meal in mind. When I got home from dinner at Bodegon Criollo I experienced two distinct feelings: First, I was totally satiated, happily full and couldn’t imagine eating another bite for the rest of the day. And that’s after both Mart and I enjoyed two entrées, shared a dessert, and I had a glass of Cabernet . . . all for under $25.
The second feeling was wonderment. Bodegon Criollo (which can be translated to mean Creole Pantry or Native Pantry . . . either translation works for me!) is located in a nondescript shopping strip off Desoto Road, west of US 301/Washington Blvd. and surrounded by small businesses, warehouses and such. It’s the kind of location you’d normally drive by on your way to or from the local airport. I wondered about the wisdom of the chosen location and then was delighted to see that with only 10 total tables in the dining room, 7 of them were taken, with another guest waiting at the bar for a take-out order. I knew immediately that the location wasn’t going to be an issue for this new restaurant. In fact, open only 2 months, Bodegon Criollo has already received 86 positive reviews on Google, almost all of them 5 stars!
Having previously lived in the Miami area for over 20 years, I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, good authentic Cuban food is one of America’s newest comfort foods. It isn’t a fussy cuisine, more reminiscent of a home-cooked meal than a fancy night on the town. Unless you order one of Bedegon Criollo’s nightly dinner specials or one of their weekend-only Paella specials, nothing is over $15, with the average price being under $10. I’ll drive out of my way for delicious food at a nice price, wouldn’t you?
Mart suggested Bodegon Criollo because he knew I had recently been craving Ropa Vieja, a classic Cuban dish featuring shredded beef in a seasoned tomato sauce with red and green peppers. So he was somewhat surprised when I ordered the Picadillo A la Habanera instead.
Similar to Ropa Vieja, Picadillo is cooked in tomato sauce but utilizes ground beef, cumin, green olives, bay leaf, garlic, and other savory ingredients slow-cooked to meld all those yummy ingredients together until you get an unmistaken flavor profile that can only be “Picadillo.” The use of “Habanera” in the name suggests the dish pays homage to the slow Cuban dance, the habanera, or perhaps the most famous aria from the opera Carmen. Either way, any artistic expression fits quite well here in Sarasota, the Cultural Capital of Florida!
Each of the entrées on Bodegon Criollo’s menu comes with two sides of your choice. For my choices, I stepped away from the menu’s potato and rice options and ordered Yuca Con Mojo (cassava with a mojo marinade) with Plantano Maduro Frito (sweet ripe plantains lightly fried in oil.) Yucca is a great departure from potatoes, but it sometimes needs a little ‘Sumthin-Sumthin’ to brighten it up. Mojo marinade was an excellent choice! Made from a mix of bitter orange juice, garlic, oregano, cumin, and salt, mojo brings a citrus zing to yucca, and the sauteed onions topping the yucca added additional sweetness as well as the slightest of crunches to the soft texture of boiled yucca. The plantains also brought sweetness to the plate, which balanced the robust garlic and seasoning of the Picadillo. Trust me . . . I enjoyed everything I ordered!
Looking for something on the lighter side, Mart followed my suggestion and ordered the Puerco Asado, roast pork cooked in its own juices and sliced into thin bite-sized medallions. When he asked our server Gaby for some lightly sautéed onions to go along with the pork, they were added, no questions asked. Mart felt the pork was ideally cooked . . . such thinly sliced proteins can sometimes end up overcooked and dry, but these pork slices were both juicy and tender, well seasoned and drizzled in braising liquid. We discussed whether it cooked as a whole pork loin before being sliced and browned in braising liquid, allowing the interior to soak up all that flavor, or if Chef just knew when to take it off the heat. It was delightful!
Mart’s sides were the classic Moros y Cristianos (black beans and rice) which was served with the white rice on the plate and the black beans served in a bowl on the side. He appreciated being able to control the balance of black beans to rice, which allows diners to decide where they want the rice to absorb the black bean juices or not . . . solely depended upon how much beans he scooped over the rice. The only suggestion I’d make would be a slice of lime, which brightens up black beans.
Additionally, he ordered the deep-fried green plantains, called Tostones. Popular in both Cuba and Puerto Rico, (and the Dominican Republic, and the Cayman Islands, and Costa Rica, and . . . ) tostones are green, unripened plantains sliced into half-dollar sized chunks, seasoned with garlic and onion powder, lightly fried to a golden brown, and then flattened with a mallet, bottom of a glass or heavy spoon. The result is a deeply crunchy exterior and a soft, lightly chewy interior.
With the most expensive dessert on the menu coming in a $3.99, we knew we had to try at least one of the four desserts on the menu. Ultimately we shared an order of Flan for $2.00 (!!) This classic Cuban dessert (overuse of the word classic? Sorry, not sorry!) was large enough to share and just so silky in texture. Flan is typically a vanilla custard baked over caramelized sugar, and when it’s done just right, the caramelization of the sugar enhances the dairy in the custard, creating a flavor reminiscent of browned butter sauce, but without the butter. Being a simple custard at heart, it’s another of those comfort foods so many of us enjoy.
So, ending my evening with a full tummy, a happy wallet and an appreciation for the team at Bodegon Criollo, may I add another detail or two? The restaurant is clean with white table coverings and bright artwork, the staff is friendly and well versed on the menu choices and . . . I really liked the cute straw hat lights they used for lampshades over the bar. Sure, lampshades have nothing to do with the quality of the food, but like everything that landed on my plate, I could see, as well as taste, the creativity at Bodegon Criollo! Next time? Cuban sandwiches and croquettes!
Final Note: Being newly opened, and 1st generation Cubans, the owners of Bodegon Criollo have not set up a website at the time of this blog post. Please trust us on this one . . . whether you’ve tried Cuban food before or not, they are worth a visit!