That is, until I opened the door at La Bodeguita del Medio, the 14-year-old Cuban-inspired restaurant that packs them in six days per week. Few tables were available shortly after 6 p.m.
The restaurant, conceived by Michael and Lara Ekwall, opened in 1997. Michael caught the restaurant bug while working his way through college in Maryland, and later at UCLA. "I just fell in love with the business," he said.
As a student, he traveled to Cuba and visited the original La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana. The name means 'little bar in the middle of the block.' It was one of Hemingway's favorites (what bar wasn't?). There, "Papa" enjoyed hand-rolled cigars, rum mojitos and the local color that he often incorporated into his work.
On California Avenue, the interior colors are warm, vibrant Caribbean hues. Tables and banquettes are spaced, and the place can be noisy but rarely overpowering. The bar and dining room are separated spaces, which reduces clatter without dampening spirits on either side. Colorful Cuban artwork adds to the festive air.
For starters, the empanadas ($10.50) were stuffed with picadillo pork (finely chopped), roasted chilies and pepper jack cheese, then quickly fried and topped with a slightly piquant coconut jalapeno sauce atop a scoop of black beans. I'm not an empanada fan because usually there is more dough than stuffing. Not these. They were fat with pork and cheese.
Croquetas ($9) were crispy potato fritters filled with Spanish cheese, chives and pimenton (paprika). A tamarind-chipotle dipping sauce accompanied. The croquetas were delivered piping hot and were golden-crisp outside, with creamy potato inside.
The camarones con mojo ($12) were delightfully lip-smackingly spicy. The shrimp was sauteed with piquillo and habanero peppers and served on little toasts. On a warm evening, after a rum drink or two, this shrimp dish will make you sweat.
The Graycliff chowder ($8) was prepared with shrimp and conch meat suffused in a roasted vegetable and habanero puree. Thick, with just enough spice to remember, it was a chowder with zing.
Service was always prompt and friendly at La Bodeguita. The waitstaff took time to explain dishes, particularly the daily specials, and made suitable recommendations.
Entree-wise, the ropa vieja ($18) featured fork-tender meat, with shredded skirt steak, chili peppers and yellow rice, with plantanos maduros (sweet plantains pan-fried in oil). The nearly caramelized plantains added a homey sweetness to the plate.
Arroz con pollo ($17.50) was the most basic and the blandest dish I had at La Bodeguita. There was no fault with the preparation; it just wasn't very adventurous, but then again, many diners aren't. The braised chicken came with yellow rice and plantanos maduros.
I loved the coconut-crusted snapper ($21). Two crisp fillets sat atop boniato mash (creamy white sweet potatoes) and wilted greens. Lime butter oozed over the lush dish. The coconut crust in this case was more like panko bread crumbs than flaky coconut, but packed more flavor.
Just had to try a side of fried yucca ($4.50). It was worth it. The yucca was cut into thick French-fry-like pieces. Hot and meaty, almost doughy, they quickly disappeared.
La Bodeguita has an appealing Cuban cocktail list, a worthy and reasonably priced wine list, and an outstanding menu of aged sipping rums from all over the Caribbean. Prices are mostly $8 to $12 per pour with a few uncommon exceptions, like the ultra-smooth Pryat Cask 23 from Anguilla, $22 per pour.
Desserts do not disappoint. Mr. Johnson's rum chocolate cake ($8.50) was a dense, ultra-chocolate cake made with Callebaut chocolate rum sauce. This was a chocolate lover's nirvana.
Havana bananas ($9.50) were caramelized bananas, walnuts, cinnamon and vanilla ice cream. It was reminiscent of Brennan's of New Orleans' famous Bananas Foster and almost as tasty.
The Key lime tart ($7.50) was that sumptuous Key lime custard with graham cracker crust, and a swirl of raspberry atop. What distinguished the pie was the thickness of the lush custard.
La Bodeguita del Medio is a lively restaurant with interesting, well-prepared dishes inspired by the cuisine of the Caribbean, Cuba in particular. With fun libations and reasonable prices, it is probably not rowdy enough for Hemingway — which makes it perfect for us mere mortals.
La Bodeguita del Medio
463 S. California Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Lunch: Weekdays 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Thurs. 5-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-midnight