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Review: Bodega offers Cuban fare from charming tiny spot in St. Pete

Harry Chittenden, left, and friend Peter C. Fischbach sit at Bodega’s open window for lunch last week. If you can’t find a spot near the beer taps, there are a few tables outside and out back is another covered, open-air dining space.
Published Mar. 25, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG

Central Avenue's EDGE District just got edgier. The little box at 1120 Central Ave. that has harbored chocolate cake makers, barbecue impresarios and other culinary schemers and dreamers over the years has become a hip, fun and affordable little Cuban bodega. ¶ Its insides lined in shiny white subway tile, the tidy box was charmingly redesigned with great use of outdoor space: Five metal cafe tables reach across the wide sidewalk, their lemon-yellow plastic chairs cheery and comfortable. Peer through the order window and you'll see a small bar with just a handful of stools lined up along a row of beer taps (Modelo, Tampa Bay Brewing's One Night Stand, Cold Storage's Florida Avenue Ale, etc.). And out back is another covered, open-air dining space.

Owners George and Debbie Seyegh are new to St. Pete, originally from Brooklyn with a more recent stint in Atlanta. They got a first taste of St. Pete as so many of us do, visiting snowbirding parents. They fell in love and decided to open a little neighborhood spot in the increasingly rich Central Avenue culinary landscape.

Baseball season will see an influx of new hungry customers trailing from the Trop, but already locals have found their way to Bodega in fair numbers. Dishes are packed in eco-friendly brown cardboard boxes (no Styrofoam, yeah!), the Cubans and other pressed sandwiches wrapped tight in the kind of waxed paper that starts to get a little grease-splotchy, which somehow adds to one's anticipation.

There's plenty of good stuff to anticipate at Bodega, but the seasoning needs to be more assertive to give the food the kind of depth and drama one associates with the best Cuban places.

For instance, it's a great Cuban sandwich ($6.50), crunchy La Segunda bread, gooey Swiss, a generous flurry of shredded pork. But where's the mustard and salami? Those tend to be the punchy ingredients that give a solid Cuban sandwich its verve. And with the pollo asado, offered as a sandwich ($6.50), a plate ($8) or with a salad (a $2 addition), the subtle coconut marinade on the sliced chicken breast would be heightened with a serious sprinkle of salt.

In the case of the black beans, spicy heat, salt and bay leaf would heal the patient entirely. One day's special, ropa vieja ($8, slow-cooked and shredded beef, faintly tomato-tinged), hit all the right notes for texture and flavor, but needed a big squirt of hot sauce to push it into the "ahh" zone.

My favorite dishes were the most dramatically flavorful on the short menu. A side of jicama slaw ($3, some of which appears on a couple of the salads, too) brought lengths of limey, crunchy jicama, curls of red onion and planks of cuke, the whole thing just puckery and a little spicy, with cooling leaves of cilantro here and there. And the housemade Cuban bread pudding ($4), pillowy and moist, is swirled with a coffee caramel sauce and a faint coconutty flavor that marries with everything else. Pair that with a sweet, milky cafe con leche (a majorly good deal at $1.50) or, even better, a cafe Cubano ($1.50), which is an espresso shot actually brewed with sugar so the sweetness seamlessly fuses with the bitter.

Order at the counter, the sound system blaring Cuban music or something quirky like a little old-school Kool & the Gang. When your order is up, it gets scooted out the window and someone yells your name. As Bodega gets more settled, it would be nice to see service for dining-in differentiated from takeout orders — actual table service or more plate-like food receptacles. Changes of this sort tend to make people linger, an easy way to "upsell" customers to a second glass of wine (a nice and inexpensive little list, mostly around $7 per glass) or one of the glorious frozen fruit treats on a stick ($3.50) from Sarasota's Pop Craft. A single menu at lunch and dinner at Bodega means an $8 slow-roasted mojo pork dinner (which includes rice, beans and fried plantains) leaves enough green in the pocket that a Popsicle splurge sounds just about right.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

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