Brooklyn transplants George and Debbie Sayegh opened the groovy and delicious Bodega on Central back in February. They’d owned three places in downtown Brooklyn for nearly a dozen years (including Latin Grill, a Cuban coffee shop, and a supper club called Samba). George went to culinary school and trained as a chef; Debbie’s background is in fine dining service. Before moving to St. Petersburg, they lived in Atlanta for a few years, but “never opened a business there because we didn’t expect to stay,” says George. Their parents wintered in St. Petersburg every year, and George says it was either move back north or stay in the ’Burg.
“The second we got to St. Pete, we signed a lease,” George says laughing. While we talk, Debbie takes orders at the window.
“When I lived in South Beach, I fell in love with the old-school Cuban food,” he says. “It was all I could afford. And St. Pete didn’t have anything where you walk up to a window and order something.”
On our first visit, Mr. Doom and I order two homemade lime sodas.
Unlike the overly sweet agua frescas most Latin restaurants offer, Bodega’s are made with pure fruit juice in flavors like watermelon and pineapple, fresh seltzer, and all-natural Florida cane sugar.
“In my house, we don’t buy soda,” George says. “We buy juice, and my daughter (Sophia) always asks me to put fizzy water in it. I add a little sugar and that’s it.”
They've moved from making the juice on-site to sourcing it from Squeeze Juice Works (look for their storefront opening soon at 675 30th Ave. N). Be sure to try the Chi-Chi Rodriguez, a combination of lime soda and house-brewed unsweetened tea named for the famous Latin golfer (a customer suggested it was more appropriate than offering Arnold Palmers).
Ravenous, I spring for the Cuban sandwich while Mr. Doom delights in his churrasco (skirt steak) marinated in sofrito and served with black beans, rice, and maduros (sweet plantains). Really, for my Chilean, it’s all about the beans and rice. And at $4 for a side dish of both, he can only remark, “If I’m missing for several days, check under their bar.”
Instead of green jalapeños, Bodega uses a roasted red jalapeño-like Fresno chili pepper to garnish most menu items. Fresnos are spicy, but smokier and sweeter than the traditional jalapeño; I’m hooked.
Take note, Tampa Cuban sandwich fiends; Bodega’s Cuban sandwich is served sans salami and mustard. Before you rant, hear him out.
“I’m glad you asked about that,” George says. “First off, we are in St. Pete, not Tampa. I fell in love with the Cuban in South Beach and that’s how they make it. In the Jersey City Cuban community up north, they don’t use mustard or salami either.”
He explains that Bodega makes its own pork and mojo sauce from scratch. The pork butts marinate for three days, and roast for hours on end.
“Now why would I put mustard on something like that?” he says. “It doesn’t need it. That’s my theory.”
Call it heresy, but George has me convinced; his Cuban sandwich is so good I can’t imagine adding a single ingredient. No, it’s not a true Tampa Cuban, but maybe St. Pete can have its own variations. Also, heads up, vegetarians: Bodega makes a mean tofu Cuban (also try the tempeh when it’s available). There’s also draft beer, some seriously delicious Cuban coffee drinks, and a few homemade pastellitos for dessert.
George says Bodega has “big ambitions and a small kitchen,” but not to worry. “We’re not messing with Bodega. It’s good just how it is.”
Bodega on Central, 1120 Central Ave., 727-623-0942, bodegaoncentral.com.