It’s hard to believe that we’re already six months into the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the obvious health concerns, our inability to gather in groups indoors has had a devastating effect on the restaurant industry. Several of our favorite haunts are already gone, and too many others won’t survive. Numerous menus just don’t lend themselves to takeout. Indeed, the business plan for many restaurants has shifted just to stay alive.
Luckily, the-recently relocated Bodega on Central (which also has a sibling in Seminole Heights) is perfectly designed to thrive in the face of the challenges facing the industry. Debbie and George Sayegh offer a “comfort food” menu of pressed sandwiches with an online order system for takeout that is easy to navigate.
Bodega on Central
1120 Central Ave., St. Pete
Sandwiches $7.50-$9; sides $.50-$7; sweets $3.75; juice & smoothies $6.50
I open my Cuban sandwich with great anticipation, because of Bodega’s BOTB-winning reputation. The brown wrapping paper is clearly marked with a “C,” but my heart sinks. I mistakenly get the “lechon” instead. This shredded mojo-marinated roasted pork with grilled onions is moist and flavorful, if mild. But this version is all pork, so the Cuban extras will wait for another day. All the pressed sandwiches are on pleasant Cuban bread and contain ample portions. If you are anticipating a crusty exterior, you need to lower your expectations for these takeout handhelds. They manage to stay warm, but lose the edge of crispness in transit.
If you can handle the heat, the chicken version is a flavor explosion with contrasting textures, as well. The flattened breast meat is balanced with smooth avocado and mango against crunchy jicama and fiery pickled chilies with some mango mayo. It’s a memorable mouthful for fans of spice.
Less tangy, but with a great combo of textures and flavors is the pressed vegetarian with firm tofu, creamy avocado, and contrasting crispness from cucumber and jicama. Add some fresh cilantro and the brightness of mojo sauce and you’ve got a superb veggie alternative. There’s also a tempeh version with spicy slaw.
The frita is a beef and pork Cuban burger on a bun which reminds me more of a large flattened meatball. It’s nicely spiced, but without a kick. That comes from some spicy mayo, which is teamed with avocado and a tomato slice. What’s special is a forest of potato sticks that add a delightful crunch.
The sandwiches are offered as platters (platos) with the addition of rice and beans plus maduros. The rice and beans combo is surprisingly flavorful. What’s unusual to me is the texture of both components. Often black beans are mushy and don’t retain their full shape. Also, they are almost always swimming in a gravy-like sauce. Bodega’s beans are intact and the rice grains are also easily separated and not the slightest bit sticky. The result appears dry, but it’s lovely on the palate. Most often the combo ends up as a creamy glob, which is not necessarily unpleasant, but is usually one-dimensional. These offer layers of flavor with a complexity that’s unexpected.
I wish I could say the same about the plantains (maduros), which just seem dull despite a spritz of fresh lime. They are crosscut at right angles like a banana rather than an angled oblique slice. Our batch is dry without the sweet, creamy lush interior that usually makes them so seductive. My taster who is a big plantain fan remarks that he can’t remember the last time he left a single one on his plate. Until now.
The dessert menu varies daily and some items end up “out of stock.” For example, we’re unable to sample the salted chocolate chunk cookie or the red velvet (whether it’s a slice, cupcake or cookie is anyone’s guess). Instead, we chose the intriguing horchata white chocolate cookie and a mysterious sweet simply listed as “ginger.” Unfortunately, there’s another crossed wire from the online order to what ends up in our bag. Our sweets have gone missing.
This is one of the challenges of serving takeout during a pandemic, when you’re usually a sit down establishment. I have no way of knowing what went wrong, so I’d just advise you to double check before driving away. The online order printout, complete with contact info and pickup time, is neatly stapled to a carefully packed brown paper bag. We arrive seven minutes early and I barely find a temporary parking space, when my tasting companion is back in a jiffy with our meal.
Ultimately, Bodega is an efficient, casual and tasty solution to your comfort food hunger; just double check your order before you drive into the sunset.
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