Santiago's Bodega


(Key West, FL) — We are in the throes of vacation, having spent a relaxing Christmas with family near Daytona Beach then motoring down the coast until we arrive for a week, just the two of us, in Key West. Shorts, tee shirts, and sandals are the uniform, no matter where you go, no matter where you might have dinner reservations. After a couple days to acclimate to the warmer-than-anticipated weather and get some touristy sightseeing out of the way, we strike out for a tapas place called Santiago’s Bodega...

He Fed:

I’m more relaxed than I have any right to be. Sure, the long trek down to the Keys seemingly took forever but once we arrived, there was nothing to do except soak up the sun, the heat, and some cold brew. Tonight, we’re headed for a tapas dinner at Santiago’s Bodega. We’ve heard nothing but good things from other folks familiar with the area, so I’m excited.

After a leisurely stroll, we arrive to a shade-drenched building with rough-hewn signs posted outside the entrance, and a warm glow emanating from within. Immediately inside the entrance is the host stand, where a frenetic gentleman is fielding incessant phone calls, all the while sparing a few words for us and trying to snag menus before seating us. The restaurant is a flurry of controlled chaos. My relaxed attitude slips away, to be replaced by anxious worry.

Somehow, we get seated at a four-top inside, which I love because it gives us room to spread out without having to balance plates or water glasses. Soon, our server arrives and delivers his well-rehearsed spiel. He’s a friendly guy, but constantly distracted and clumsy. While wiping our table, he smacks my fork onto the floor; while adjusting the furniture, he knocks the empty chair next to me into my knee.

Santiago’s Bodega makes their own Sangria, so we opt for a pitcher to share. It is deliciously refreshing, with virtually no sweetness and a light body. Chunks of green apple add just an extra touch of tartness. Off to a good start! While we sip, we peruse the menu and strategize. A parade of small plates seems the way to go.

Green Beans are the first to arrive. Served cold, the beans are served French style with shreds of prosciutto and gruyere, coated in a lemon-caper vinaigrette. My first bite is electrifying...tangy, sweet and crunchy. Yowza! I’ve never had beans as good as these.

Next up, the nightly special: Chipotle Mole Beef Tacos. The meat is so tender, it practically melts in my mouth, while the pepper’s high spice level is masterfully offset by the mole’s soulful depths. Again, I’ve rarely experienced this level of complexity in fancy restaurant dishes, let alone in a taco.

Patatas Bravas follow. Covered in melted parmesan and spicy tomato sauce, the fried chunks of potato are simple and relatively unassuming. There’s a nice tang to the sauce, but otherwise it’s not that different from similar versions I’ve had elsewhere. The Croquettas, however, are another triumph. Mashed potatoes, provolone cheese and ground prosciutto form overlarge balls of deep fried goodness, generously seasoned with cayenne. Dipped into the scallion sour cream, these are hot and cool at the same time, tantalizingly spicy yet earthy and comforting.

Our final choice, Brussel Sprouts, are an unnecessary addition. Already, we are nearing fullness. Drizzled in balsamic vinegar, sprinkled with pine nuts, and coated with a thin layer of parmesan cheese, the leafy greens have been roasted and sauteed in brown butter. My taste buds are blown by this time, so I only try a couple bites. They are good, but unremarkable.

We finish off the sangria and briefly consider ordering more tacos to go. Common sense wins out, though; we pay up and burn off some calories on the walk home instead. Despite the spotty service and frenzied atmosphere, unique food preparation makes Santiago’s Bodega a required destination in Key West.

She Fed:

My hopes are high for dinner tonight, as this restaurant is the most recommended by everyone we know who’s been to Key West. As we approach the entrance, it’s controlled chaos at best with a line of people waiting for tables, a man begging to get a late night reservation for a large group, and an ever-ringing phone. At one point the exasperated host tells a caller they’re booked solid for the next two weeks. Luckily, we have reservations and are immediately seated.

Our server is friendly and knows how to chat up the tourists without being phony. When we tell him we’re from Michigan he immediately asks “State or Michigan” which makes me like him even more. We’re not sure if we want beer or wine and Alan suggests a pitcher of the Red Sangria. Sold!

The menu is huge and it all sounds divine. After indulging in a big prime rib dinner over the holidays, I want some veggies. I steer us towards the Green Beans and Brussel Sprouts while Jeremy favors spuds with Patatas Bravas and Croquettas. We both agree we’ve got to try the taco of the day: Mole Beef with Chipotle.

The Green Beans are very lightly cooked so they’re still crisp; I later hear Alan tell another table the kitchen quick sautees the green beans for 60 seconds and then plunges them in an ice bath. They’re tossed in a lemon-caper vinaigrette with strips of gruyere (which almost look like wax beans) and prosciutto. This is easily my favorite dish of the evening, with the tangy dressing cutting the richness of the cheese and meat while fancying up simple green beans.

During a vacation in Barcelona a few winters back, we consumed Patatas Bravas nearly every single day. Spain’s version of the French fry—deep fried potato cubes served with housemade aioli and romesco, a puree of almonds, garlic, bread cubes and tomato sauce—it was a delicious afternoon treat with a glass of wine in between sightseeing ventures. These Patatas Bravas are served with spicy tomato sauce drizzled over the potatoes and a generous sprinkle of manchego. One bite and I’m remembering our afternoon at the Picasso museum. Divine!

The smell wafting from the plate of tacos is incredible and we immediately dig in. The beef is rich and spicy, with a mole that’s not too overpowering. The tacos are dressed with tender green cilantro shoots and minced white onion which adds a little crunch. A squeeze of lime and it’s absolute heaven. We vow to place a second order as our dessert.

The Croquettas arrive next, two large pan-fried orbs of mashed potatoes with ground prosciutto, provolone and cayenne. They’re served with a side of scallion spiked sour cream. The crispy coating adds some interest, but these taste essentially like a twice-baked potato. Nice but nothing special.

As the Brussel Sprouts appear, we realize there will be no second order of tacos for dessert as we’re both getting full. Indeed, we‘re unable to even finish the veggies, which is a shame because they’re damn good. The sprouts are sweet and crunchy, oven roasted with a balsamic glaze, pine nuts and Parm.

Our pitcher of Red Sangria has lasted us through the meal with enough left for final refill. It’s not an overly sweet sangria and the bits of fruit are a nice treat. I declare these some of the best tapas I’ve had outside of Spain. We toddle out into the warm night air dreaming of small plates and big appetites.


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