Atmospheric ceiling fans, the sounds of sizzling salsa and a moody twilight interior all made a convincing argument for dinner in old Havana. But this was Palo Alto’s La Bodeguita del Medio (named for the Cuban original), where an inevitable California spin on Caribbean cookery kept things lively and unexpected.

Everything about this vivacious dining room pleased us, from the infectious music to the brown butcher paper covering the table linens. A blended clientele of families, couples and university denizens filled the large main hall with the communal energy of eating and drinking and having a good time.

Neo-Xavier Cugat big-band mambos infused the main room (while a solo guitarist cast a spell over diners at the adjoining bar), and the tropically inflected menu appealed on a variety of levels. Except for a mojito noticeably light on rum, the entire dinner at La Bodeguita del Medio—including fine service throughout—delivered much more than our already high expectations demanded.

Empanadas filled with shredded pork and cheese, and drizzled with a blatantly sweet coconut-jalapeño cream, made a welcome appetizer ($10.50). The pastries arrived on a bed of outrageously satisfying hot pickled cabbage and black beans with attitude, all robustly matched by glasses of Silica 2008 old-vine garnacha ($9.50). The Spanish wine’s deep center of black cherry and cedar seemed presciently keyed to the house spice-intensive dishes.

Even the bread was given a distinctive flair. Slices of baguette were offered accompanied by olive oil stained a beautiful orange by a heady blend of peppers, garlic, lemon and bay leaves. Camarones con mojo ($12) continued our delicious spice trek. As our waiter had cautioned, these fat, luscious prawns offered more than a mild kick, thanks to piquillo and habañero peppers perfuming the luscious oils. Hot, but not too hot. And we loved it. Served with fat cloves of sautéed garlic, slices of lemon zest and crisp toasts to dredge through the sauce, the camarones were beyond good.

We shared a main dish—a huge main dish—of masitas, shredded, slow-roasted spiced pork in a traditional presentation with black beans and rice. Hints of citrus and oregano, the authentic companions of masitas de puerco, created a haze of background intrigue in each forkful of the tender pork. Sweet caramelized onions played across the complex sauce, which had been amplified into molten fullness by some strategically applied peppers and garlic ($19). A side of smoky grilled asparagus ($5) made an intriguing counter argument to the richness of the pork, adding an astringent accent to the succulent entree.

We finished our dinner with a shared key lime tart ($7.50) and small cups of strong, sweet Cafe Cubano ($3). Wrapped in a graham-cracker crust, the generous portion of ultra-creamy tart sat on a deep purple coulis of guava and blackberry. The high-key berry sauce pushed smartly against the light citrus custard. Perhaps a touch more key lime in the tart might have taken it to a higher plane, but why quibble with an already successful creation?

Among the house seductions is the Cigar Divan, where patrons can enjoy cocktails and fine cigars (also available for retail purchase) in luxurious leisure. Graced with an adjoining cigar lounge, El Bodeguita del Medio is the kind of ambience-drenched place that makes you long for a car and driver waiting out front to whisk you home after a long unhurried dinner with friends, followed by a flight of designer rums and a hand-rolled cigar. Salud!

La Bodeguita del Medio
463 S. California Avenue, Palo Alto

Open for lunch M-F; dinner M-Th 5:30-9:30, F-Sa until 10pm (‘til midnight for bar dining). Closed Sundays.