By Jessica Tuggle
VERO BEACH - As children, we're told to never judge a book by its cover. Sometimes that nugget of wisdom works on restaurants, too.
While La Bodeguita de Vero Beach is off the beaten path and removed from an area populated with restaurants, it's worth a trip south down 43rd Avenue.
The restaurant is family owned and operated by Chef Fernando Pons and offers a variety of home- style Cuban foods. Located next to a Chevron gas station, the location's a bit unusual, but one step inside the restaurant makes everything else disappear.
"Once we get people to come in the first time, they always come back," said Mr. Pons.
The restaurant is a little piece of old Cuba in our own local piece of paradise.
The restaurant is designed to follow the aesthetic model of an 80-year-old restaurant in Havana, Cuba, La Bodeguita del Medio, which was a favorite of author Ernest Hemingway.
Following the Cuban establishment's décor, La Bodeguita de Vero has handwritten messages and drawings from countless patrons - from elegant script to childish scrawl - on countless square inches of wall that are filled with thanks and compliments on the food.
Lunch specials are offered daily: a portion of meat and two sides can be made into many lunchtime combinations that will fill even the hungriest of bellies.
Popular dishes include Cuban fish casserole, which includes fish, shrimp and mussels cooked in a white wine- based sauce, the bodeguita fish fillet, which comes grilled or fried with sides of sweet potatoes and mango salsa, and pollo relleno, or stuffed chicken breast.
If a generous helping of food isn't what suits your fancy, the appetizers at La Bodeguita are also worth filling up on.
A tamale relleno, or stuffed tamale with shredded beef and cheese, is almost a meal to itself. Empanadas or the chef special tostones rellenos, fried plantains stuffed with ground or shredded beef, are also excellent, flavorful choices.
Most of the dishes do not have a super spicy flavor, but for patrons looking to kick it up a notch or two, ask for the delicious spicy citrus sauce.
During dining, patrons can be assured of friendly service and Cuban music floating in the background, adding to the cultural dining experience.
All the food is prepared fresh by Chef Pons, who participated in Vero's Top Chef Challenge last year and will again this coming year.
Trip Advisor, an online travel site that collects reviews from actual customers, ranked the restaurant No. 16 out of 149 restaurants with reviews in the Vero Beach area.
Restaurant hours of operation are Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday noon to 8 p.m.
La Bodeguita de Vero is located at 40 43rd Ave., Vero Beach. For more information, call (772) 562-7702 or visit www.labodeguitadevero.com.