Some drinks, that is, maybe just a round of mojitos. After all, this was a Sunday night in early fall -- not a time for a languid meal that lingers on for hours, nor occasion to stuff ourselves with hot, stick-to-the-ribs chow as a means to endure, insulated and belly-stoked, till morning. A few of us had just started a new semester in grad school, and the only thing on the night's agenda was studying. The rest of us, well -- Desperate Housewives.
All we required was some gossipy conversation, a little nosh to wind down the weekend and soak up the booze. Nothing extravagant. No gorging, no orgy of food and drink.
Little did we expect that, contrary to our plans, three-month-old Boogaloo would have us swinging from the rafters.
Adjacent storefronts in downtown Maplewood make up Boogaloo, the Cuban-Cajun-Creole lovechild of restaurateur Doug Morgan, a former co-owner of the Delmar Restaurant & Lounge, and chef Mike Johnson, a current co-owner of Greek tapas spot Momos. Boogaloo's copious square footage allows for a freestanding rectangular bar, which anchors the restaurant's side-by-side dining rooms. To the west -- giving a nod to the county's bedroom communities and electronic fences -- is the non-swinging section; that side of the bar features plain old stools to sit upon. To the east -- toward the city, toward all things ribald and lurid -- the walls are bedecked with reptilian-textured leather, and the striking antique mirrors catch everybody's every move. Here's the honey-spot for swingers.
There are actual swings, yes, positioned along the bar: handsome planks of dark-stained, cushioned wood, fastened to metal beams above with lines of military cord. We dangled and swayed, got our swerve on, knocked our boots against the bar's impressive mahogany as we slurped away on Boogaloo's fantastic cocktails: a mojito as crisp as a seersucker suit in springtime, a Cadillac Margarita with a seductive splash of Grand Marnier, a house sangria loaded with chunks of green apple (seasonal for autumn) that you can't help but chug-a-lug, and the second-best caipirinha in town (next to Yemanja Brasil's, of course).
After getting to know Boogaloo at the bar -- including our lovely, soft-spoken, self-assured bartender, Claudel -- we decided to take our blossoming flirtation with the place to the next level. We requested a table for five.
At dinner, Boogaloo goes both ways. Soup or salad, entrée, and sides are one way to do it; full-on tapas, the other. Nice or naughty. Decent, decadent. Prim, prurient. We're a pretty easy lot to begin with, and by this point, fueled by rum-tinged tipples and great expectations, we were pretty much goners. We went all the way.
In Spain, the motherland of tapas, small plates are all about enjoying the company of friends, good sips of wine, and small bites of chorizo or blood sausage or tripe or potatoes, usually atop little pieces of bread, while venturing on an appetite-gearing, pre-dinner bar crawl. As it has been co-opted in America -- a nation that's already got its half-priced beer-and-wings happy hours, thanks very much -- tapas is reduced far too often to scaled-back portions of whatnot, meted out on saucers. Boogaloo's tapas may not be traditional in the Spanish sense, but they sure nail the concept all the same.
Conch fritters -- conch?! Kinky! -- possessed a wonderful briny quality to the meat, smoothly offset by a Key lime-yogurt sauce. Batter-dipped fried okra, done tempura-style, bested its partner, fried sweet potato, but met its match in the accompanying buttermilk dressing, which had an almost vinegary savoriness. Smoked salmon ceviche was a small, tempting avalanche of fleshy fish, fleshier mango and perky mint, doused with a shot of rum for good measure. While the pieces of salmon resonated with tang, their overall impact was hopelessly overpowered by a large amount of mango. The steamed mussels were plump and plentiful, awash in a coconut-milk-and-white-sangria bath and dotted with bits of fresh cilantro. We requested another bread basket after finishing the mussels, just so we could sop up the puddle of sweetness they left behind.
Grilled andouille sausage, charred and chewy with a delicious center, came dripping with Worcestershire (which was also mixed in with some Creole-seasoned corn niblets that somehow came off like homey Boston baked beans). A bit vanilla compared to the other offerings, the sausage might not have been as enjoyable if presented as a stand-alone entrée. But thrown in with the rest, its chasteness was refreshing.
Plates kept coming and coming and coming. Just when we thought we couldn't take it anymore, we got more: crab empanadas slathered with a mango-mustard "MoJo" sauce; neat and tasty crawfish cakes with a jalapeño-flavored tartar; wasabi-encrusted tuna paired with a wild and wicked "Carnivale" sauce that tasted like mustardy heaven. Only the hearts of palm, breaded and fried and served with a soffrito aioli, were cause for letdown -- and then only because hearts of palm, even in their common canned preparation, are too delicious to fry. Also, because one of the hearts slid out of its fried encasement while I was eating it and scorched my chin. Buzzkill.
Timed right, tapas is the embodiment of too much of a good thing. It's a happening, a party, and the black-clad waitstaff at Boogaloo, enthusiastic and eager and willing, were more than happy to play along. (A minor complaint: They could stand to be a mite more attentive when it comes to cleaning tables and clearing plates between courses, especially as a messy tapas feast progresses.) Our waitress teased us into ordering dessert -- though, truth be told, by then we were putty in her hands and would've said yes to anything.
And so we crammed our pieholes evermore, this time with a rum cake that may as well have been Betty Crocker dunked in Bacardi 151 (oh Betty, you tart!), a pudding-soft Key lime pie, a "Creole" pecan pie that was, well, pecan pie, and an incredible, memorable guava flan whose fragrant fruity essence lingered, like the whiff of cologne left behind on the collar of a lover's shirt, after every mouthful.
Monday morning still hadn't come, and already our week was ruined. We were ruined, spent. I did manage to get it together, though, for another dinner at Boogaloo a few nights later. This was with my boyfriend and his brother in attendance, and I'd be damned if my sweetie was going to see me get all hot and bothered as I had been the time before. It was entrées and appetizers for us, therefore, though appetizers actually meant ordering off the tapas menu (wink wink). I even opted for the chicken, as docile a meal as one can get at Boogaloo, just to prove I could control myself. Marinated with garlic and a little lime juice, with some jicama on top providing a little green flavor, it was fine. The BF had the ropa vieja, a heap of braised flank steak served on a downy bed of Cuban rice. He moaned and cooed through the whole thing, submitting himself to the brisket-tender beef, to the point where I, with my relatively tame breast of chicken, actually got a little jealous.
At the end of our first meal at Boogaloo, my friends and I spilled forth onto the sidewalk gleeful and giddy, flush with love for our latest restaurant crush. We felt a little silly walk-of-shaming it back to our cars, embarrassed by how much we'd consumed, how boisterous we'd been, how much fun we'd had. There's really no shame in loving Boogaloo this much, though. In fact, don't call it shame. Call it afterglow.