When two Kansas City gents, Jason Dugan and Angelo Belcher were working out their concept to open a new restaurant in Key West, Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea was perched on the coffee table in front of them. Stacked inconspicuously with The Alchemist, both classics featured main characters by the name Santiago. Jason and Angelo paired the name, synonymous with the Keys culture, with bodega, and a tapas-style eatery emerged on Petronia Street. A bodega is the term for a wine storage facility Spain.
After the Midwest men had their name, they needed a location. This week as we honor the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and listen to President Obama’s Address to the Nation, we examine this destination in Bahama Village, which has become inseparable from the neighborhood.
“When we first took over this building, the drug business was front and center on this corner. It was boomin’,” Dugan doesn’t have any hazy memories about his 200 block venture.
He and Angelo opened Santiago’s Bodega in 2004 because the “price was right.” Part of the reason, delinquents were wheelin’ and dealin’ right on their front stoop, but, that was back in 2004. Today, as an African American business owner who has built an eatery where every seat is sought-after, Angelo is now a bit of a neighborhood luminary, even though he never thought twice about “having brown skin.”
“The whole neighborhood would stop and stare and say, ‘Who the heck is this guy? What is he doing?’’ I’ll be honest. I don’t live in that world. I was brought up to always think I would succeed,” Angelo attests.
He came from a “giant family,” with a stay-at-home mom and a father who logged hours as an engineer with the Sante Fe Railroad. Education was emphasized and Angelo said he missed just one day of school.
“We didn’t grow up rich,” he affirms. Angelo’s dreadlocked hair is pulled securely behind the nape of his neck. On one wall a painting shows a hula girl blowing a kiss to her beau. “We didn’t just have to go to school, poor grades weren’t a possibility. We had to bring home good grades.”
“The kids see him, and see he is an outstanding community member, and it helps,” said his partner, Jason. “He’s probably looked up to as a role model to young men in Bahama Village. They know he’s an owner here and they may not have a lot of people to look up to.”
“Here in Bahama Village role models are deficient and these kids shouldn’t be left to their own devices,” Angelo says before giving some insight to the Bodega’s growing popularity.
The unique tapas-style dining and extensive wine list featuring Spanish wines has positioned the place just perfectly on Petronia. The concept of dining, though, is a tough one to integrate into the American culture, where diners are accustomed to ordering a 32 ounce steak complete with a salad and two sides. Here, the idea is to do as they do in Spain. Drink wine with your friends, share some foods, and move on to another place, where you repeat the process.
“You don’t stay to have dinner, you bounce around to have dinner,” Jason and Angelo explain. “They’ll just pass around little tidbits of food. It’s about the taste of wine and social gathering.”
Yet, in Key West, the tourists and locals alike are tuning into the “moveable feast” type dining experience. Plus, the Keys climate isn’t conducive to huge meals. It’s too hot, and small plates are perfect. At Santiago’s Bodega diners can still feast. The object is to share, and with menu items like Dates wrapped in Prosciutto stuffed with goat cheese, Shrimp Bisque, Roman Meatballs, and Seasoned Grouper.
“The object is to share everything,” says Jason. He goes on to explain his Seasoned Grouper. “You’re not going to find grouper that tastes like this anywhere else in town. We season it with fennel seed and coriander.”
Plus, the servers will light some brandy on fire to add spark to your Halouni cheese. Once one serving of Saganaki is flambéed, every table will begin ululating “opa!” House Red and white house Sangria can be ordered by the glass, or the pitcher. Jason stresses, they keep the ingredients fresh and basic.
“We have a traditional recipe of red wine, juice, splash of sprite… very simple. Our Sangria isn’t a fruit bowl inside the glass.”
The best is saved for dessert. The bread pudding is made with eggs, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, croissants, topped with a bourbon and caramel glaze.
“We had to give them a reason to come all the way into this neighborhood,” Jason explains. “It’s a funky neighborhood. The gentleman across the street plays Caribbean music. Now that we’re here, you couldn’t put us anywhere else on the island.”
With the installation of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American President just last year, Angelo insists there really are no more excuses.
“You do have to swim against the current. Here the current is not graduating from high school, not going to college, and falling into selling drugs. But, success isn’t about being rich, poor, medium income. It’s about your role models, and parents. Who is pushing you?”
“We always have people coming down, saying, ‘I never thought you’d make it in that neighborhood,’ but here we are,” Dugan says in retrospect.
Santaigo’s Bodega is located at 207 Petrionia Street. Doors are open from 11 am – 10 pm for lunch and dinner.
Angelo Belcher and Jason Dugan, owners of Santiago’s Bodega brought their Midwestern attitudes with them to Bahama Village in 2004 and said, “We’re going to make this work.” In 2010, following Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Wilma, they are the poster men for perseverance.
The wine list is partial to Spanish imports, and you can order homemade house Sangria by the glass.