Catalina's Mexican fare is fresh and easy on the wallet
When dining at most Mexican restaurants, at least those in the Midwest, you expect a few things to come with the territory: cheerful colors that adorn your plate and table, plastic salt and pepper shakers that look like bottles of Corona, and someone reminding you that "guacamole costs extra." But of all these familiar things, the most important and the most universally constant are complimentary chips and salsa. Even if you are smart enough to exercise restraint, you can expect that your basket will be bottomless and that your plastic molcajete of salsa will always be replenished. What's unexpected is for those chips to arrive at the table hot and still glistening from their recent dip in the deep fryer, and that the thoroughly blended salsa, though presented in lidded condiment containers, is punchy, stunningly fresh, and comes in two equally but contrastingly spicy variations. Thankfully, this is the case at Catalina's, a no-frills Mexican and Latin American restaurant in the middle of a Columbia Heights strip mall that contains a tanning salon and a store called Plum's Plus Size Fashions. With makeshift signage and a nearly empty parking lot, Catalina's outward appearance doesn't exactly have the effect of a tractor beam, but once you're greeted, seated, and get a taste of the far-from-ordinary salsa in the little plastic to-go cups, you'll understand everything you need to know about the carefully prepared and very wallet-friendly food you're about to dig in to.
The ambiance may be lacking in warmth at Catalina's (plastic tablecloths and painted concrete floors), but the family-run place more than makes up for it by fostering a communal, free-form sort of dining experience. When our server gave almost every dish we asked about his "very, very good" seal of approval, some of Catalina's regulars (and culinary good Samaritans) at the table next to ours sensed our indecision and offered their recommendations, asking "How spicy do you like it?" and "Almuerzos o cena? (Lunch or dinner?)" That may sound overbearing to some, but their advice ended up steering us in the right direction to start our meal, which was straight to the yucca con chicharones. Yucca, a fibrous root vegetable, is like the potato's more ancient cousin, and in this star dish it is boiled and smothered in a cumin-rich, piquant tomato sauce, pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, and a crown of the chicharones. In Mexico, and throughout the American South (known there as pork rinds), chicharones are sold as a commercially bagged salty snack, but Catalina's blow those out of the water. The skin side is bubbly and crisp without being terribly greasy. Any of the unsavory pork-fat taste has been rendered away by first boiling the skin. Even one of my meat-wary dining companions noted that they tasted mostly of the coveted crisped-up parts of a strip of bacon, or like the "burnt ends" you can sometimes get at BBQ shacks.
The pastelillos de carne, essentially little Mexican pasties, were another excellent find. Made with amasa dough that is just slightly mealy, they were fried but left somewhat soft, filled with either ground beef or shredded chicken, and served with a squiggle of the loveliest crema. Though it looks a bit like mayo, crema is not made with any eggs and is much closer to creme fraiche, but it's thicker and actually lighter tasting. The crema plays an important role in another exceptional starter: the fried plantains with carne asada. Slightly sweet raw plantains are cut on the bias and then fried to a point just shy of a chip. Use them to scoop up a chili-powder-dusted cube of carne asada and a swipe of crema and you've found yourself a new and improved version of a nacho.
Flexibility and versatility are a major part of the Catalina's experience. Diners can order from the lunch or dinner menu almost any time of day (there's no computer system here to automatically switch over), and almost every dish on the menu works well as an individual entree or a large shared appetizer. It's this easygoing approach that makes it okay, unnoticeable even, when entrees come to the table in slow waves even when they were all ordered at the same time. First to show up was Catalina's casamiento, a Salvadoran dish that is like all the best parts of leftover fajitas (black beans, rice, shredded chicken, and onions) made into a dry risotto. Each part is seasoned deftly (if a touch heavy on the salt) before it's mixed together, or married, as the name implies, by slowly stirring in stock and tomato juice, and brightened with a good dose of both dried and fresh cilantro. The enchiladas verdes with their sour and complex sauce were followed by mixiotes, a rich, traditional Mexican stew of sweet and sweaty tomato-based sauce, tenderly braised chicken drumsticks, and an unexpected mix of potatoes, peas, and carrots. There is a faintly medicinal, hard-to-identify flavor in the background of the dish, and we have a moment of realization when we're told the meat in this dish gets wrapped in agave leaves as it cooks. The glorious chiles rellenos were a standout favorite—smoky but not noticeably charred, giving off a slow-warming heat not unlike when you get a flushed face from a glass or two of red wine. They are stuffed with cheese that retains some of its chew instead of melting into the texture of the kind of queso that comes in a plastic bladder. The dish is finished with a dusting of queso fresco and a simple, buoyant salad dressed only with a bit of lime juice.
A handful of dishes, while still enjoyable, left less of a lasting impact. The fajitas were quite basic and would have been greatly improved with the addition of a little acid. The torta milanese, with very lightly breaded steak, pickled onions, sauteed bell peppers, and the reprise of the delectable crema on huge toasted roll, earned a very solid B, but paled in comparison to anything from Manny's Tortas. Catalina's has only two dessert options: rice with sweetened milk and cinnamon that you can get hot or cold, and flan. The flan that we are most used to seeing actually has Germanic roots and is more correctly categorized as creme caramel, a turned-out custard with a soft caramel top. It migrated to Spain, where it became ubiquitous, and finally turned up on Mexican and Latin American menus as a familiar finish to a feast. Catalina's version is served roughly chopped up in a tall sundae cup and has a craggy texture, which usually indicates it's been cooked too long, at too high a heat, or both. The flavors are sweet but not syrupy, with a tang of citrus that's more orange than lemon. The arroz con leche had a definite comfort factor, but after a few bites it became cloyingly sweet and too reminiscent of a child's leftover Cream of Wheat for me to enjoy as a decadent end to a meal.
Because of Catalina's very laid-back but still friendly and accommodating approach to dining, the service may not be terribly consistent from visit to visit. But Catalina's offers incredible value for your money, a diverse menu where everything is made from scratch, and, if you step just a little outside your comfort zone, more than a few of the good kind of surprises.
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