When Chipotle had its Very Bad Year dealing with multiple food poisoning crises all over the country, it rocked American diners to their very core. Where would we have it our way, abundantly, healthily, cheaply, consciously, and deliciously?
The local, indie strip-mall newcomers (there's one on either side of the river) offer some, if not all, of those imperatives.
Catrina's is fast-casual, a setup that Chipotle certainly didn't invent but certainly made famous and which is now one of the fastest-growing restaurant sectors. Step right up, see so many ingredients laid out before your very eyes. Watch with obsessive focus as a guy rains it all down upon your tortilla, your bowl, your taco, your torta.
At Catrina's, they actually do one better than that. Ask for a sampler of every protein selection, and they'll gladly oblige. That is helpful, because they offer 10 selections, and it can be difficult to choose: seasoned chicken breast, ground beef, steak, barbacoa, pastor, carnitas, chorizo, tinga, pollo verde, picadillo (spicy ground beef with potatoes), and chicharron.
The accompaniments are similarly multitudinous, which is at turns a blessing and a curse. The sheer number of offerings can be paralyzing: lettuce, sour cream, jalapeno raw or pickled, cilantro, onion, cheese, corn, pico, tomato, guacamole, bean/corn combo, Mexican rice, white rice, black beans, refried beans, and seven varieties of salsa (mild, citrus jalapeño, roasted tomatillo, arbol, pineapple habanero, ghost pepper, and quemada), most of them very good. There is also the option of hard shell corn, soft shell corn, flour tortillas, tortas, and bowls. If you're keeping track, Catrina's has the "have it your way" box well and good checked.
And, in gluttonous Chipotle diner tradition, they're more than happy to twist your burrito "with everything," meaning all the toppings. The result is something roughly the size and shape of a pork roast. They do it with aplomb, without busting the tortilla. You can even choose to double your meat, including two different choices, at no extra charge.
If you like Tinga, the smoky, bright, and funky braised chicken, then you will definitely like it here. We also loved the pastor, though it didn't eat like a traditional on-the-spit version, and there was no evidence of one in sight. Instead, a stewy concoction of diced pork lingered in an earthy, addictive brick-red sauce, thick with chile, cumin, and garlic. When paired with the suggested pineapple habanero salsa, it's a successful combination, even if it veers from the classic.
Try to tear yourself away from the burrito options and give the tortas a look. Generously smeared with sour cream, guac at no extra charge, black beans, pickled jalapeños, cheese, and choice of meat, it's stoner food extraordinaire. The sandwich could benefit from a higher quality roll and some more time in the press, but it's one of the better buys here.
Catrina's is the brainchild of two former chain steakhouse cooks, owners Paul Marshall and Lorenzo Tejeda. Tejeda is a Mexico City native. He says many of his preparations are inspirations from home. While cooking together over the years, they imagined a taqueria, logging many hours at one of the places where taco dreams are cultivated, Pineda Tacos. "Our hero was Pineda," they say.
It's no small task to surpass your heroes, and Catrina's hasn't quite achieved the class of that venerable institution — yet. But there's a lot of promise here. After only a year and a half, they've opened a second location. (They're in two underserved Twin Cities locations: Oakdale and behind the Quarry, the decidedly un-hipster part of Northeast.) While there are no specific plans to open a third, the strong branding, scratch cooking, and attention to detail could get them far.
The inevitable comparison to Chipotle brings us to the subject of protein sourcing. "For a small, independent, all-scratch kitchen, it's too expensive to go all the way organic and natural, but we're doing it where we can," Marshall says. And for perspective, every good restaurant we speak to, with precious few exceptions, is using organic and sustainable meats "where they can."
The beef is grass-fed and organic, and the pork is pasture-raised and all-natural. Marshall says that pasture-raised chicken is prohibitively expensive — almost double the cost, so they haven't found a way to phase that in yet.
But since his restaurant is constantly being compared to Chipotle, he's got his own questions about that company. "They were doing so much stuff wrong. All of these [food safety] violations. They weren't even using common sense. As chefs who make everything from scratch, we're looking at them thinking that they're not knowing what they're doing!"
Besides, Catrina's isn't sleek or heavily branded enough to truly be compared to that burrito juggernaut. The interior is filled with Day of the Dead bric-a-brac. (They take their name from Catrina, the popular Mexican figure of a smiling skeleton that has come to symbolize Mexico's Day of the Dead.) The monotonous Ranchero music is nerve-grating and might be intended to turn tables more quickly. (If not, it serves the purpose, anyway).
But staff are friendly and happy to please, even when you're in full-fledged, me-me-me gimme-burrito-now mode.
The more veteran Oakdale location is the superior of the two restaurants, and the cooking tasted fresher and more palatable overall than at the newer Northeast shop, open only a couple of months. It's unclear whether that location is still working with new kitchen systems, or if they've yet to establish a steady customer base, which makes for faster product turnover. In Oakdale, they offer a discount to 3M employees, as the campus is only two blocks from Catrina's.
"We're packed in here every day," says Marshall. "Just packed."
Affordability is one of their main calling cards. At $5.99 to $8.69 a meal, you'd be hard pressed to find a better all-around deal. And if that isn't low enough, go on Cinco de Mayo, when every item goes for $5. "People line up out the door," says Marshall.
Will you be in that line?
1091 Geneva Ave. N., Oakdale
2510 Kenzie Terrace, Minneapolis