Catalina’s Restaurant may not look like much from the outside, but inside color bursts from corners and on tables in an otherwise harshly lit and ordinary strip mall space. The dining room walls are covered in photos and panels of juicy fruits, and bright bunches of artificial flowers adorn tables. A peek into the kitchen behind the counter reveals a tall pile of gleaming fresh vegetables and flora arranged like a presidential dinner centerpiece.
The restaurant, owned by a pair of women who hail from Mexico and Honduras (Catalina Duran and Lucia Vogel, pictured left and right at bottom of story), has been around for just a year, and the women have created a menu that reflects both of their countries. It sort of mirrors the ambiance as well: a variegation of ordinary-seeming Mexican dishes like enchiladas, and unfamiliar combinations of beloved ingredients, such as a humble mixture of rice, beans, and spices called Casamiento.
Actually, the Casamiento ($8) is a great place to start. Our friendly server recommended this Honduran dish, which means “marriage” in Spanish. It’s a simple union of soupy rice, black beans, and shredded chicken. Cumin, onions, and peppers are the major flavor players, and they create an earthy, meaty stew you could just crawl into for a nap. A little side salad of neon greens, cilantro, and citrus juice brightens things up if you wish, and the entire thing is served in a personal skillet surrounded by petals of orange slices.
On the Mexican side of things, the Chiles Rellenos ($11) with cheese are just magnificent and showcase Catalina’s fresh, scratch-made mentality. They’re kind of a salt bomb, but in that ravenous, midnight-snack way. Curved, toothsome green peppers arrive with their stems still on, and covered in a barely-there egg batter. They taste sweet and nicely charred, and the generous innards of salty mozzarella have that characteristic stretchy quality of the freshest cheese. Catalina’s should probably start putting these on sticks at the Minnesota State Fair, because … damn.
The Chiles Rellenos are also accompanied by typical pools of yellow rice and black beans, but unlike many other incarnations, these beans are whole and seasoned with care. You might actually want to eat them with the rest of your meal.
A Milanesa (breaded steak) Torta ($8), or Mexican-style sandwich, was also solid. Sweet mayo, red peppers, and griddled onions gave happy contrast to the thick, mostly tender fried steak that was wonderfully nutty and slightly charred, served on a toasted white bun. Delicious.
Other dishes are clearly made with the same attention to fresh ingredients, but fall a little short in the flavor department. The Yuca con Chicharron ($4.75, above) is a pretty pile of colors, kind of like a Latin American potato salad. Perfectly tender hunks of boiled yucca are topped with a mild and bland tomato sauce, fresh shredded red cabbage, and chicharones, which are big, crispy hunks of fried pig skin often found in the salty snack aisle of supermarkets. What this combo lacks in cohesive and interesting flavor it makes up for in a spectrum of contrasting textures.
The Saquitos de Trigo ($8) also fell a little short when we tried them. Thick purses of soft golden dough, reminiscent of an empanada, hid dry shredded chicken that could have used a little sauce or something. Really, the star of the Saquitos plate was a small side of mixed potatoes, carrots, and peas that appeared to be marinated in something sweet and yellow and addicting.
A plate of sopes ($8), which are Mexican corn cakes, didn’t match the firm, ultra-corny quality of, say, the pupusas at Pupuseria La Palmera. But topped with a little pork, cilantro, tomatoes, and sour cream, they are a nice, toasty little snack.
Still, there are the unexplored territories of soups and seafood dishes, the tangy iced hibiscus drink called Jamaica, as well as a paella for four that runs just 50 bucks. Catalina’s serves food that is both comforting and intriguing. And with a beaming, attentive staff and the promise of flavor in almost every bite, it’s hard to imagine not returning.
Mexican / Latin American food in Columbia Heights
2301 37th Ave NE, Columbia Heights, MN 55421
CHEF / OWNER: Catalina Duran and Lucia Vogel
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $4.75-12