Call it the “Chipotle Effect.” Increasing numbers of local ethnic restaurants are reimagining their menus and putting a customer-friendly, customizable, spin on how they present traditional fare. Instead of four-page-long menus broken out by meal courses or proteins, there are, instead, a few formats — burritos, bowls, tacos, salads — that can be dressed up or down according to taste and the population of a long (and initially intimidating but ultimately empowering) condiment and ingredient bar.
We’ve noticed this format at places serving food as disparate as Japanese (One Two Three Sushi), Moroccan (Moroccan Flavors), and South Asian (Silhouette Cafe), but the newly opened Catrina’s Cerveza and Grill in St. Anthony, just over the border with Northeast Minneapolis, may get the prize for most faithful Chipotle tribute: sticking to the Mexican-street-fare-made-modern model.
The difference between Catrina’s and Chipotle — and it’s a doozy — is that Catrina’s food has spice (spiritual), grit (metaphorical), flavor, and soul that the more homogenized and mainstream stuff at Chipotle tends to lack. This makes for a lovely experience — all the charm of legitimate homespun fare with the efficiency of a respectable quick-service chain.
Our Barbacoa Taco Salad (slow cooked shredded beef, $7, above left) was — and this isn’t usually how we’d describe barbacoa dishes — remarkably light and refreshing, with the soothing taste of the meat contrasting with the corn, lettuce, and pineapple we’d gotten it dressed up with.
And while our Catrina Bowl al Pastor ($6.75, above right) lacked some of the depth and chew of our favorite al pastor pork in town (the tacos at Taqueria La Hacienda come to mind), the overall flavor was rich and honest, complemented nicely by the hot and deeply flavored chile arbol sauce that was ladled over the dish. And while we loved the salsa de arbol, it was just one of a palette of convincing homemade options including a pineapple salsa; pico de gallo; citrus jalapeño; roasted-tomatillo salsa verde and for the spice-inhibited, a mild salsa.
In short, an easy-to-navigate (and -customize) menu that was fully inhabited with deep flavors and real cooking. Surely the best of two (or possibly more?) worlds. With some great Mexican places operating just a short distance away on Central Avenue (Maya Cuisine and El Taco Riendo ranking at the top of our list) Catrina’s really had to bring it to compete. So consider it brought. And next time you’re on the east side of St. Paul, you’ve got a solid taco option nearby — Catrina’s first location is in Oakdale.
Catrina’s Cerveza and Grill
Fast-casual Mexican in St. Anthony
2510 Kenzie Terrace
St. Anthony, MN 55418
HOURS: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Lot and street
ENTREE RANGE: $6-$9
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Not really