Monday, January 14, 2019

Review: La Catrina

It's kind of scary how often restaurants close—even great ones. North Park's La Catrina recently opened in what was once the lively and inventive casual spot Tostadas... which was previously the incredible mad science dessert lab Swoon. When I spotted a new and interesting Mexican place opening, I knew I had to come out in a show of support.

The were seated at a corner table in the brightly colored, Catrina-themed space. The two waitresses were highly attentive—probably because we were the only ones in the whole joint. I got a traditional lime margarita, which was eye-poppingly intense, not just from the alcohol but also the sugar and tartness. That plus the salt and Tajin spice on the rim created a broad spectrum of flavor which, while delicious, could actually have benefitted from some watering down. Amy enjoyed her Mexican Mule, which had plenty of carbonation and a nice light infusion of ginger.

We ordered four small plates to share, all of which were wonderful. I want to pause for a minute, though, to talk about salt, because this is a place that knows how to use it. Salt enhances other flavors, and in my experience the more of it you add, the better—until suddenly it crosses a threshold and overpowers everything else. I asked Amy after the meal whether anything had seemed especially salty. She said it hadn't—and that's exactly as it should be. All four dishes had tons of salt, but you won't notice unless you're looking for it, because La Catrina sneaks it in to deepen and amplify their flavors without ever crossing the line.

We started off with a duo of meat-heavy plates and a pile of tortillas. The carnitas and octopus was an unusual combo that worked. Both were tender in their own ways, the carnitas savory with crunchy edges and the octopus smoky and satisfying. It was topped with hearty mushrooms, cheese and pickled onion which made for a great stick-to-your-bones taco. The plates also came with two lovely salsas, a creamy jalapeño salsa and a hot and garlicky chile de árbol that thankfully lacked the bitter burnt taste árbol salsas often have.

The other plate, the gringa, was full of crisp bits of al pastor complete with big sweet chunks of pineapple. The cheese and silky guacamole rounded out a delicious if heavy first round of food (which probably should have come after the seafood dishes).

The tostada de atún azul was piled high atop a thick, sturdy wonton-style tortilla shell. The crunch from the wonton and fried veggies played nicely off the tenderness of the fresh bluefin tuna. The whole stack was infused with citrus, herbs and a tangy red wine vinaigrette, with the ever-present undertone of salt completing the profile.

Best of all may have been the salmon tiradito, consisting of delicate salmon sashimi tossed in soy and and citrus and topped with fried onion. It was mouthwatering and savory, the cucumber and avocado serving as lighter counterpoints to the crispy onion.

I worry about La Catrina, as I did its predecessors. Granted, Wednesdays aren't typically busy nights for dining, but it's still alarming that not a single other patron came in during our entire meal. With only a few small missteps and a lot to rave about, I'll certainly be stopping by after work for a Taco Tuesday or their 3-to-6 happy hour. I may not be able to keep places like this afloat on my own, but at least I can do my part.

Score: 9 out of 10 (Fantastic)

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