Karol Ortiz and Tisbeth Mejia have a tough road ahead of them. First, their Catrinas Cocina Y Galeria has opened at the site of a string of failed restaurants. Marrakech, Bistro Bleu and others have moved into the boxy, freestanding building with the sheltered front porch on MacDill, only to see their dreams dashed (while nearby, concepts like Datz go gangbusters). There are locations that seem cursed somehow by the cumulative effect of all those coats of paint and sign changes. It takes a bold and steady new concept to erase that history from the public's mind.
The second and more significant challenge is diner expectations. A brightly colored Day of the Dead theme telegraphs that this is Mexican cuisine. For the average diner, this is shorthand for chips and salsa, tequila-revved libations and modest prices.
What these co-owners are trying to do is a little different. They are attempting to showcase Aztec cuisine, the "pre-Hispanic" cuisine made of native ingredients found in Mexico before the Spaniards arrived. It actually follows a national trend, one that has not yet gained purchase here (and elsewhere this new Aztec food has taken it all the way, with Aztec delicacies like ant larvae and crickets).
No bugs at Catrinas Cocina Y Galeria, but neither are there free chips and salsa. Meals start with a refreshing cup of fresh fruit and jicama, stabbed by the chunk with toothpicks from sweet (yet dubiously hygienic) ceramic tabletop holders. The observant diner will say, "Ah, this may be something a bit different." If not, the margaritas with a mild agave wine in lieu of tequila (Catrinas has a beer and wine license, no liquor) may disgruntle, as might the prices (many entrees approaching $20).
That is not to say that the margaritas and sangrias aren't good at Catrinas — fruity and quenching with bracing acidity, served in what looks like little earthenware jugs. They're just different, which is a decent summary for much of the food at this newcomer. The house guacamole ($12) comes in a stone mortar topped with lobster meat and shrimp, served with house-fried tortilla chips; the house queso fundito ($12) is a cheesy stew of poblanos and onion hiding sweet shrimp and bits of zappy chorizo. It may not be for everyone, but it's certainly more cerebral than that dish at many places, often a guilty-pleasure pool of creamy cheese.
More evidence that this doesn't conform to the El Torito/Tijuana Flats school: the huitlacoche quesadilla ($15). The ancient Aztecs inoculated corn with a fungus (often called corn smut, a name that tickles me somehow) so the ears grew these huge, mutant kernels. Mutant kernels that are quite delicious when tucked with roasted poblanos, onions and cheese between two tortillas, then paired with tomato-tinged rice and soft refried beans.
There are some dishes that may seem like a hard sell. The house Aztec soup ($5.50) reads like a sauce, a puree of rehydrated guajillo chilies that is too thick and intense to eat a whole bowlful. It would be well served by being thinned out with broth, showcasing the tortilla strips and plush avocado slices more effectively. And the Baja tacos ($15) feature perfectly battered and fried fish that are overwhelmed with sour cream/mayo sauce. A more sparing hand would turn this dish into one of the area's pre-eminent fish tacos. And one night's classic flan ($5) was too sturdy, without the wobbly-velvet texture of the archetype.
Still, Catrinas introduces many novel ideas effectively. A large mortar (molcajete), $18.50, comes with a sampler of house meats, from carne asada to shrimp and chicken, packed in with ribbons of nopales cactus and a drizzle of guajillo sauce and a flurry of queso fresco. The diner picks out bits and wraps them with a little guac in a warm tortilla. With live music, a rotating display of local art and servers who seem genuinely vigilant about diners' satisfaction level, Catrinas has a lot going for it. Perhaps Aztec food (sans ant larvae) is what this space has needed all along.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.