Cinco de Mayo is this weekend, a celebration second only to St. Patrick's Day in domestic popularity and overall ignorance of its origins. I'll cop to this — my typical Cinco de Mayo festivities are made up mostly of tequila, mariachi music and chips and salsa served in a plastic sombrero that plays La Cucaracha.
Perhaps I'm not too far off, as the Fifth of May (which is not Mexico's Independence Day) has evolved into a broad celebration of Mexican culture. But originally, it was a commemoration of the Battle of Puebla in 1862, in which an ill-equipped Mexican army defeated the heavily armed and highly skilled French invading army despite being outnumbered nearly 2 to 1. In essence, Cinco de Mayo is an underdog story.
On a much smaller scale, Catrina's Cocina y Galeria is an underdog itself. This small Mexican restaurant is celebrating its first anniversary this weekend, in a space notorious for its history as a restaurant graveyard. Whether Catrina's focus on pre-Hispanic, Aztec cuisine will be the formula to break the curse remains to be seen, but festivities marking a successful first year are in order, especially on Cinco de Mayo.
Catrina's is housed in a small building off MacDill Avenue, instantly noticeable by virtue of the two giant copper skeleton-like figures in front of the patio entrance. Inside, you'll find even more skeletons — dozens of them, depicted in paintings, sculpted into tiny figurines, and even cut into colorful cloths that hang above the entrance.
These skeletons are depictions of La Catrina, the most popular symbol of Mexico's Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — which originated from an early 20th-century etching by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. The restaurant is absolutely filled with visual interpretations of La Catrina, as well as a rotating stock of Mexican-inspired artwork from various local artists. Hence, Catrina's Cocina y Galeria — this place is not just a restaurant, it's an art gallery.
The interior of Catrina's can be described in one word: colorful. Even if the walls weren't covered in art, they still would be striking, as they're painted in highly saturated hues of blue, red, green and black. The dining areas on either side of the mosaic-tiled, U-shaped bar in the center are filled with rustic tables constructed from stained and lacquered wooden boards.
Instead of the chips and salsa you'd get at a typical Mexican restaurant, Catrina's serves freshly made chicharrones de harina — little fried pinwheels made from flour and seasoned with chile and lime. In additional to being a simple appetizer, they're also a good palate cleanser between drinks, should you go the route I did and focus on the bar menu.
Catrina's doesn't serve liquor, so the cocktails are made with an agave-based wine that tastes a little like tequila. If you want to try one, order the house drink — the Jarrito Catrina, which combines this agave wine with mango and pineapple juice in a clay drinking vessel. There's also a selection of pretty much every Mexican beer commercially available in the U.S. — from Bohemia to those miniature bottles of Corona — including drinks made with these beers, like the Catrina Picosa, a highly refreshing mix of Mexican lager, chili pepper and lime juice.
If that's not interesting enough for you, consider ordering the tepache, a traditional Aztec-style drink made from fermented pineapple flesh and rinds. This mildly alcoholic drink is tough to find just about anywhere outside of Mexico, and the version at Catrina's is made in-house.
On an average week, Catrina's plays host to a variety of Mexican and Latin music, including jazz, traditional Mexican guitar, mariachi, and Puerto Rican bomba. On Sunday, DJ AJ and Clara Cinda will perform starting at 1 p.m., with live art by Herb Figueroa and drink specials, such as $3 Coronas.
Who knows? If a badly outnumbered Mexican army could overcome such lousy odds at the Battle of Pueblo, maybe Catrina's will prove to be a breath of new life in a location that really could use it.