An Indian and a Pakistani walked along West College Street last Thursday, terrified that within the next few hours we would hear terrible news regarding escalating military tension from our South Asian borders. We decided the best way to deal with this fear was to share a meal at Catrina’s Tacos y Margaritas — Oberlin’s new Mexican restaurant.
The restaurant was full that night, though it’s hard to tell whether the foot traffic was due to the novelty of a new restaurant downtown or genuinely delicious food.
When my friend and I weren’t simulating war tactics using cutlery and salsa bottles, we were discussing how confident Catrina’s owners must be considering it competes with two other local Mexican restaurants, Agave Burrito Bar & Tequilería and Lupita’s. Both already score major points with students — Agave because of its prime location and cheap fare and Lupita’s for its biweekly $1 margaritas. Catrina’s has yet to acquire its liquor license, so it remains to be seen whether the restaurant will be able to compete with Marg Night or Agave’s 1 a.m. burrito bowls.
In terms of ambiance, the restaurant was absolutely fantastic. With a proud display of authentic Mexican cultural pieces paired with a young, hipster vibe and a well-lit bar, I think Catrina’s has the potential to become a beloved haunt for the average Oberlin resident. Furthermore, the restaurant must be appreciated for its pleasant staff (who offered great service), its adequately-sized menu that is neither too baffling nor too limited, and its carryout options.
The proof, however, is in the pudding, not the packaging. I sampled four dishes at Catrina’s, two of which the server recommended: the Catrina chicken rice bowl; their Clásicos tacos, ground chicken with lettuce and tomato served in a hard shell; a dish titled Los de Tinga, which was semi-spicy chipotle chicken served in a soft shell with avocado, sour cream, lettuce, onions and drizzled with queso fresco; and perhaps the best of all amongst the four, Volcano tacos — an amalgamation of steak, roasted poblanos, chihuahua cheese, and guacamole.
The meat in all four dishes was well-cooked, and the combination of beans, rice, cheese, and vegetables produced a well-rounded, satisfactory meal. The guacamole tasted fresh, and the beans had an enjoyable creamy quality to them.
However, the main issue with all four dishes was the lack of flavor or zing. While this “semi-spicy” choice seems to be a deliberate decision by the chefs to preserve the delicate taste buds of Oberlin and its Midwestern occupants, I believe Catrina’s can dare to spice their dishes up a bit. While there is nothing outrageously disagreeable about the food, the lack of flavor is disappointing for an otherwise memorable experience.
It must be noted though, that what is lost in the flavor of the actual dish is made up by the two condiments available on each table, a red salsa and a green, yogurt-based sauce with a kick to it. Adding these two condiments to the dishes really brought them to life, taking the gustatory experience to another level. I would recommend everyone visiting to sample the sauces with their meals at Catrina’s in order to truly enjoy the food.
While my experience with the restaurant’s food has been underwhelming thus far, this is not my final verdict. I have not had the opportunity to try their ample pork dishes, vegetarian tacos, burritos, desserts, or their lunch and breakfast menus as of yet, and I am extremely excited to do so in the future.
I must further admit, that I have developed a soft spot for Catrina’s that allows me to forgive some of its flavor flaws. My friend and I were going through an incredibly rough time in our lives — worried about family, friends, and our respective countries. Walking into that restaurant lifted our spirits significantly and allowed us to laugh during a very dark time. I appreciate that more than words can convey. I think in the tumultuous political climate we seem to perpetually find ourselves in today, good food and a warm smile can go a long way. Catrina’s is a great place to find both.