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La Catrina, in Mexican tradition, is the image of a lady dressed in colorful finery.
But La Catrina is NOT about Dia de Muertos, says Paloma Madrid, who recently opened a new restaurant on Las Cruces’ East Mesa with her husband, Eli Berger. The restaurant is named for the painted lady: Taqueria Las Catrinas.
The original Catrina was created by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in 1913 and popularized by muralist Diego Rivera during the 1940s. There are multiple meanings politically to Catrina, but the gist is, no matter how fancy your dresses and jewelry are, we’re all still bones on the inside.
Madrid interprets it this way: “Never forget where you’re from.”
True to that, their new restaurant, at 5580 Bataan Memorial, traces deeply Madrid’s family roots in Zacapo, Michoacan, in Mexico.
There, her father and uncles perfected the recipes for their famous tacos, with tasty meat cooked on a trompo, that big spinning top packed with pork shoulder and secret seasonings.
Unlike restaurants that try, with mixed results, to do 50 different dishes, Las Catrinas puts a laser focus on their specialty: uniquely seasoned meats. There are primarily two – pork al pastor and sirloin steak alambre. Those are featured in the tacos and quesadillas. In the flautas, your choices are chicken or deshebrada (shredded brisket).
“If you want enchiladas, beans or rice, there are plenty of places you can go in Las Cruces to get those,” Berger said. “We don’t have those. But what we’ve got, you won’t find anything like it.”
The homemade chips and salsa feature two salsas, a sweet red and a spicier green. They are both tasty but, confirming Berger’s comment, not like others you’ll find.
When I tried the red, my first thought was, “It tastes like apple butter!” My daughter said, “It tastes like Mexican candy chile.” It’s like a combination of those, but you might taste something completely different.
“Everybody tries to guess what’s in it, but nobody’s gotten it right so far,” Berger said. Many guess pineapple, because that’s a key ingredient for the tacos al pastor, but that’s not right either. It’s sweet, yes, but it’s also got a sneak-up-on-you spicy kick.
The green salsa tastes avocado based, but also unidentifiably unique. As they’ll tell you, it’s spicier than the red, with the kick up front with the great flavor.
On our visit, my daughter got the chicken flautas, and enjoyed them, along with a third, creamy salsa. I got an order each of the tacos al pastor and tacos alambre. Both were tasty, in small fresh corn tortillas. Also nicely priced, at $2.25 for the pastor and $3 for the alambre. Then we shared the La Catrina quesadilla (pastor filling with mozzarella) and the El Catrin quesadilla (with the alambre). Another option is the Volcan, a tostada with the pastor.
There are soft drinks, aguas fresca and a wall of sodas featuring Mexican Cokes and the choice of me and my daughter: Topo Chico. Eventually, Berger said, plans include a beer and wine license.
You can also buy tacos in bulk for parties and events, or if you’re there to watch some sports. Berger said they’ll often show boxing matches, soccer or NFL games on the TVs.
Art is as much a part of Las Catrinas as the food. A beautiful wall-sized Catrina adorns the entry way, painted by Robert Azure. One dining room is designed to feature local artists, who are invited to display their work for free, and even sell it on consignment if they’d like. One corner is set up to be a studio, so artists can actually work in the restaurant.
Opening the restaurant is a lifelong dream for Madrid, and the hope is it can one day be a destination like her uncles’ restaurant in Michoacan, where people drive from miles around just for the experience.
The experience at Las Catrinas has an interactive feel to it. In addition to the art studio, Berger and Madrid encourage folks to write messages in Day-Glow markers on the floor-to-ceiling windows that grace the front of the restaurant.
And while Madrid and Berger have worked hard to make their restaurant unique in Las Cruces, they do share one important thing with many others: Tuesday is Taco Tuesday!
Then, again, every day at Las Catrinas is Taco Day.