In such a small, colorful space, it’s hard not to notice the restroom door, strange as that sounds. It’s a massive thing — a dark, worn piece of wood that restaurant owner Allan Rodriguez hauled from a barn in Mexico to Brighton, then bolted a handle on. Forget that behind it is one of the most artfully decorated baños you may ever encounter. The door’s stately presence alone says one thing: At La Catrina Fonda Mexicana, every detail matters.
Take the nacho libre ($7), as an example. They’re not like most nachos, where once you work your way past the canopy of melted cheese, you’re left with a mound of naked tortilla chips. From the bottom up, La Catrina creates multiple layers of three types of cheese – Monterey Jack, pepper Jack, and ricotta – with shredded beef, salsa, and jalapenos. The final presentation is almost picture-worthy, with a zigzagging drizzle of chipotle.
Rodriguez is also the owner of El Centro, which now has locations in the South End and Brookline with another slated for Belmont. But he doesn’t want to lean on that reputation for this latest venture, which opened in October. For him, La Catrina is personal. Brighton has been his hometown for the last five years and the establishment serves food from his native Sonora, Mexico (along with other regions). In Mexico, “fonda” means an inexpensive place for what Rodriguez calls “quick bites.” It’s different from the higher-end dining at El Centro. The 26-seat La Catrina is casual, with a counter for ordering, though half the sales are takeout.
A fonda, says Rodriguez, is not a taqueria. “It’s a small tiny restaurant you find in any village in Mexico that most of the time is someone’s patio.” What you get, he says, are tacos, small soups, sandwiches, tostadas, pozole. To that end, the La Catrina menu includes tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tortas, quesadillas, and tostadas. Most ingredients are shipped from Mexico, he says, and most are prepared lovingly.
A burrito ($8) begins with a homemade flour tortilla stuffed with rice, beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, and choice of steak, shredded beef, grilled chicken, carnitas, pastor, fish, or vegetables. Rodriguez says he gives them a quick ride on the grill to crisp the outside and make the massive pouch easier to handle. For non-meat eaters, there’s a veggie hummus burrito.
Oven enchilada ($8.50) is also large, and perhaps a bit too much to handle, a corn tortilla stuffed with either steak, shredded beef, carnitas, chicken, or vegetables, topped with cheese and doused with green, red, chipotle, or mole sauce (mole is extremely strong on chocolate).
The most popular item, La Yaqui torta ($9), hails from Sonora. A Mexican griddled sandwich with charbroiled shredded chicken, mayonnaise, mustard, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, and pickled onions, it’s topped with jalapeno cream and ricotta cheese. Rodriguez buys the traditional bread from a Mexican baker in East Boston. The torta’s taste is spot on, but all that mayo, mustard, and jalapeno cream make the bread soggy and difficult to eat. Request an order easy on the condiments.
Tacos here, at $4 each, might be perceived as high in price, but they’re also high in quality. Served on handmade corn tortillas with salsa, guac dressing, cilantro, and onions, chicken taco is an all-around good bite. Fish taco with a mix of cabbage and carrots isn’t quite as tasty; the fish taste isn’t up to par but the dish’s overall flavor is heightened by chipotle and cilantro dressing. A side of tamales ($4) stands out, a delicious mix of corn tamales with roasted poblano pepper and cheese.
In Rodriguez’s future plans are an application for a liquor license, delivery service, and Mexican breakfast on weekends. On the menu, the owner credits himself for his dishes as if he were signing a painting: “La Catrina Fonda Mexicana by Allan Rodriguez.”
It makes sense, considering most everything here, from the decor to the fare, looks like a work of art. And it pretty much tastes like that, too.
Glenn Yoder can be reached at email@example.com.