My love of authentic Mexican food goes back to my high school days growing up in San Jose, California. I attended an all-girls Catholic school and began taking Spanish as a freshman. The language came natural to me and before I knew it I was an honors Spanish student and was eating, breathing and sleeping the Spanish language. I immersed myself in the culture and took many trips to Mexico. During my travels in Mexico I discovered a love for their cuisine and sought out places back in the San Jose area that served authentic Mexican dishes.
About twelve years ago, I discovered a hole-in-the-wall taqueria in downtown San Jose that was owned by a family from Mexico City. One of the items on their menu that caught my eye on my first visit was a Quesadilla de Huitlacoche, which is in essence, a quesadilla filled with “corn smut.” Sounds crazy doesn’t it. From Wilkpedia, here is the scientific definition of huitlacoche: Corn smut (Ustilago maydis) is a pathogenic plant fungus that causes smut disease on maize and teosinte (Euchlena mexicana). The fungus forms galls on all above-ground parts of corn species, and is known in Mexico as huitlacoche; it is eaten, usually as a filling, in quesadillas and other tortilla-based foods, and soups. I placed my order and just as I figured, it was delicious! It was so good, in fact, that I became an instant regular of the taqueria and ordered Quesadilla de Huitlacoche several times a week. Since I moved to Tampa, I have been unable to find it ………….until a few weeks ago!
Catrinas Cocina Y Galeria opened just three months ago on Cinco de Mayo. Conveniently located at 2402 South MacDill in South Tampa, Catrinas Cocina Y Galeria is a welcome addition to the Tampa dining scene. When I first heard about their opening, I was ecstatic and it was on my list of places to visit. One evening while having diner with fellow food bloggers, Jennifer Buggica (Mangiamo! Let’s Eat!), and Jeff Houck (The Stew), I had mentioned that I had been searching for huitlacoche in Tampa Bay and Jeff Houck told me that I could find it at Catrinas Cocina Y Galeria. Excited, I made plans to visit for lunch the following week and had both a delicious as well as educational dining experience.
Upon walking in, I was completely mesmerized by the vivid decor, especially in the bar area.
Colorful and filled with history, the bar is covered with black and white photos of famous Mexican personalities from the 1900’s such as El Santo, Maria Felix, Jorge Negrete, Frida Kahlo, Cantinflas, Dolores del Rio, Pedro Infante and Lila Downs. The walls of the restaurant are colorful and vibrant with images of La Calavera Catrina (‘The Elegant Skull) adorning the walls and shelves. For those that are not familiar, here is a a little history about La Calavera Catrina courtesy of Wilkipedia: La Calavera Catrina (‘The Elegant Skull’) is a 1910 zinc etching by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. The image has since become a staple of Mexican imagery, and often is incorporated into artistic manifestations of the Day of the Dead in November, such as altars and calavera costumes. The etching was part of his series of calaveras, which were humorous images of contemporary figures depicted as skeletons, which often were accompanied by a poem. It had been a long time since I first learned about the history of La Catrina and I was honored to have another brief history lesson by chef/owner Tisbeth Mejia who happens to be from my favorite city in Mexico, Guadalajara. There is nothing more fascinating that learning about a country’s history and its impact on the native cuisine.
We started off with a refreshing Mexican Fruit Pico de Gallo. With jicama, cucumbers, oranges and pineapple marinated in a fresh juices and topped with lime and chili seasoning, it was the perfect start to my dining experience. I first tried lime and chili seasoning over fruit when I was a young girl of just sixteen working in a restaurant. One of the guys that worked in the kitchen (who was from Mexico) would always sprinkle his fruit with lime and chili seasoning and he insisted I try it. To this day, it is one of my favorite snacks.
As I looked at their drink menu, I saw that they offered Mimosas and was instantly excited. I tried their Mimosa Catrina which is made with fresh Guava and it was fantastico. They also offer a nice selection of beer and wine as well as margaritas and sangria.
Guacamole is one of my favorite things on the planet and since I was dining with a friend, I ordered their Guacamole Catrinas for us to share. HOLY GUACAMOLE was it INCREDIBLE! Served in a traditional molcajete, their guacamole is epic! With luscious avocado, fresh cheese and ridiculously delicious seasonings, it is topped with….are you ready for this…….LOBSTER AND SHRIMP! Served with freshly made tortilla chips, their guacamole is the best damn guacamole I have ever had, period.
As I sipped on my Mimosa, I looked over their entire menu and ran into a problem. Everything sounded amazing and I found other dishes that I wanted to try, but I had been on a mission to find huitlacoche in Tampa and that was what I was going to have. Based on my experience thus far, I knew I would be going back again in the very near future. With a tempting menu of authentic tacos, fresh seafood dishes and more, I don’t think you can go wrong with anything on their menu.
As we continued to enjoy our Guacamole Catrinas, the moment that I had been waiting over nine years for had finally arrived. I was presented with my Huitlacoche Quesadilla. I was so excited that I closed my eyes and said a little prayer of thanks for finally being able to enjoy this delicacy after what felt like an eternity of searching for it in Tampa Bay. I quickly snapped a few pictures and then began to eat. Truly, it was like a dream come true. Inside my warm tortilla was an delicious mixture of huitlacoche, poblano peppers, onions and warm, melted cheese. Ay que rico! Suddenly I was brought back to that first day I tried huitlacoche at the tiny taqueria back in San Jose. It was an orgasmic experience.
My friend Rebecca laughed at me as she enjoyed her fajitas. She said she had never seen anyone get so emotional over food. I was so excited about my dish that I forgot to take a picture of her fajitas, but she said they were amazing. I will be trying them on a future visit.
Since I love spice, I asked for some salsa picante and was truly impressed when the chef came out and offered to make me some fresh salsa. I told her that “I like it hot” and she proceeded to make me an incredible batch of fresh salsa. It was delicious with just the perfect amount of spice. I took the rest home and enjoyed it over a grilled chicken breast.
After I finished eating, I met Karol who is the other owner of Catrinas. We chatted for a while and she gave some additional background on their concept. She told me to be sure to check our their bathrooms, so I did. Once again, I was amazed. Both bathrooms were just s eclectic as the restaurant with hand-painted murals depicting people and places significant in Mexican culture. Below is a painting of street entertainers in Mexico City,
I fell in love with the chair that is in the ladies restroom and my friend Rebecca got the most amazing picture of it with her iPhone:
Karol was showing me their wine selection and I was truly impressed. They have a fabulous collection and their prices are outstanding. With wines from California, Oregon, Washington and more, their selection rivals many places in South Tampa.
While further chatting with Karol, she showed me a bottle that she had in the office that is perfect for their restaurant. When she showed me the bottle, I laughed because it one of my favorite wines from California that I featured in my blog last year…….SOFA KING BUENO by Chronic Cellars in Paso Robles, CA. Due to a limited production, this wine is currently unavailable but Catrinas will soon have it and I will be there to sip it while I enjoy their fabulous food. (Click here to read my post about this wine from last year)
If you are looking for truly authentic Mexican food, the best guacamole on the planet, a cure for a hangover or just want to sip on delicious wine while listening to live music, do yourself a favor and stop by Catrinas Cocina Y Galeria. I am honored to have them in South Tampa and trust me, their food is SOFA KING BUENO!