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Photos: Bridget Kenny/QNS
Photos: Bridget Kenny/QNS

Look up Las Catrinas online, and you may draw up a pretty standard “Mexican joint” vibe in your mind. Tacos, margaritas, beers with limes in them, the works. I can’t honestly blame you — there’s plenty of tired Mexican vibes gracing New York’s culinary scene of late. So over-exposed is the south of the border aesthetic that at a time when restaurateurs are trying to bring new and exciting cultures to the hungry masses, Mexican has largely been relegated to a secondary influence in broader fusion experiments: Mexican barbecue, Korean tacos, sushi burritos.

You couldn’t be blamed for thinking that there’s no one left to defend traditional Mexican cuisine. You’d be wrong, but you couldn’t be blamed.

Las Catrinas arrived on Broadway in late May, and it is here to remind our poorly under-informed palettes of what Mexican food really is. You won’t find a plate of nachos or a single burrito (technically a San Francisco invention, not a Mexican one) here, but you will find a healthy reverence for the papalo leaf, “Mexican truffles,” and a bonafide, sincere tribute to Mexico brought to life by one of its native sons.

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Leopoldo “Polo” Tapia hails from Tulum, Mexico, and has worked with fellow Las Catrinas co-owner Lukasz Szydlowski at various restaurants here in Astoria for the past seven years. While both men dreamed of owning a place of their own, Polo also saw his beloved Mexican heritage “destroyed” (his words) by so many other restaurants who tried to combine it with every cuisine they could. He longed to bring the flavors and colors his mother used to bring to life in her kitchen to hungry mouths here in Queens.

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With Las Catrinas, the stars finally lined up for both aspiring restaurateurs to take the leap, and for Polo to bring his vision to Broadway, just one block up from the train. Polo aims to bring the spirit of tapas-style dining to Las Catrinas — come with hungry friends, because the small plates here are best when shared en masse.

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The team here — including restaurant manager Jennifer Szudlowski and fellow restaurateurs Dino Philippou and Taso Pavlou — wants to inject the shop with the back-to-the-roots vibe of Tulum street food. Between the tacos, excellent cocktail menu, and multitude of calaveras (skulls are everywhere — the oven from the previous pizza shop in this space is still here, painted like a great grinning Dia de los Muertes skull), the truck-style influence is more than obvious.

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But enough about the ambience — let’s dig in.

Our first dish, in keeping with the tapas vibe, was a damn fine ceviche with a delightfully citrusy tartness countered by a smooth, creamy avocado. The white fish, delivered fresh every other day, was light, fresh, and left plenty of room for the next course. Every single ounce on the plate was done entirely in house, and while they admit it makes it harder to do, the result on the plate refused to be ignored.

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A twist on classic chicharrones was next. Whereas a traditional chicharron would deep fry the pork, Las Catrinas opts to deep fry a thin bed of dough and top it with pickled pork skin (“cueritos”), cabbage, avocado, queso cotija and sour cream with a dash of hot sauce. The dough was quite crispy, but a bit lighter than the fried dough fare you might find at a street fair, and the pork was soft and tender. The hot sauce rounded it out with a lovely kick.

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Our next dish, a towering beef milanesa cemita with red onion, avocado, homemade sweet chipotle, quesillo and papalo, was a real treat for a sandwich lover like me. Make no mistake, this is no “work lunch” kind of sandwich, unless you get paid to nap immediately after. This sandwich could easily feed three pro wrestlers. But the beef, breaded and smashed thin (much like a schnitzel, in retrospect), was deliciously smoky, and the chipotle hinted at a nice sweetness to bring it home. If it could be improved, perhaps a bit more sauce could be added next time, but I was more than able to dress it up to my heart’s content with the chipotle, chile and hot sauces provided on every table.

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I’d like to draw your attention to an ingredient back at the top of that last paragraph, “papalo,” a basil-like herb grown only in Mexico that Polo specifically hunted down for this restaurant. Tried though I did, I couldn’t get him to give up his supplier here in Queens, but it was a delightful leaf that kept popping up in his dishes and drinks (stay tuned till the end of this piece — Jennifer Szudlowski found a way to use it in a drink that surprised even him). If you want the real, down-home Mexican experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more authentic one on Broadway this summer.

The tacos were up next, both fish and beef. The pescado taco, with pineapple, cabbage, cucumber, red onion, citrus and chipotle mayo, hit my sinuses with an excellent blast of spiciness smoothed out by the mayo. But the birria taco is what really sold the place for me. This is a slow worker, but give this big juicy beef stew taco from Michoacan, Mexico, a chance — it was easily my favorite of the night, and perfect for a dinner, lunch, or quick bite to go.

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A quesadilla like I had never seen before landed in front of me next, the Huitlacoche. They didn’t tell me at first what protein was in it, and after guessing chicken, pork and even turkey, they finally revealed the truth: this hardy, thick quesadilla was a mushroom. The Huitlacoche mushroom, affectionately known as the “Mexican truffle,” is an enormous fungus found only in Mexico and has been served as a delicacy since the time of the Aztecs. It was remarkably good. I’m no stranger to mushrooms at all (give me a good portobello burger any day), but this truly took me by surprise. Add in the delicious, gooey cheese, and you’ve got a quesadilla pull-apart shot just waiting to be Instagrammed.

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Before I round out the culinary side, let me dive into the drink menu for a moment — and what a cocktail tour de force it is. Everything here, food and drink alike, is designed to be paired together. I certainly love a good standalone cocktail, but I always appreciate it when I can imbibe along with my meal, and each of these drinks hits its mark while allowing the food to shine. The Riviera Maya white sangria and El Mujer Dormida red sangria are going to be the brunch hits, and the dark La Calavera with muddled basil, blackberry and mescal will pleasantly drown out the end of many a long night.

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If you like your drinks super sweet, the Watermelon Aqua Fresca (like a Jolly Rancher in a glass) is for you, and if you like smokiness, try the Corazon Negro, a whiskey-based ginger drink with activated charcoal that instantly brought to mind a tropical thunderstorm. And of course, if you’re here for margaritas, the Dios Mio has you covered.

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But that sleeper herb hit from earlier, the papalo leaf, comes roaring back to the forefront in Jennifer’s original Papalo Pineapple Cooler. This wonderfully summery rum concoction sparkles with pineapple, lime and muddled papalo, and surprised both myself and Polo, when he first had it. As the Las Catrinas team was still early in the opening process, Szudlowski was looking for something to build a wholly original drink from, and Polo jokingly suggested his homeland’s papalo leaf — a hardy, savory herb not really known for its cocktail game. The result, the Papalo Pineapple Cooler, was so good he threw it on the menu. I can second that, and our photographer, Bridget Kenny, can third it. This was easily our favorite drink of the night. Get it on a hot, summery day.

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While I had already been sold on the food and the ambience, the last dish is where I finally saw that Polo isn’t just blowing smoke when he says he wants to bring the spirit of his home to this place. The Cochinta Pibil, a pulled pork stew with pickled red onions, chile manzano, cilantro and rice is wonderful. So to are the tortillas — delicious, soft and warm little food blankets that they are.

Photos: Bridget Kenny/QNS

Photos: Bridget Kenny/QNS

But what finally made me see the respect for culture Polo, Jennifer, Lukasz, and their partners are bringing to Las Catrinas was the towels the tortillas came out in. Every single one the restaurant uses for serving has been hand-knit by Polo’s madre in Mexico and shipped here especially for this.

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And that, dear readers, is why you must try Las Catrinas. It’s one thing to bring a culture’s cuisine to life, but it is much harder to open a window into another culture. Think back, if you can, to the artisans that have truly yanked you out of your day to day and into their world via their craft. Leaving Las Catrinas that Thursday night in early June, I couldn’t help but think Polo and his staff of passionate makers had opened a window into another culture I didn’t know I had never truly experienced.

Many restaurants, Mexican and otherwise, put together a delicious, wonderful menu of what they think you think you want. In today’s hyper-competitive, high-stakes restaurant landscape, it’s almost foolish not to. Las Catrinas has gone a different route, and have put themselves out on a huge limb to do so. Instead of serving “Mexican food,” they are trying to connect you back to Mexico through food.

Rather than serving you what you think you want, they want to show you something you never knew you wanted in the first place. It’s going to be tough to go back to nachos after this.

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