Mario's Catalina Restaurant
Mario Flores doesn't waste any time turning on the charm. Call for a reservation at his Fort Lauderdale restaurant and he'll say, "Hello honey, how are you today? How can I help you?" Ladies, you'll get a kiss when you arrive (even if you're a perfect stranger) and one when you leave (when you'll feel like an old friend).
One of the best reasons to visit Mario's Catalina Restaurant is Mario, who arrived in South Florida from La Ceiba, Honduras, 13 years ago. He cleaned houses, waited tables and saved up to open the Cuban-Spanish restaurant six years ago.
He moved to his current, cozy spot on U.S. 1 three years ago, wooing patrons (many regulars) in a quaint, romantic setting flickering with candlelight. Oil paintings and gilt mirrors adorn salmon-hued walls, and glass covers the white-clothed tables. There's a small bar off to the side, an inside nook and two covered terraces.
We've come to expect Cuban meals to be inexpensive, so there's some sticker shock here. Entrees start at $15, with many over $25 -- more than your average ethnic eatery, but with its setting, service and attention to detail and ingredients, Catalina's is not your average experience.
Meat is ground fresh in the kitchen, sauces are made from scratch, marinades go beyond the standard, and service is outstanding -- gracious and warm, from hosts to bussers. Glasses are replenished, plates whisked away, the meal well-paced.
Soon after we're seated, salads appear, and they're a fine welcome: romaine, chopped green apples, carrots, celery and tomatoes in a vibrant vinaigrette spiked with champagne -- a peppery, garlicky burst of flavor.
Catalina also offers complimentary mariquitas, the crisp green plantain chips splashed with a fragrant chimichurri sauce and citrusy mojo.
There's an extensive wine list, but on one visit we opted for sangria -- sweet and chilled, with a splash of Bacardi, Jack Daniel's, and lots of fresh fruit. On our next trip we savored smooth, minty mojitos.
There are seven appetizers, but if you're with a group, share the "assortment" platter, which easily feeds six: You get sliced tamales and ground-beef-stuffed empanadas, roast pork with grilled white onions, chicken and pork chunks and ham croquettes breaded with ground mariquitas. The chicken chunks were dry and a little overdone, but everything else was very good.
Entrees, served with white rice, black beans and plantains, include standards like palomilla steak and lechon asado, but try this variation: roasted pork marinated in Jack Daniel's. The pork tenderloin is ultra tender, the edges are crisp, and you'll detect just enough whiskey to make it interesting.
For a splurge, go for grilled skirt steak with lobster. The steak, marinated in sour orange juice and herbs, is delicious and tender, served with sautéed onions and red and green peppers. The boiled Maine lobster tail is removed from the shell and lightly grilled, with a hint of garlic.
Red snapper is fresh and flavorful, breaded in ground mariquitas and baked. The fish is topped with four jumbo shrimp (a tad chewy) and a rich béchamel sauce spiked with Cointreau.
Paella's not on the menu, but you can call ahead to order it (it takes about 45 minutes). The classic dish is quite good. The moist yellow rice is chock-full of lobster, mussels on the shell, shrimp, fish and scallops plus sliced chorizo, roast pork, chicken, peas, corn, carrots, green beans and limas.
Mario sent over a complimentary round of mojitos (he does this kind of thing often) before our waiter brought over a tray of 29 desserts, most made by a baker friend. His kitchen turns out scrumptious tres and cuatro leches, chocolate mousse and flan -- all as sweet as the folks you'll meet at Catalina. Place: Mario's Catalina Restaurant.
- Cuban, Spanish
- Lunch, Dinner