The Catalina Restaurant is legendary for one thing; the owner Mario and his tactics. He's a very friendly owner, in a touchy-feely sort of way, and he'll charm the wallet out of your pocket. So stick to some rules. He call's the place Mario's Catalina; but there is no legal document bearing that name.
It wasn't clear until recently that Marios was open for lunch; the sign is in the parking lot which it shares with a Starbuck's. Most Cuban places around here are pretty dingy, so this place is a cut above that in terms of decor. Mario's is an expensive place for dinner; I thought I'd give lunch a try.
At 2pm, the place hardly even seemed open. There were 2 tables with 2 women each, and most tables were piled with glasses and didn't look set up for dining. There was a completely empty table in between the other 2 occupied tables; the waiter/host grabbed some plates from one of the other tables and put them down on the empty table for me. He handed me a menu and disappeared for a minute, and then reappeared with a glass of water. He never asked if I wanted a beverage.
I'd seen the menu on their website and had decided on the Vaca Frita with the Skirt Steak as a fallback. But the actual menu has only 2 beef lunch dishes; a baby Palomilla and a breaded steak, both for $10.95. They had a 10oz skirt for $19.95 under specials, but that didn't seem like a very good deal to me. So I ordered the Palomilla.
There was very low music spanish music playing; so low that the place almost seemed silent. The decor is "old-world", with big paintings, chandeliers and big flower arrangements. There were no flowers on any of the occupied tables, however.
A plate of fried bananas came out; a nice presentation with an interesting salsa. I don't usually go for bananas but this was more like eating chips. The salsa was pretty good.
Mario's Catalina Fried Bananas
The steak came out in less than 2 minutes. My first attempt to cut into the steak was unsuccessful. It was just a big tendon or something. It was a pretty big steak, so I tried the other side. I found a piece that was OK. This dish is supposed to be marinated in lime and garlic, but they left that part out. This was an unseasoned piece of meat that was flash grilled on a flattop.
Mario's Catalina Baby Palomilla
After a few bites the other 2 tables had left and I was the only one in the place. The server was clearing tables and as I cut into another big piece of gristle, I just told him that the steak was inedible. I demonstrated that it couldn't be cut with a steak knife. He offered to bring me another. Usually with a big steak if half is ok I won't send it back, but this was just ridiculous.
I could hear the sizzle in the kitchen, and 2 minutes later my minute steak was ready. He said that sometimes Top Sirloin could be a bad cut; that it happened once in a while. This piece was smaller; I had to steal a few onions from the first one as there were no onions on the redo.
Mario's Catalina Baby Palomilla Re-make
This steak was free of fat or gristle; still no seasoning or flavor, but edible. He got me some extra beans after I took the picture. There was something funny about the beans; something sweet. They were ok but I like the bland kind better.
The bottom line here is that Mario isn't serious about lunch. They sort of let you dine while they prepare for dinner, which is what they really do. A cuban restaurant with no Ropa Vieja or Vaca Frita? Un-marinated Palomillo Steaks? It's just not serious food. This is no better than what you get at Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine for a few dollars less.
Mario can cook up a storm if he wants to, but I guess only for dinner. Maybe if you order a $20 special. But here's the rub; Mario is a trickster, a charmer who will offer to cook for you off menu. Unless you just won the lottery; Don't Do it!. Mario is well known for presenting unexpectedly massive bills. So don't order anything off the menu; don't allow them to split anything; Just order directly from the menu and say no to any extras.