by Joel Smith & r & Not far from Fred Meyer on South Thor and across Freya from Sheridan Elementary is one of the better, more authentic Mexican joints in town. The gastronomes who crowded La Katrina's spacious, bright front dining room around lunchtime last Wednesday (wisely avoiding the cave-like and depressing middle room) would attest that it's a neighborhood favorite.

For starters, our kind waitress set us up with plates of chicken flautas ($6) and tamales ($2.25) filled with beef, chicken and pork (it was a menagerie). The former we liked. The flautas were prepared just right, crisp and a little flaky, like a good croissant. The tamales, though they were topped nicely with sauce and cheese, yielded a little too much mushy cornmeal and far too little meaty goodness.

As for entrees, you know a Mexican restaurant is the real deal when the menu features brain and tongue on its first page. The rest of the menu is more standard fare (chiles rellenos, enchiladas, fajitas, etc.) but with a difference -- it's long. The seafood selection, for example, goes beyond one dish dubiously dubbed "Mariscos a la (insert restaurant name)." Instead, you get salmon tacos and a dish that combines tiger prawns with mushrooms, spices and butter garlic sauce. Instead of just arroz con pollo, you get menudo, steak picado and albondigas (a kind of meatball soup).

Of the seven dishes we ordered at La Katrina, two contained some kind of tiny hairs and one included an unidentifiable chewy piece of white plastic or Styrofoam or something. Some among our readership might see this as cause to avoid the restaurant, but if you're like me, this makes little difference. After all, this is some authentic, tasty stuff.

I ordered nopales con puerco ($9), because I couldn't pass up a dish that incorporated "cactus leaves" (though there was some discussion at our table, about whether cacti have "leaves," per se). It arrived on a steaming hot plate (what Mexican dish doesn't?), a jumbled heap of pork chunks, tomato and onion, the thin strips of cactus swimming in between like that giant serpent in the trash-compactor scene from Star Wars. Not that this tasted like trash. I didn't know what to expect from the cactus strips, but their slightly tangy pickled flavor was a pleasing contrast to the richness of the rest of the dish. At any rate, I removed the second small hair on the plate (the first was in the tamales) and stuffed everything into several homemade flour tortillas, washing it down with a glass of horchata that was much tastier than the one I'd had on my last visit. Very good.

Luke's choice of entr & eacute;e was no surprise -- arroz con pollo ($10). It's his litmus test for Mexican restaurants. His plate was stocked with fluffy rice and heaped with chicken, onions, mushrooms, green peppers and that all-purpose red sauce. And I mean "heaped." Most examples of this dish aren't capable of heaping because of the liquidity of the sauce. This, far pastier, made a sort of goulash. It was pungent and mouth-wateringly flavored with garlic, mushrooms and green peppers. He referred to it as "tasty" but noted that the cooks could hold off a tad on the tomato paste.

Our firefighter friend mopped the sweat from his charred brow and ordered up the only dish that could sate his masculine appetite -- the aptly named "giant burrito" ($6). Around nine inches long, and weighing in at least at a pound, it was solidly packed with shredded beef, rice, beans, sour cream, guac and pico de gallo sauce. He described it as "extremely hairless" and, inexplicably, "hella built-in," noting afterward that it "made my tastebuds twirl." (He will not be invited out to lunch again.)

Then came the desserts and the discovery of a centimeter-long piece of Styrofoam (or whatever) in the sopapillas' whipped cream. We inspected it briefly but then discarded it. The sopapillas -- a couple of fried, cinnamon-encrusted tortilla chips, topped with cream and a strawberry sauce -- were too good to be dismissed on a technicality. Their diminutive size was a nice cap to a rich meal. Those craving yet more richness, though, could go for the ice cream chimichanga, essentially the same thing as the sopapillas, just shaped differently and deliciously larger.

We paid and waddled out to the parking lot.

La Katrina, 510 S. Freya St. (535-4263) Mon-Thurs 11am-8pm, Fri-Sat 11am-9pm, Sun 12pm-8pm

  • or