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Arroz con Mario

When you call Catalina Restaurant on Saturday afternoon to make a dinner reservation, Mario Flores might say something like, "Oh honey, you don't need no reservation tonight. You come on down, Mario will find a table for you."

But I urge you, be as suspicious as a canary in a room full of amiable cats. Resist the impulse to be flattered by the implication that for you, honey, Flores will move heaven, Earth, and the fat lady dripping with diamonds. Be hard-headed and practical. Insist on a reservation.

Because if you fall for Flores' reassurances, honey, you're going to find your fanny parked in a comfortable leather chair between a stack of menus and an urn filled with pink orchids. You'll have plenty of time to peruse those menus, even to gnaw on their edges a little, while the parties who did insist on reservations are being seated. By the time some lingering couple decides to finish their last nibble of flan and drain the dregs of their Cuban coffee, to give their mouths a final swipe, push back their chairs with a sigh, and vacate the table you've long since come to think of as yours, you're going to be seriously pondering how a pink orchid might taste.

Of course, there's a third option. You can always hop across the room and take a stool at the bar, but I don't advise it. The bartender is a mojito fiend -- he makes 200 of those babies a night from scratch -- and they go down mighty smooth. Sit there for 45 minutes sucking mint-laced muddled sugar through a straw and you're unlikely to be able to articulate the words ropa vieja by the time that tender, 16-year-old boy, shy as a fawn, leads you to your table.

So make the reservation. You'll enjoy yourself mightily at Flores' Catalina, and I don't want anything to stand in the way of your fantastically good time -- certainly not some quartet of swells who waltz in saying, "McGillicuddy, party of four."

The original Catalina, on NE 33rd Street, has been sold ("Honey, one restaurant is enough for anybody -- I don't need two!"), but Flores' new place on Federal Highway is snazzy. They've dressed up the wedge-shaped room with distressed white-tile floors, terra cotta-colored walls, gleaming carved wooden screens, and mismatched chandeliers that shed soft light. A gilt mirror is stuck here and there between the oil paintings. Servers hustle around, grabbing bottles from the wine rack at the back of the room, refilling water glasses, replenishing mojitos. An outdoor patio under an arbor twinkling with lights was filled with multicolored birthday balloons and guests last time we were there.

I have the feeling that an awful lot of people find themselves enfolded in Flores' elegant, wiry arms and lavishly bussed on the cheek, because he seems to know everyone. If his lithe, light-footed little figure is any indication, the man gets around. His clientele is composed of extremely handsome gay men wearing wonderful shirts; beautiful, young, straight couples in love; middle-aged matrons shimmering with gold jewelry; well-to-do corporate types; and many repeat customers of all ethnicities, sizes, ages, and shapes.

The Cuban-Spanish menu includes seven weighty appetizers, half a dozen salads, beef, chicken, and fish entrées, and house specials. Everything comes with rice, a bowl of black beans, and a couple of grilled sweet plantains. All the meals begin with Flores' green salad -- apples, carrots, tomatoes, and chopped romaine in a dressing so sour, salty, and flecked with pepper that you'll gobble it down puckering and sniffling (and drink a gallon of water next day to rehydrate). You won't leave a shred uneaten.

If you're that smart party of four who booked a table and arrived early, the Catalina appetizer, $19.95, is a great way to begin. You get luscious empanadas -- spiced ground beef rolled inside flaky pastry -- tamales, ham croquettes, pork with white onions, and a luxurious, citrusy mojo of olive oil, chopped onions, and peppers. If you're not ravenous, though, try a plate of toasty empanadas ($5.95) and a single, silky Cuban tamale ($8.95) with a side of shredded roast pork. Those tamales had substantial heft and the texture of a tropical rain cloud: They're served with their corn husk unwrapped, the ham chopped very fine inside a rich, ground-corn filling fragrant with stock. The whole thing holds together seamlessly, and it's as smooth as a kiss. You'll wake up craving it the next morning.

"Are you feeling good?" Flores asked us in passing. He was halfway across the room before we could mumble a "yes" through our crumbs. It was a rhetorical question -- anybody with two mojitos and one of Mario's tamales inside them is going to feel great, and he knows it.

Our cute waiter delivered a plate of a "Mario's combination" ($23.95) and skirt steak churrasco Argentina ($16.95). The combination showcases two of Catalina's popular dishes, a generous portion of that tart and spicy shredded roast pork sautéed with onions and a thin snapper fillet; the fish is rolled in ground green plantains and fried to a golden crunch, topped with three or four grilled shrimp, pink and luscious, and ladled with butter sauce. Our herbed, marinated skirt steak, invariably dry and tough in less accomplished hands, was moist and tender, even the next day, when we gave our leftovers a quick toss in the pan. The buttery grilled plantains that accompanied both plates were like a big, fat bite of sweet potato pie. There wasn't an element of either entrée that wasn't perfectly prepared and deeply satisfying.

Grilled shrimp are used as icing on a lot of Mario's dishes. They're scattered on the grilled skirt steak, nestled in a plate of chicken, and they add baroque mauve flourishes to a salmon fillet. They're all over the seafood dishes too -- from the paella ($25.95 for one, $46.95 for two) to the seafood combo ($29.95), where you'll find them hobnobbing with scallops, fish, and lobster. They get their solo performances in the shrimp cocktail appetizer ($9.95) and the garlic shrimp and shrimp Creole (both $16.95). Classic Cuban dishes like ropa vieja ($13.95), vaca frita ($14.95), garlic chicken ($13.95), pork chunks ($14.95), and fresh grouper with white sauce ($16.95) are house specialties.

This is rich, heavy comfort food, and if you can make it through a plate of appetizers, a salad, an entire entrée, and dessert, you might consider a career with the International Federation of Competitive Eating. A few bites and we laid down our forks in defeat, two steaming bowls of black beans and rice barely tasted. (The beans made an ideal hangover remedy at 10 a.m. the next day, when we stumbled out of bed dry of mouth and bleary of eye.)

Far be it from us, stuffed as we were, to pass up homemade cuatro leches, $5.95 -- that's right, cuatro -- talk about the milk of human kindness! Regular milk, condensed milk, dulce de leche (cooked condensed milk), and whipped cream. Somehow, this damp little piece of cake still wasn't too sweet. Two Cuban coffees in tiny cups ($2.95 each), jollied up with more sugar, and we were ready to roll.

A word about the service. There are so many waitrons, bussers, hosts, and people with important but unidentifiable jobs at Mario's, humming and buzzing in different accents and registers, that by the end of the night, you're going to feel like a black bear with his head inside a hive of bees. They are beautiful bees. Bees that truly care about you. I'm not going to say that they're perfect bees (you might, for instance, be asked to keep your used utensils between courses), but I doubt there's a restaurant anywhere where you'll feel that you've been stroked quite so lovingly for quite so long by the time you're ready to drain the dregs of your coffee and push back your chair with a sigh -- no doubt to make room for that couple gnawing on their menus in the foyer. Say hi to them for us on your way out.

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miles
Mario's Catalina Restaurant

1611 N. Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304

954-563-4141


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