Santa Catarina

Low water, haute dining

Santa Catarina

1310 RR 620 S. Ste. A-4, Lakeway, 512/300-0946
Monday-Thursday, 11am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10pm; Sunday, 10am-9pm
www.santacatarinarestaurant.com

Cousins Jesus Hernadez and Francisco Cortez opened Santa Catarina about six months ago with a concept for affordable Interior Mexican cuisine. It couldn't be more welcome in this rapidly growing suburb hungry for culinary diversity. For residents of Central Austin, it's definitely worth the drive. Hernan­dez and Cortez were both raised on farms outside of Mexico City, where growing and preparing great food was a major focus in the lives of their families. They've taken those childhood memories, combined them with many years of hands-on experience working at Fonda San Miguel and Manuel's, and applied it to their own business. The result is a happy marriage of quality and affordability.

The owners took over the space from Flores, which recently moved to a larger location. A new coat of paint and some wall art was all that was required to adapt this space into a homey rancho-style interior. But it is clearly not the decor that's drawing crowds to Santa Catarina; it's the food. The cochinita pibil (roasted achiote-rubbed pork, $15) arrives steaming, wrapped in the banana leaf in which it was cooked. The meat falls apart on contact; it's moist, with the gentle bite of achiote. A fire-roasted poblano stuffed with seafood and cheese ($18) is as succulent as it is gorgeous, perched atop a ring of white rice and velvety refried black beans. Huge gorditas ($8) are all made fresh in the kitchen, stuffed with plenty of beans, queso fresco, cabbage, avocado, and a choice of meats. I ordered mine with the venison chorizo, and it was practically big enough for two.

We devoured Santa Catarina's Oaxacan-style tortilla soup ($4, cup; $6, bowl), an unorthodox version of this Mexican classic made with pureed fresh tortillas and dried chiles. The red chile mole served over chicken or in enchiladas is Hernandez's mother's recipe. The kitchen makes its own queso fresco and fresh corn tortillas. The fully stocked bar mixes margaritas with organic agave nectar and fresh lime juice instead of a corn-syrupy mix. These are practically irresistible after a hot day on the lake. In fact, everything we tried at Santa Catarina was exceptional. Service was friendly and attentive, despite the full dining room. This is without a doubt my pick of the year for best lake area dining.

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