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Catrinas Cocina Set to Bring Mexican Culture, Food to Palma Ceia

Two friends are combining their efforts to create a one stop shop for authentic Mexican cuisine and local art.

MacDill Avenue is quickly becoming known for its diversity as much as for the Air Force base it's named after.

Soon to be joining the art galleries and ethnic food eateries is a combination of the two ideas. Catrinas Cocina y Galeria will open its doors on May 3 in the South MacDill building that formerly housed French Moroccan restaurant. The theme and decor at Catrinas will pay homage to the Day of the Dead art style prevalent on the November holiday.

The owners, Karol Ortiz and friend Tisbeth Mejia, are the the perfect pair. Since meeting seven years ago, the two have sought out a location for this very concept. Mejia, an artist, former restauranteur and cook from Guadalajara, Mexico, will provide the authentic Mexican Aztec food from her grandmother's recipes as well as the artwork that will make up their first exhibit.

"I have been in Florida for 12 years working very hard to create something that I want to do," Mejia said. "This is it. I could open a taco stand, but I don't want to do that. I'm excited to get cooking and selling some of my paintings. I no longer have room for many of them in my house, so they will be on display a lot here."

Ortiz, a former banker, will handle the money and promotional side of the business. A native of Puerto Rico, Ortiz owned a promotional company on the island before moving to the Tampa area 12 years ago to work in finance. She is anxiously awaiting the opening of the restaurant, which she believes will come with a stamp of authenticity.

"We're trying to make something classy, authentic and eclectic where people can have a different experience," Ortiz said. "We want it to feel real, so we're having the outside furniture, light fixtures and iron catrinas brought in from Mexico to give it an authentic feel. You see pictures of artists and things that have had an impact on the history of Mexico, and I think people will love the food."

The details of the menu and what will be offered is a hush-hush matter with ownership duo, but it promises to be interesting.

"We're going to have a lot of seafood items and really go for being an authentic Mexican restauraunt, not some chain or Tex-Mex place," Ortiz said. "We're going to have the best hangover remedies around, but I can't say what it is, people just have to come in and find out. We'll have house margaritas, sangrias and several Mexican beers."

As for the artwork, even the bathrooms are covered in original pictures taken by the pair while in Guadalajara. Eventually, Mejia's paintings will be removed on occasion so that they can feature local artists as well.

"Eventually we want to feature local artists and have galeria nights," Ortiz said. "Right now we have to get the restaurant going, but eventually we would like to open that up. They're opening up galleries in this area, and I think there is a good art crowd and culture around this area. People seem open to new ideas and well educated so I think this is an area where we can grow."

The art side of the business won't be stopping at paintings, however. Ortiz hopes to bring a classy environment to the restaurant with jazz, mariachis and more.

"I'd like to have a little poetry night where everybody can grab the microphone if they like," Ortiz said. "We'll have mariachis on Fridays, and we're going for classy with jazz nights and nice relaxing Mexican music."

The association of Catrinas with the Day of the Dead may be misleading to some in American culture, who view depictions of skeletons as dark material. In Mexico, the catrina image is a celebration of life and literally translates to "elegant skull" — the elegant part not forgotten by Ortiz, who headed up decorating Catrinas.

"A lot of what we have had to do to this location comes down to cosmetic stuff," Ortiz said. "The two of us have done it all and have gotten home at 3 a.m. some days, but I think it's worth it because we have been able to attain the elegant look we wanted with this place. There is still a ways to go, but I think when people see all the stuff that we brought in from Mexico, they will see we've done a lot."

Catrinas is located at 2402 S. MacDill Ave. A website is currently being produced for the business, which can be followed on Twitter @CatrinasCocina.

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