Pictured pre-pandemic, Katalina's is located in a 100-year-old gas station — Photo courtesy of Nick Dekker
It’s not unusual to see a line at a gas station but, at the oldest gas station in Columbus, Ohio, there are no cars waiting – just people. And they’re waiting to fill up their stomachs, not their tanks.
Katalina’s, The Little Café with Lots of Local Goodness, took over the 100-year-old gas station in Harrison West 10 years ago and immediately became the place to go for Latin-leaning, Southern-slanted comfort food.
Whether you're ordering for breakfast, brunch or lunch, you should expect a wait because of the popularity of the Pancake Balls.
Katalina's signature Pancake Balls — Photo courtesy of Raquib Ahmed
If you order nothing else at Katalina’s (but don’t worry, you will), you have to try those signature bites of deliciousness filled with Nutella or dulce de leche. More than two million of them have been sold since the restaurant opened, and they continue to be a bestseller.
“I’ve been making Pancake Balls for my family for a long, long time,” said Kathleen Day, the real Katalina. “They’re inspired by a beloved international dish but mine feature a secret ingredient and are made with the best stoneground flour from Fowler’s, a local mill.”
That dedication to supporting local businesses has become a symbol of Katalina’s, and it’s the reason everything is so fresh and flavorful.
Katalina's Prego Steak Sandwich — Photo courtesy of Raquib Ahmed
A champion of the “Live Love Local” philosophy (in fact, she trademarked it), Day buys ingredients almost exclusively from her Columbus colleagues, many of whom she discovered at the city’s popular North Market.
The pork in her award-winning Huge! Mazatlan Slow-Roasted Pork & Egg Sandwich comes from Beeler’s; the combination of spices in her famous Holy Tomole (Tomato + Mole) soup was created by Ben Walter; the tortilla chips that accompany her sandwiches are made from Shagbark’s organic heritage wheat; and the coffee that starts so many Ohioans’ mornings is made in small batches in Central America (where it supports women) by Thunderkiss.
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Oh, and crème fraiche from Snowville Creamery appears in pretty much everything from the Award-Winning Breakfast Tacos to Katalina’s Latina Sandwich.
Day has filled her Original Pancake Balls with every variety of jam and fruit butter from Cooper’s Mill and complemented them with rich, Bourbon-barrel aged maple syrup from Milligan’s.
Katalina's Southern Fried Buttermilk Chicken Sandwich — Photo courtesy of Eric Wagner
“When I opened a decade ago, very few ‘fast casual’ restaurants were focusing on local and organic ingredients, especially in the Midwest,” said Day. “I wasn’t looking to be ‘trendy.’ I just missed the street burritos I was used to from The Mission District in California and the homecooked dishes I had grown up eating. I really just wanted to make and source the food that I wanted to eat.”
Day has been a passionate cook since the age of nine, when she used to try her hand at Julia Child’s recipes in Parade magazine. She put off opening her own restaurant until later in life, after she had saved enough money by caring for children as an au pair in France, cooking for a Countess, waiting tables and working in advertising.
The original gas station that's now Katalina's — Photo courtesy of Katalina's
“As soon as I saw the gas station, full of cigarette butts and graffiti, I envisioned my Indian Circus light sign over it and knew how much potential it had to be my dream space,” remembered Day. “I literally signed on the dotted line within a couple of weeks and left my corporate marketing job. The neighborhood is now one of the most desirable in Columbus.”
The graffiti is still there, though, giving Katalina’s a down-to-earth authenticity that makes guests feel right at home and encourages them to add their own contributions to the artwork. According to Day, the most challenging part of turning an old gas station into a modern day restaurant was the fact that it was only 600 square feet.
“There’s only room for one restroom, and Columbus requires two restrooms for a liquor license,” she explained. “So, the reason we don’t serve dinner is just by default.”
With only 26 seats inside and 50 on the patio (but currently open for curbside pick-up and delivery), it’s no wonder Day opened her second restaurant, Katalina’s, Too! in Clintonville. The demand was high and the name immediately recognizable.
Kathleen Day, the real Katalina — Photo courtesy of Raquib Ahmed
“Katalina is my name in Spanish, and it’s what the Latin employees have called me in every restaurant I’ve ever worked in, from Arkansas to Paris,” she said.
There’s a good chance Day will open a third location in the near future.
“I dream about new menu items,” she admitted. “That’s my favorite part of running the restaurants.”
New menu items?
“Don’t worry,” she laughed. “As long as there’s a Katalina’s, there will always be Pancake Balls.”