Cactus’ Inspired Menu Offers Shelter From The Rainy Weather
By Leslie Kelly
On one of those damp, drizzly nights that Seattle is famous for, the dining room at Cactus on Alki felt a little like a trip to the tropics.
The Gypsy Kings set the tone, the sound system turned up just enough to fill up the room yet not loud enough to make conversation a challenge. Votives flickered, cocktail shakers rattled, diners crunched on red and gold tortilla chips. Not surprisingly, the line for a table snaked out the door.
Showing up early in the evening doesn’t mean you’re going to miss the rush. It’s clear that West Seattle has embraced this place, the third Cactus to bloom on the regional dining landscape. (Owner Bret Chatalas and his father bought the original Cactus in Madison Park 16 years ago; the Kirkland Cactus debuted in 2002; brother Marc opened the West Seattle branch last summer.)
Yes, the crowds are there for the vibrantly seasoned food — the menu is filled with clever detours from typical south-of-the-border fare. But the restaurant’s success also likely has something to do with the public’s hunger for a dining experience in which the tab for two doesn’t run into three figures.
Now, nobody’s ever going to call Cactus upscale, but the restaurant does some things on a high level.
Start with drinks. The bar is rightly proud of its top-of-the-shelf tequila program, offering a number of flights served in special Riedel stemware. These triple shots — three 1-ounce pours — come complete with literature: a short backgrounder and tasting notes. While sipping the Patrón Añejo, you can learn how this tequila was aged for a year in white-oak barrels, which infuse a faint vanilla note and a nutty fruit taste. Who knew that the agave grown in Jalisco is prized for its high levels of sugar?
As much as I admired the liquid lesson, I’d rather have my tequila in a ‘rita on the rocks. And Cactus does that just right. At least as far as the classic margarita is concerned, striking the right balance between sweet and tart with just a smidge of salt on the rim of the glass. A passion fruit margarita — offered on the fresh sheet one evening — was all palate-puckering citrus, which overwhelmed the cocktail’s featured ingredient.
Beyond the boozy creations, I’m impressed with the softer side of the drink menu: the outstanding lemonade punched up with cilantro, the pretty mango sunrise, the terrific Perfect Prickly Pear served up in a martini glass. Sophisticated non-alcoholic beverages crafted with care.
So, while you’re enjoying drinks and studying the menu, don’t fill up on those chips and (very tame) salsa. Appetizers worth exploring include the Gambas al Diablo, white Mexican prawns sautéed in a spicy/smoky chipotle sauce finished with a mint chimichurri, the Latin version of pesto. The accompanying grilled flat bread makes for a fine platform for the shellfish and spoonful of pickled tomatillo and red onion escabeche.
It would be easy to make a meal out of the excellent Empanadas de Carnitas, masa mixed with achiote (annatto seeds) to make for a pastry the rich shade of brick, and stuffed with braised pork, roasted poblano chiles, sage and queso blanco.
Unfortunately, the kitchen was out of the ceviche that busy Saturday night. (“It’ll be ready in an hour and a half,” our server apologized.)
Another letdown, the blue cornmeal-dusted calamari was more about the breading than the squid, cut into rings too teeny to taste.
Moving on to the main plates, tacos and enchiladas make an appearance but they’re a world away from the stuffed tortillas at most Mex-Am restaurants where everything is smothered in cheese.
The best example of an evolved enchilada is the entrée of crispy corn tortillas layered lasagna-style with roasted butternut squash, caramelized onions, spinach, and goat and jack cheeses. It’s a wonderful combination of fresh-tasting flavors united under a blanket of rustic mole made with guajillo and New Mexican chiles.
On the other hand, an enchilada the server cautioned was the restaurant’s spiciest fell short on firepower. The house-made chorizo in the Chimayo enchilada seemed to be in short supply. The dish was perfectly fine: blue corn tortillas layered with shredded chicken, jack cheese and topped with a verde sauce made with mild green chiles from Hatch, N.M. It just didn’t live up to the hot hype.
Cactus’ tacos are every bit as good as those you can buy from a truck in White Center (the current benchmark for taco fanatics looking for an authentic fix). The carnitas were my favorite, pork slow-roasted in banana leaves until fork tender and slightly charred. A generous pile of the pulled pork takes center stage on this roll-your-own platter, rounded out with pickled red onions and a mojo sauce that’s a blend of grilled pineapple and smoked habanero pepper. Very nice.
What might make this entrée even better? Corn tortillas made in house, like they do at El Puerco Lloron on the Pike Street Hillclimb. Maybe this step is a logistical nightmare, but it’s this type of extra effort that could push Cactus into the same league as, say, Rick Bayless, the Chicago chef credited with introducing Americans to Mexican cuisine with a capital “C”.
Another area the kitchen could work on is plating. The chicken-fried chicken is a guilty pleasure so worth indulging in, breaded white meat fried crunchy and served with mashed Yukon gold potatoes made tangy by buttermilk. The dish is topped with gravy seasoned with chorizo, thyme, and pico de gallo. The down-home dish looked a mess, though all was forgiven after the first incredible bite. (The recipe for this dish has appeared in Bon Appetit magazine, the menu boasts.)
The chiles rellenos — a grilled poblano filled with mushrooms, fire-roasted tomatoes, smoked Oaxaca cheese and braised chard — tasted better than it looked, bursting at its stem and buried under a jumble of onion rings.
A recent seafood special could have easily suffered from ingredient overload. A sea bass fillet was brushed with a pineapple-habanero glaze and grilled dewy moist. The fish was served on mashed black beans, a spinach salad with shredded chayote squash, charred scallion crema and a corn/black bean salsa. Sometimes more is mo’ betta.
That cannot be said for the most straightforward, most sublime dessert on the restaurant’s well-rounded list: bananas dulce. Seared with brown sugar and Myers’s dark rum in a small cast-iron skillet that’s brought to the table, this dessert goes from simple to stunning with a scoop of coconut ice cream added tableside.
During dinner, service was lightning quick, yet it didn’t feel rushed. Servers offered sound advice, especially on dessert recommendations. (The warm chocolate brownie with Mexican vanilla ice cream was another good choice.)
At lunch, one waitress was working the entire dining room. Though it wasn’t that busy, there were still problems, including being served a past-its-prime guacamole (it’s supposed to be green, not gray) and bringing an obviously dirty spoon for dessert. Then, when I paid my tab in cash, the server rounded up the bill and didn’t bring back the coins with my change. Was this an oversight or an assumption? Like asking, “Do you need change?” I’m not trying to make a federal case over 50 cents, but Cactus is too good for this kind of parting gesture.
Still, that’s certainly not going to keep me from showing up with the hordes on the first day warm enough to roll open the garage-like windows that face the beach. It’s an occasion that surely will call for a margarita.
©2007 Seattle Post Intelligencer
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