You’re in for a true Mexican food experience the minute you cross the intersection of Hydraulic and Wassall. There, on the southeast corner, sits a delightfully incongruous adobe hacienda known as Cactus Cantina. As you walk inside, you are beset with an abundance of Mexican statues, flowers, artwork and furniture that are as colorful as Cactus’ owner, Daniel Ramirez.
Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Ramirez has been in the United States since 1989. While working at a well-known Los Angeles eatery, he daydreamed about owning his own restaurant. His dream was realized when he purchased Cactus Cantina from its previous owner in 2000. Since then, he has been serving a compilation of recipes from his mother, father and other family members seven days a week.
A few visits, and perhaps a few pounds later, it’s safe to say it’s hard to go wrong with just about anything on the Cactus menu. We like to start with the chili con queso ($6.95) and guacamole ($4.95). The queso is a velvety blend of Monterey Jack cheese, cilantro, jalapenos and tomatoes. Unlike many queso dips, this one doesn’t turn into a globby mess five minutes after it’s served. Our family members visiting from Des Moines boasted that the guacamole at Cactus is as good as they’ve ever had anywhere. “Fresh” is the word they used to describe it.
But our favorite appetizer is the Nachitos Deluxe: fried flour chips smothered with creamy white queso, diced chicken, lettuce, tomatoes and a scoop of homemade guacamole. We like to add ground beef, which makes it a meal in itself for $9.95. A little hint: Eat them right away while the freshly-fried chips are still crispy.
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On one of our trips, we had what Ramirez refers to as his Famous Flaming Fajitas ($13.95). The dramatic tableside lighting “ceremony” is a prescient sign of great things to come. For a $3 upcharge, we like to add shrimp to the steak and chicken combo, all served with grilled peppers and onions, lettuce, sour cream, pico de gallo and warm soft flour tortillas. (We prefer soft corn tortillas.) The secret to their goodness is, well, a secret. About all we could get out of Ramirez is that a 24- to 48-hour marinade is involved, using boiled New Mexico peppers, orange juice, cumin and black pepper. The lengthy marinating time permeates the meat and vegetables with flavor.
Ramirez says his favorite thing on the menu is the queso, because “it goes on anything.” We put his theory to the test with the absolutely decadent chicken con queso ($12.95), a tender chicken breast swimming in the ooey-gooey cheese sauce. It’s fork-tender and tastes surprisingly light, even though we know it’s covered with delicious calories. Another favorite is a dish named after Ramirez’s hometown in Mexico, the Teocaltiche plate, chunks of very tender pork simmered for hours in a blend of Mexican spices.
The tamales at Cactus are made with the same recipe those as back in Teocaltiche, where his family makes and sells more than 3,000 of the meat and masa delectables each day. What makes these tamales stand out is the perfect ratio of masa to meat, in this case the traditional pork filling.
Cactus Cantina offers a full bar, but the evident choice if you’re imbibing alcohol is one of Ramirez’s refreshing margaritas made with his homemade mix. If you’ve paced yourself better than most and still have room for dessert, top off your meal with the made-from-scratch tres leches cake, or three milks cake, a sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream. It’s a rich and refreshing traditional Mexican dessert and serves as a perfect example of Ramirez’s motto: “If you can’t go to Mexico, we’ll bring Mexico to you.”
Where: 2802 S. Hydraulic; 316-529-0238
Type of food: Mexican
Alcohol: Full bar
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday