Dining With Denise Neil

The best south-side Wichita restaurant you don’t know about just turned 25

When he first pulled into the parking lot of Cactus Cantina at 2802 S. Hydraulic in 1993, Daniel Ramirez wanted to throw the car in reverse and head back to California.

He was 22 years old and had been a rising star in the kitchen of the Redondo Beach, Calif., Cheesecake Factory. But a family friend in Wichita, where his older brother lived, was opening a restaurant, and she needed help.

It was February in Kansas on Wichita’s south side. Ramirez had grown accustomed to working beach-side in always sunny California.

This was not what he had in mind.

“We parked outside of the restaurant and I’m thinking, ‘Uh-uh. Um, no,’” he said. “It was not what I expected.”

But he went in, and he worked hard. He learned what to do – and more important, what not to do – when running a restaurant. After five years, he was the owner.

Today, Ramirez is 47 years old and has developed a reputation among Wichita Mexican food fans as the charming, smooth-talking owner of Cactus Cantina, a somewhat undiscovered treasure of a Mexican restaurant known for its potent margaritas, unrivaled white queso dip and flaming plates of fajitas.

In February, he celebrated the restaurant’s 25th anniversary by learning that he’s finally going to be able to purchase the building from his longtime landlord and work toward turning his restaurant – and the corner of Hydraulic and Wassall – into the destination he’s always envisioned.

“I want this corner to be the corner,” he said, “not just the Cactus Cantina anymore.”

American dream

Ramirez grew up in Teocaltiche, a town in the central Mexican state of Jalisco. He was the son of a tamale maker: His family ran a business making and selling tamales to people throwing parties and events.

One of his older brothers moved to California, and when Ramirez was 18, his brother invited him to visit and take a trip to Disneyland. (“The dream of every Mexican, I believe,” Ramirez said.)

Ramirez loved California and decided to immigrate himself, despite not speaking any English. He enrolled in every English as a Second Language class he could take. And despite having already gone to college in Mexico, he earned an American high school degree.

He started attending community college classes and got a job in the kitchen of a Cheesecake Factory, which operated on the beach in a town between Los Angeles and Long Beach.

That’s when Wichita came calling.

Lured by the idea of helping build a business, Ramirez made the trip. But he remembers how dismal Kansas looked to him when he first landed. He thought he’d made a terrible mistake.

But he was here, he decided, so he’d better make the best of it. He remembers persuading the then-owner to adjust her recipes to match his idea of what Mexican food should be. He remembers keeping mental notes about the things he would do differently if he were the owner.

Then, in 1998, his boss faced health problems and offered to sell Ramirez the restaurant. He’s rarely taken a day off since.

“It’s been a journey,” he said. “And it’s been one of the journeys that I actually never expected.”

‘Daniel’s’ place

Today, Ramirez has a devoted clientele that includes people from the neighborhood and several well-to-do families that travel from Wichita’s east and west sides to dine at Cactus Cantina.

He’s regulars don’t call the restaurant by its name, though. They just call it “Daniel’s.”

Ramirez is the type of manager who lives his business and loves his customers. He takes pride in his ability to charm them, and he’s a smooth operator. He smells like cologne, wears lots of jewelry and leaves more buttons undone at the top of his shirt than most.

He also never leaves the restaurant. He worries no one will take care of his customers the way he does, and he knows they like it when he’s there because they tell him the margaritas just don’t taste the same, the queso is just not as thick, when he’s not.

Ramirez knows many of his diners by name, and he treats each like their table is his most important.

The restaurant’s dining room feels like an extension of Ramirez’s personality, and it’s filled with 25 years worth of his touches. It’s windowless and dim, and the decor has a 1990s Southwestern style. The big bar in the center of the restaurant has margarita glasses with green cactus-shaped stems hanging above it, and corner of the room serves as storage for some of the centerpieces, floral arrangements and other decor Ramirez uses for his side business, a wedding and party-planning operation called Illuciones Ramirez.

In one corner is a glass encased altar of sorts that’s filled with statues of Jesus and Mary – business keeps Ramirez from getting to church regularly, he explains – and several walls are decorated with framed portraits of the late Mexican actress Maria Felix, who Ramirez said he has always admired because she was strong, self-possessed and always said what she meant.

Living in ‘South City’

Ramirez said his restaurant has afforded him a comfortable life, but it hasn’t been without challenges.

His ongoing battle, he said, is persuading people from other parts of town that his south-side address is safe. He calls the neighborhood “South City.”

To fight the image, he’s invested heavily in the outside appearance of his building, which is nicely painted and at night glows with high-end lighting. His next project, once he finishes buying the building, will be a major landscaping overhaul.

“Unfortunately, South City has a history, but in 25 years, I’ve never had any incidents,” he said. “But when you talk to people, they still make the comment, ‘I was afraid. I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know if it was okay.’”

The only time Ramirez thought he might not be okay was in the early 2000s, especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and after Boeing was sold in 2005. At the time, Ramirez was interviewed by the Wichita Eagle and revealed that business had been so slow, he’d had to lay off three employees. (Today, he works with a crew of seven.)

To keep from closing, Ramirez briefly tried to start an after-hours nightclub in his restaurant. It got him through, he said, but “the restaurant business and the night club business don’t mix,” so he ended the club as soon as he could. The restaurant still has the wooden dance floor and disco ball from that experiment.

Now that he’s about to turn 48, Ramirez said he thinks about slowing down. He never settled down and is still a bachelor, and he worries that he’ll spend time in the retirement home he and his brother have built in their hometown in Mexico all by himself.

Equally distressing to him, though, is the idea of not being “Daniel” anymore, of not charming, serving and seeing his customers every day.

It’s all he’s known since he was 22 years old.

“What’s going to happen when I don’t have all these people around that are so happy to be served?” he said. “Some of the people I have in this restaurant can go anywhere and everywhere they want to go, and they choose to come and see me.”

Cactus Cantina

Where: 2802 S. Hydraulic, 316-529-0238

What: A south-side Mexican restaurant that just turned 25

What to order: Queso, nachitos deluxe, flaming fajitas, margaritas

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. Sundays

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