Mixed Thrill

Kactus Cafe doesn't know what it wants to be -- other than good

On my first visit to Kactus Cafe, I was at a loss to figure out exactly what the restaurant was trying to be. After a few more visits, I still wasn't sure. Were the owners after something Southwestern? (The decor seemed to suggest this.) Or maybe South American? (Certain menu items hinted at that.) Or was it Tex-Mex? American? Italian? (Other menu items implied all those.) Finally, with a number of meals tucked under my belt, I decided to give up wondering and just enjoy the food and the service for what it clearly is -- good. Beyond that, what other category really matters?

At Kactus, you'll find a blending of cuisines, with a chicken Caesar salad appearing next to a churrasco steak, a plate of angel hair pasta, quesadillas, fajitas, a hamburger. Situated in the heart of Bellaire, in a building that for years housed the Argentinean restaurant Lalo's, Kactus seems an unlikely spot for a trendy take on popular dishes. The place is, as someone recently said, "uptown going to the neighborhood." But why not? After all, not all the good restaurants have to be inside the Loop.

And the neighbors seem to appreciate what they've been given. Since it opened last October, the Kactus Cafe has been filled with locals coming in for a few surprising dishes and more than a little friendly service, both courtesy of owners Annette Kaub -- a restaurant designer who can be seen in the kitchen on many a night -- and Bernardo Medina, an architect by training who's the one responsible for the decor. What Medina's come up with has the feel of a friendly, casual, yet upscale cantina. Folk art from Central and South America adorns the walls, and the open kitchen at the rear of the restaurant reveals a bustle of activity. If some of the look seems to have "franchise" written all over it, it's no mistake: The Bellaire Kactus is a model for a concept Kaub and Medina have hopes of trying in other markets.

They've even come up with a signature dish: sweet potato and plantain chips. On each of my visits, almost every table I saw had an order of this appetizer overflowing on it -- and with good reason. A mound of fried sweet potatoes and fried plantains, piled deep on a plate in a serving easily big enough for four, is sprinkled with pico de gallo and accompanied by two very different sauces. One is a cold chimichurri sauce made with olive oil, finely chopped parsley and lots of garlic, all of which combine to give it an intense flavor; the other is a less impressive warm salsa with little bite. Still, both sauces go well with the chips. On one occasion, the chips came out of the kitchen limp and lifeless, a surprise given the crisp, crunchy ones I had previously encountered. I was told the problem had something to do with the day's humidity. Since high humidity isn't that uncommon here, I'd hope that a suitable fix would be found, and found quickly. If it is, I predict that what Kactus has begun will quickly become a new trend in chips.

The other dishes also manage to succeed pretty well. The Mantilla corn chowder has a wonderfully smooth mouth feel. The dense corn flavor is made more complex by the addition of smoked peppers that give it the color of well-aged mustard. The Caribbean taco features large pieces of white fish covered in a light tempura batter, fried and topped with an adobo sauce that seems wasted at first but, after a few bites, kicks in. One of the more vibrant dishes is the spinach enchiladas, which are sure to awaken even the most dormant of taste buds. Two tortillas filled with a corn and spinach mixture are topped off with melted cheese. Then one enchilada is covered by a dark brown adobo sauce while the other is coated with a bright green tomatillo sauce that adds a nice piquancy. These are served with refried black beans and Spanish rice that, unfortunately, suffers from being a tad bland. Though an attempt is made to enliven the rice through the addition of corn and some finely diced red and green bell peppers, for the most part it fails.

The club tortilla is a new take on a classic sandwich, and one that works pretty well. What starts out as little more than a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich ends up a delightful melange of flavors with the addition of cilantro, lettuce and green pepper, all of which is rolled up tightly in a flour tortilla. However, it's the relish on the side that gives this dish its unusual twist. Made from mango, papaya, red and yellow bell peppers and more than a hint of mint, the relish is not only a colorful accompaniment, but its sweetness goes exceptionally well with the other ingredients. An extra fillip is a side salad of crisp iceberg lettuce topped with a sweet and sour honey-mustard dressing; given all this, it's easy to see why the dish has garnered favor among the lunch crowd.

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