Mixed Thrill

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.

Designer pizzas are another popular lunch choice. The Peru pizza, made from ingredients -- tomatoes, basil, cheese and pepperoni -- that sound more Italian than Peruvian, is understated in its simplicity, with a thin, homemade crust forming an effective base for the toppings. The Puerto Vallarta pizza, with black beans as the base and topped with feta cheese and a wonderfully tangy green tomatillo sauce that gives it an unexpected zestiness, is likewise an interesting mix of flavors

A simple, yet refined, dish is the vegetarian Costa Rican vegetable-couscous platter. A small mound of couscous is surrounded by vegetables, such as tomatoes, zucchini, squash and eggplant, that have been marinating in an herbal bath. Quickly grilled over a flame, the vegetables have a wonderful smoky flavor while retaining their crispness. It all adds up to a tasty, heart-healthy dish.

A less pleasant surprise is the mango smoothie. When I ordered it, I expected a drink made from the pulp of a mango mixed with milk, yogurt or perhaps ice cream -- something that would thicken it. What I received was a small glass of crushed ice to which some clear mango syrup had been added. Not only was there absolutely no mango flavor, but as one person at my table noted, it smelled like body lotion. Distressingly, it tasted the same.

Best to turn straight to the desserts. Kactus's sous chef, Connie Mantilla, doubles as pastry chef, and she's a good one. Two of her desserts are definitely worth saving room for. The Cancun banana is a flour tortilla that's been wrapped around a whole banana and then deep fried; the sugar from the banana helps turn the tortilla into something almost pastry-like, and the chocolate chips and walnuts included for texture turn the whole concoction into something almost heavenly. A scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream served on the side makes it even better. The edifice is sliced on a diagonal with one part jutting skyward, the other part sitting in a bed of caramel sauce. The crisp exterior contrasts well with the softness of the banana, the chewiness of the chocolate and the crunchiness of the walnuts.

Another dessert that could get anyone coming back for more is called the Love Boat. In a hard chocolate shell in the shape of a boat that a child might make out of paper is placed some pound cake to which a generous amount of Grand Marnier liqueur is added, making it nice and moist. Whipped cream and strawberries cover the top of this nautical masterpiece. As this dessert sailed around the table so that everyone could get a taste, it became harder and harder to pry it away from the various ports of call. I was forced to order a second helping, something that doesn't happen often.

And it's something that, at the Kactus Cafe, is rarely necessary. The portions tend to be generous, which means that most diners end up carrying their next meal out with them in Styrofoam containers. Sitting at home in the fridge, these evidences of excess are more than just reminders of something enjoyed. They're also, I can tell you, a pretty good inducement to come back again.

Kactus Cafe, 5201 Bellaire Boulevard, 668-1444.

Kactus Cafe: sweet potato and plantain chips, $3.95; Caribbean taco, $5.25; Mantilla corn chowder, $2.75; club tortilla, $5.95; Peru pizza, $6.95; Puerto Vallarta pizza, $7.95; Costa Rican vegetable-couscous platter, $7.95; Brazilian grilled chicken breast, $6.95; Cancun banana, $3.75; Love Boat, $5.50.

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