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Cactus Restaurants

Cactus Is A Dining Oasis, If You Don’t Mind The Occasional Needle

By Providence Cicero
Special to The Seattle Times

Anyone who goes to Kirkland, especially in the summertime, would think the city had CA after it, not WA. This pretty lakeside town feels more like a coastal California village than part of the Pacific Northwest.

Sumptuous condos genuflect toward the waterfront. The tanned and toned residents favor flashy foreign convertibles over staid minivans and step out in Manolo Blahniks more often than Birkenstocks. People wander down marina paths eating ice-cream cones and eyeing yachts.

Some like to study the latest real-estate listings, others are sidetracked by window displays of luxury linens, tableware and expensive clothing. Art is everywhere – in galleries and along the sidewalks. Restaurants are everywhere, too, and even the smallest eateries manage to have at least a table or two outside.

Cactus sits on narrow, tree-lined Park Lane. It projects a sexy, come-hither stance and an effervescence that, like the lively Latin music, mambos right out onto the sidewalk through sliding-glass walls. Whereas the original Cactus still charms staid, old-moneyed Madison Park with flavors of Mexico and the Southwest, as it has for nearly a decade under the watchful eye of owner Bret Chatalas, the new Cactus, jointly owned by Bret and his brother, Marc Chatalas, fits glitzier Kirkland like a pair of spandex capris.

Inside is a festival of color. In the lounge, bar-height tables are inlaid with tiny jewel-toned ceramic squares. Using a palette of earth tones and sun-drenched tropical shades, artists have covered the walls of the dining room with intricate murals and painted primitive designs on the glossy wood tabletops. Overblown silk blooms sprout from vases and long bunches of chili peppers wrapped with tiny lights dangle from skylights.

Inside is also very noisy. If you are planning to dine at peak hours, brush up on your lip-reading, and pack that Kate Spade bag with plenty of patience: The wait can be long.

When that wait is rewarded with salsa and guacamole so fresh you’d swear each bowl was made to order, with sauces of beguiling complexity, precisely cooked meats and seafood, firm cumin-scented black beans and fluffy Spanish rice, contentment is yours.

Bliss will surely follow if you have saved room for desserts such as the satiny flan ($4.75) or a nutty brownie topped with cinnamon ice cream in a deliciously gooey puddle of Mexican chocolate and caramel ($5.95).

The kitchen can be unpredictable, however, sending out a delightful salmon torta ($13.95), perfect grilled red snapper ($13.95) and inedible Sonoran spa chicken ($12.95) in the same meal. The salmon is a beautifully grilled fillet layered with young greens in smoky vinaigrette, a crisp flour tortilla, black beans, rice and citrus fruit. The delicate snapper shines in a well-balanced coconut and Serrano chili broth. But the heavily charred chicken breast is tough to cut, impossible to chew, the grilled vegetables underneath blackened and bitter.

Fat chicken-stuffed flautas ($6.95) arrive garnished with pineapple and sauced with manchamanteles, (translation: tablecloth stainer), an intense red-chili mole that hints of fruit, cinnamon and clove. A similar mole accents the Sante Fe enchilada ($9.95) – blue corn tortillas layered with cheeses and topped with a sunny-side-up egg – but the dish is so burned, the cheese has liquefied and the sun, literally, has set.

As a filling for soft corn tacos ($10.95), shredded pork roasted in banana leaves is mushy and lackluster despite its chili kick. Steak fajitas ($14.95), on the other hand, are terrific. A blistering-hot skillet is loaded with supple strips of marinated flank steak, caramelized onion, rice, black beans, guacamole and pico de gallo. On the side come freshly chopped onion and tomato, grated jack cheese and warm tortillas.

The Kirkland menu duplicates the one in Madison Park, featuring many tapas, or little dishes that alone might make a starter, or several together could make a meal. Among the niftier nibbles: slices of fried green tomato in crisp cornmeal jackets dabbed with smoked-chili aioli ($3.95); garlicky shrimp saut?ed with olives, chilies, herbs, lemon and manzanilla sherry ($7.95); grilled goat-cheese-stuffed jalapeños wrapped in bacon ($4.95); and zarzuela, a miniature seafood stew. Our portion was rather short on seafood for the price ($8.95) but the lone shrimp, two bites of salmon and handful of calamari, cooked just right, lent their liqueur generously to a pungent saffron-haunted, almond-thickened sauce, the memory of which lingers long after you drag the last bit of grilled bread through it.

As does Cactus. The food may have its ups and downs, but the staff is capable and energetic, the prices moderate and the festive air contagious, whether you are stoking your good time with an expertly made mojito or margarita, or quaffing Mexican lemonade, a spritzy blend of lemon, lime, cilantro and jalapeño. So, viva Cactus, and gracias Bret and Marc Chatalas, for giving us yet another excuse to visit Kirkland, CA.

© 2002 Seattle Times Company
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