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Cactus Restaurants

Cactus Still Flowers

By Nancy Leson
Seattle Times Restaurant Critic

Strolling Madison Park’s main drag on a Friday night, I made eye contact with others doing the same and knew just what they were thinking: “Is that a Cactus beeper in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”

Yes, it was a Cactus beeper, a clever device that allows patrons to wait for a table while meandering along this tony boulevard. And no, I wasn’t happy to see them, not if theirs were among the names on Cactus’s waiting list before mine, causing an hourlong wait.

Cactus’s sterling qualities have been trumpeted before on this page by John Hinterberger, whose three-star review of the Southwest-centric fare – along with similar praise from others – is plastered all over the entryway. So why am I joining the chorus when scores of other worthy eateries lie nearby and unsung? Because Cactus has expanded, offering more tables and a booze bar. I figured it was my duty to see whether the expansion has affected the infernal wait (not!) and whether the additional body count would adversely affect the quality of the food (definitely not) or the fine friendly service (nope).

As for that addition, you’d never know it was new. The decor seamlessly echoes the original, with matching floor tiles, hanging chilies and fun, funky folk art. A six-seat, semi-circular bar is its focal point, with decorative rails defining the “No Minors” zone. This allows the kids to dine at tables around its perimeter, drinking bubblegum-flavored Incacola with impunity while the grown-ups sip excellent hand-shaken margaritas. The new setup doesn’t leave much room for those hoping to imbibe while waiting. When things get busy, grab a beeper and get outta there; they’ll vibrate while you’re drinking a beer at The Attic or a chianti at Sostanza.

The banquettes in the original room remain the best seats in the house, unless you’re solo, when the tiny tapas bar gets that distinction. Sit at tables along the far wall and your neighbor’s elbow may find its way into your escabeche. If so, give him a bite of this crunchy, red-onion accompaniment to the citrusy, Yucatan-style pork. Then ask for one of his bacon-wrapped, goat cheese-stuffed jalapenos. You’ll yelp so loud when the heat hits your tongue he’ll be vindicated.

Don’t fill up on chips and salsa, no matter how good they are. But filling-up on tapas isn’t a bad idea. Among the 20 Spanish-styled noshes listed ($2.95-$8.95) are baby eggplant with cilantro pesto – a puckery, pickle-y pleasure. Chorizo adds spice to the crunch of empanadas (tiny pastry pockets). Raisins and merlot imbue the calamares with a deep sweetness reminiscent of a good Sicilian caponata. Bread is offered with mussels in a creamy sauce laced with vodka, smoked chilies and fennel: I used a spoon. But bread’s a necessity for the gambas al ajillo; chilies, garlic and fresh herbs flavor the considerable amount of oil, making the shrimp seem an afterthought.

Lunch is an abbreviated version of dinner – hold the tapas. But you’ll find one tapa, a spectacular version of zarzuela, available as a main course. This sultry, saffron-scented seafood stew, rich with ground almonds in a tomato-y base ($7.95), is a stand-out easily worth twice the price. Sick of Caesar salads? Think again and order the “Southwestern” version with crumbled tortillas, roasted pumpkin seeds and Mexican sheep’s cheese.

Mexican standards make up about half the menu, here rising high above the microwaved cliche. Fajitas (served in a big cast-iron skillet), superb tamales (pillow-soft masa enveloping slow-cooked beef brisket presented in a corn husk), soft tacos (stuffed with various carefully prepared meats) and chiles rellenos (fresh poblanos oozing with caramelized onion and asadero cheese), give Mexican food back its good name.

At dinner, chef John Calderon goes playful with Chicken Fried Chicken ($12.95), a deep-fried, batter-coated breast over green-chili mashed potatoes. His Cowboy Steak ($15.95), a well-marbled, spice-encrusted ribeye heaped with crisp buttermilk onion rings, will have you kicking up your spurs in delight. What with smoky sides of beans and hot Indian fry bread (a must), you won’t have room for dessert. Finish with the Cuban flan anyway. Hinterberger’s right: It’s the best in the city.

© 2002 Seattle Times Company
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