Back in the early 1990s, pilgrimages to Cactus, a pocket-sized Madison Park eatery strung with chili peppers, were commonplace for those seeking fresh, inventive, Southwestern, Mexican and Spanish food in a city where, then, it was scarce.
The original Cactus eventually expanded, and over the past decade, under the ownership of Bret and Marc Chatalas, sprouted branches in downtown Kirkland and on Alki Beach. In November 2011, Cactus joined the great restaurant migration to South Lake Union, staking out 5,000 square feet at the corner of Terry and Harrison.
The Chatalas brothers used the downtown debut as an opportunity to polish and rebrand the business. The décor is a long way from kitsch. The stunning interior, by Philip Christofides of Arellano/Christofides Architects, weaves Southwest and Mexican motifs and materials into an exhilarating urban environment for eating, drinking and socializing.
It’s a happy place, equal parts bar and dining room, painted in sun-washed tropical tones. The colors deepen at night in the glow of intricately embellished columns of light that hang from a ceiling two stories high. Notice the details: ornate metal railings and walls textured with concrete blocks; whimsically stenciled tabletops and a shimmering tequila cabinet behind a bar inlaid with glittering glass and tile.
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Though big and unabashedly modern, Cactus has lost none of its warmth. That’s due in large part to the staff. This pleasant crew is alert, always on the move and never avoids eye contact. The hosts managing the door don’t just hand out pagers and forget you; their estimates are remarkably accurate, and once seated, you aren’t rushed. Need a spoon, or your leftover rice and beans boxed up? A manager is just as likely to handle that, if he happens to be closer.
Servers discuss the menu with knowledge and enthusiasm. If they screw up — as when our waitress failed to put in our tamale order and the kitchen ran out — they make amends: She let us know later that more were ready, then comped the dish.
And it was a tamale worth waiting for. The type varies monthly. January’s was served with its corn husk wrapper undone to reveal chunks of roast chicken embedded in soft masa under a veil of classic New Mexico Hatch green chili sauce.
Tacos and enchiladas were just as good, and like the tamale, come with firm cumin-spiked black beans and tomato-tinted rice flecked with pepitas.
The tacos, built on thick, soft corn tortillas made fresh daily, come in pairs. Fillings include zingy achiote pork sweetened with a dash of pineapple, and butter-tender brisket steeped in chilies and smoke, dabbed with chunky cascabel chili salsa for extra oomph. Cilantro and pickled red onion provide a final flourish to both.
Enchiladas are stacked the Santa Fe way, rather than rolled. A touch of sherry cream sauce flatters the prawns, seared scallops and bits of Pacific snapper filling the seafood version, made with blue corn tortillas festooned with grilled corn and roasted tomato salsa. A vegetable enchilada took the opposite tack: The sweet, earthy filling combined butternut squash, spinach, caramelized onions and a blissful rojo mole made with a touch of apricot and chocolate.
The kitchen performed with remarkable consistency despite a chef shift in early January when Joey Birashk replaced Fernanda Marques-Fulkerson, who is on maternity leave.
I enjoyed the sturdy chimichanga plumped with spicy house-made chorizo, as much as the comforting pozole, a thick stew of pulled pork studded with hominy. On the fancier side, a grilled scallion and tangy arbol chile salsa draped a faultlessly grilled flat iron steak paired with a dreamy succotash of poblano, corn and red beans heavily laced with bacon.
Bacon-wrapped jalapeños, grill charred and oozing goat cheese are notable bar bites, along with Camarones d’el Diablo, crispy shrimp whose devilish heat is quelled by a pot of mango-pineapple mojo and a bed of escabeche: pickled zucchini, carrot and cabbage.
Most will want to quaff a margarita or two with these, but teetotalers have many alluring options here also. Try the elegant Pepino Smash, made with cucumber, mint and lime, or the bracing mango agua fresca.
As for dessert, for two decades flan has been the requisite way to end a meal at Cactus. It still is.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at email@example.com.