I asked Ryan if he'd be willing to try an authentic Oaxacan restaurant for dinner. He said it sounded like a place with creepy menu items. I commented it was "Oaxacan, like Mexican but authentic," to which he replied, "Why can't they just call it Mexican food then?"
I eventually confessed that I wanted to try Chapulines, a Oaxacan dish that features grasshoppers in chili powder. (Yes, the insects.) For some strange reason that ended the Oaxacan food conversation, so we looked on the Passport website to find a Mexican themed restaurant we could both agree on. It wasn't until we got in the car that we realized the restaurant we chose was in north Seattle and it'd take forever to get there during Friday rush-hour traffic. Thankfully, Becky (Ryan's portable car navigation system) came to the rescue and recommended a Mexican restaurant in West Seattle: Cactus.
With locations in Madison, Kirkland, and West Seattle, numerous "Best of" awards for its Mexican food, and being recently featured on Rachel Ray's "Rachel's Vacations" on Food Network (http://www.foodnetwork.com/rachaels-vacation/seattle/index.html), we thought this would be a guaranteed great meal. Unfortunately, when you come away literally saying, "The salsa was the best thing we had to eat tonight", it's tough to swallow that so many people think the fare is outstanding.
Apparently because we went appetizer crazy at Dragonfish the night before, improvising a "tapas night" seemed like a great idea at Cactus. That said, as with virtually any Mexican restaurant anywhere, Chips and Salsa come practically before you even get water. In this case, it really was the highlight of the evening. The chips were freshly cooked, extra thin, crispy, and the salsa was spicy with great hits of tomato and green onion. Despite having plenty of cilantro, the overall flavor was balanced and delicious.
In a Mexican twist on an Olive Garden classic (God have mercy on our souls!), Ryan ordered the Chorizo Queso Fundido. Ironically, it features Oaxacan cheese (which I vigorously and with much revenge in my heart pointed out to Ryan), house-made chorizo, roasted poblano peppers, and basil, along with corn tortillas. The "dip" is served in a small cast-iron skillet with the flavorful though mild chorizo on the bottom topped with layers of cheese. I think because of the thickness of the cheese (and the copious amount of grease at the bottom of the skillet), the appetizer was actually too rich and oily and really needed lime, cilantro, or some other flavor to help cut through the fat and lighten the overall impact.
The Crispy Coconut Prawns were possibly the best of the appetizers. According to the menu, the "mango-pineapple mojo and swizzle of tangy chimichurri" are served with the prawns. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to counteract the too-heavily breaded shrimp. Also, the coconut flavor was relatively muted. As for the chimichurri, both Ryan and I came away saying, "It's too sweet" and neither of us could define a real "flavor" in the sauce.
The other appetizer vying for "best of the evening"< was the Charred Asparagus. Finished with lime and a smoky "Fresno aioli", the only real downside was the too-woody bottom ends on span style="font-size: 100%;">the pencil asparagus. Despite their thinness, the asparagus really did need to have the ends trimmed to prevent a texture mismatch. The smoky aioli was passable, though I think just simply grilling the asparagus in lime juice and oil would have offered plenty of flavor.
Oddly enough, the Chicken and Corn Flautas are not on the online menu, but are featured at least at the Alki Beach location. There is a definite smokiness to the filling, but that's the only taste that stands out and it gets boring after the second or third bite. The plate does have an aioli along with a ring of cilantro oil, but neither of those were really enough to lift the flautas above a rather forgettable flavor.
Despite all of the appetizers, I didn't feel I could get a real sense for Cactus' offerings without at least trying one entree. I asked our waiter, "Assuming your food is being reviewed by a critic, what is the absolute best dish on your menu?" I had already been looking at Butternut Squash Enchiladas and was happy when he mentioned it was probably that dish.
The "enchilada" is not a traditional corn tortilla wrapped around filling and served in a sauce, but rather more like stacked tostadas and includes sauteed spinach, caramelized onions, Jack and goat cheeses, manchamanteles mole, and, of course roasted butternut squash. You'd expect that many ingredients together to have a rich, complex flavor. However, the squash was undercooked and boring, the spinach was virtually flavor-free (despite eating it in a bite all on its own), the onions lacked punch, and the overall flavor you were left in every bite with was goat cheese. That said, I think the biggest disappointment was the mole.
Even though traditional "mole manchamanteles" is made with plantains and pineapple and can be sweet, it literally tasted like a berry coulis you'd drizzle over a slice of cheesecake or chocolate brownie which made me happy I had ordered the far too sweet sauce on the side. Ryan mentioned he thought the sauce "tasted good" and could see why people would like it, but it just did not work on that dish for me other than as a way to help mute the goat cheese. The plate also contained the ubiquitous beans and rice. Ironically, the black beans were spicy with plenty of cumin and was the best tasting item on the plate. The rice, even with pumpkin seeds, was as boring as the enchilada.
I'm not sure if the kitchen staff was just having an off night or not (we did see a table of two get their entire meal comped for some reason), but for now I have no intention of giving Catcus anything above 2.5 Stars and probably will not dine there again anytime soon. Ryan mentioned his margarita was good, but I doubt that'd be enough to really make a meal here worthwhile.
UPDATE: My good friend Carrie said that her absolute favorite menu item at Cactus is the Butternut Squash Enchiladas, so we'll chalk this experience up to a bad kitchen night.