Cactus Southwest Kitchen + Bar officially opened April 15 in the Proctor neighborhood.
And Tacoma went nuts for it.
Lines turned long during the restaurant’s opening weeks.
I don’t know how any restaurant weathers that kind of mayhem.
My advice: Be patient as the swanky restaurant settles into its new digs. Wait a few weeks to visit or go during an off-peak time.
I can see why there’s so much interest. While we’re a town loaded with Mexican restaurants, a Southwestern restaurant is a novelty.
And no, Mexican and Southwestern cuisine aren’t the same thing. Sure, Southwestern cuisine is influenced by Mexican cuisine and techniques, but saying they’re the same is a form of “fighting words” in the Southwest.
The hallmarks of Southwestern fare are easy to spot. Blue corn is a staple in that part of the country and that’s why blue corn tortillas are commonly used in Southwestern cuisine, as are hatch chiles or any kind of whole green chile (which sometimes are called New Mexico chiles). Squash and frybread also are prevalent on Southwest menus.
Composition differs, too. Instead of stuffed-and-rolled enchiladas, enchiladas across the Southwest are made with blue corn tortillas and are stacked and layered to create a sort of open-faced enchilada.
That’s exactly how Cactus serves its enchiladas. You’ll see blue corn tortillas peppered throughout the menu. There’s also New Mexico green chile soup and frybread.
And cocktails. So many delicious cocktails.
Here’s a first-bite look. It’s this paper’s policy to avoid criticism of food and service during a restaurant’s first month.
The space: Modern Southwestern with bold patterns in an earthy, not flashy, palette of grays, browns and the occasional pop of deep orange and bright blue. Textured wood climbs the walls of the side dining room to the right of the entry. Bold patterns and textures are repeated throughout the space, which includes a bar to the back left with seating for diners 21-and-older and a front dining room that bisects the space. Except for the bar, the restaurant is family friendly.
Diner comfort: Extra credit for deep, cushioned chairs that invite diners to sit around and sip awhile longer. I appreciate the baffling added to the ceiling and that the portioned-off dining room was designed to soften the noise, but it was still noisy at full capacity.
The owners: Longtime restaurateurs Marc and Bret Chatalas, who have operated restaurants in Seattle since 1990 and grew up in a restaurant family that owns Lowell’s, the Pike Place Market restaurant. The Proctor Cactus is their first in Pierce County. Five King County locations span from Alki Beach to Bellevue Square.
The menu: Southwest cuisine and Tex-Mex at its finest with modest pricing considering the upscale presentation and high-quality ingredients.
Appetizers, soups and salads: Frybread with cinnamon agave butter ($5), scallop and snapper ceviche ($11.50), nachos ($12), Tex-Mex queso dip with chorizo ($9), grilled bacon-wrapped jalapenos ($8.50), chicken tortilla soup ($5 to $9), New Mexico green chile soup ($5 to $9), five entree and house salads ($6.50 to $18).
Guacamole: Served three ways — traditional ($8), Carlito’s Way with smoked bacon and chiles ($10) and Austin style with green-chile queso and pico de gallo ($11).
Taco plates: Served in duos on handmade corn tortillas with cumin-spiked black beans dusted with cotija cheese and Spanish rice topped with pumpkin seeds (lettuce cups served by request for low-carb eaters). Spicy prawns ($16), pork carnitas ($15), chicken ($15), jackfruit vegetarian ($14.50), fish ($16), braised brisket ($16).
Santa Fe stacked enchiladas: Unless noted on menu, these are stacked on blue corn tortillas. Served with rice and beans. Butternut squash ($15.50), shredded chicken with green sauce ($15), chicken and chorizo ($15.50), seafood ($17) and quintessential Sante Fe style topped with a fried egg and red chile sauce ($14).
Fajitas: Served with housemade tortillas, rice and beans. Vegetarian-friendly portabello-vegetable escabeche ($16), grilled chicken ($17), cilantro-lime prawns ($18), grilled skirt steak ($19).
Entrees: Sonoran spa chicken ($16.50), poblano chile relleno ($16), brisket burrita lenera ($15), vegetarian or meat chimichangas ($15), chicken fried chicken ($16), carne asada ($22).
Dessert: Tres leches cake ($8), bananas dulce ($8), cowgirl brownie with chipotle brittle ($8), flan ($7.50), ice cream ($5.50).
Tequila and mezcal: The tequila by-the-shot list has 35 choices of anejo, reposado and blanco tequilas ($7 to $25 each) and three options for tequila flights ($15 to $25). The mezcal lists 10 varieties of that spirit ($7 to $16) and two mezcal flight choices ($25 to $28).
Cocktails: Nine styles of margaritas in blended or rocks versions ($9 to $11). Classic mojito ($9), hibiscus chi chi ($9), cucumber-mint agave vodka cocktail ($9), mules ($9), pisco sour ($9.50), cheladas ($7), sangria ($9). Beer and wine also served.
No booze: Housemade non-alcoholic cocktails, agua frescas, strawberry-tamarind lemonade, sodas ($3.50 to $5).
Free stuff: As many baskets of chips and dishes of salsa are yours for the taking once you’re seated.
On a first visit: Drink the tequila Oaxaca, which see-sawed sweet with agave, sour with lime and smoky from a float of mezcal ($10). A hibiscus margarita with Lunazul Reposado tequila, from the specials list, danced boozy and tart ($11). A house oak-barrel-aged Patron Anejo was the perfect foundation for a tequila old fashioned spiced with Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur ($13).
Eat the poblano relleno on a first visit ($16). I was blown away by the poblano pepper’s light-and-airy filling of jack and goat cheeses (the very fancy Laura Chenel’s Sonoma goat cheese, if you’re keeping tabs). It carried a light-as-air thin batter jacket, which is true Southwest style, and arrived perched atop a black bean puree and rice, jalapeno jam and rojo mole.
The carnitas yucatecas tacos were built on bouncy housemade corn tortillas, flanked by cumin-heavy black beans and chile-flecked Spanish rice ($15). The Sante Fe stacked enchiladas, served quintessential style, were blue corn tortillas layered with red chile sauce, queso blanco and topped with over-easy eggs that spilled yolks all over the accompanying rice and beans ($14).
The biggest burrito you might ever eat is at Cactus. The brisket burrita lenera was a giant flour shell stuffed with applewood smoked brisket, beans, rice, pico de gallo, guacamole and zigzag toppers of New Mexico green chile sauce and buttermilk crema on top ($15).
Save room for tres leches cake, a sticky concoction topped with whipped coconut cream and fresh fruit ($8).
Cactus Southwest Kitchen + Bar
Where: 2506 N. Proctor St., Tacoma
Info: 253-458-9900 or cactusrestaurants.com/location/proctor
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Happy hour: 3-6 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 3-5 p.m. Saturdays to Sundays.