Dining Review: Ayy, Margaritas! Fiesta Night at Cactus


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My most recent excursion into the dining realm of Iowa City led me to Cactus Mexican Restaurant & Cantina, 245 S Gilbert. The best thing here came from the beverage section of the menu. Brace yourself, redden your cheeks, and lower those standards with the magic of tequila.

At first glance through the restaurant, three things stick out: the authentic Mexican feel, the full circle of flat screens playing sports or telenovelas, and margaritas. Before I go in detail on the frozen treats, the actual comida should be mentioned.

Sitting down, you are quickly offered a basket of cantina chips as a good host for two different kinds of salsa. The chips are authentic, baked, and low on sodium. I added salt because nothing accents Mexican food like limes and salt.

The two salsas are both very delicious. The mild salsa is sweet, yet has a mild, high-frequency burn, balanced by the salt from the chips. This familiar salsa with a fresh taste holds you over until your drinks arrive.

The dark salsa is significantly stronger, both in flavor and spice. Be careful of the fiery cilantro and strong pepper as they battle on your tongue. Spice lovers will finish the table salsa, but those less resistant to heat will wish they had stuck with the mild dip. Keep your cold margarita nearby to help you calm this storm of salsa picante.

Now, I’m sure that Cactus has a better plate than the one I tried, but our waiter suggested the Enchiladas del Mar. This dish comes with one shrimp, one crab, and one cheese enchilada, served with red sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, and guacamole.

The shrimp enchiladas were filled with large chunks of small shrimp, served straight from the frozen-foods aisle and into your enchilada. The shrimp had no seasoning, flavor, and didn’t seem to be cooked thoroughly. The cool shrimp on the inside of this hot enchilada really threw my palate off. In one word, meh.

Given my experience with crab in Iowa City, I was going in with unfair expectations. The Cactus is not a seafood bistro, but the crab was lukewarm and tasted like an imitation. The guacamole on top really saved this for me, but I’m a huge fan of avocados. I struggled to finish this plate and looked forward to something more flavorful.

The cheese enchilada was my last, and favorite, of this trio. The thick layer of melting cheese continues to do so on your palate, embracing your tongue and begging you to chew slowly. Add some of the spicy salsa for the best taste offered at this cantina.

The best eats at Cactus highlight a few tastes, such as the chips, salsa, and guacamole, and use the plates as an effective vehicle of flavor.

The plates sit right around $8 for the especialidads, but Taco Tuesday here has $1 tacos. Add that to the margaritas, and it probably isn’t that bad of a venture. Or maybe I’ll come back for salsa dancing on Saturday por las chicas y margaritas.

Cactus Mexican Restaurant & Cantina
Location: 245 S Gilbert
Highlights: Margaritas, plus chips and salsa
Lowlights: Entrées

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