Review: Cactus Grille

Mexican with an American accent
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 22, 2011


Longevity for a non-ethnic Mexican restaurant around here sometimes has less to do with quality than with the Americanization of tastes. The upside when it comes to Cactus Grille — which brags about being around for more than 15 years — is that here and there is more invention than in a restaurant where adding an improvement to Mamacita's pico di gallo could mean disinheritance.

The space used to be a Howard Johnson, that 20th-century icon of wholesome Middle America, and now is more demographically representative. The restaurant doesn't overdo it on the scene-setting. No sombreros on the walls, just a Dos Equis and Corona sign here and there, plus their signature cactus — and not with a snoozing peasant silhouetted against it. The occasional hanging plant further civilizes the atmosphere.

Cactus Grille |401.941.0004 | 800 Allens Ave, Providence | Sun-Thurs, 11:30 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 11:30 am-11 pm | Major Credit Cards | Full Bar | Sidewalk-Level Accessible

Starchy and sauce-dependent, Mexican food is not designed for dieting. Especially the Tex-Mex faves. In the appetizers, for example, is their signature "Cactus Traditional Heaping Nachos" ($6.99; $8.99 with chicken or fajita beef), beans optional. Any restaurant worth the cactus on their logo knows to impress with the generosity of their pile of tortilla chips, cheese, and sour cream prominent among the toppings. An alternative here is a seven-layer dip with chips ($8.99), with the above items and chili plus refried beans.

We started instead with their Mexican sampler ($8.99). Although the announced blue cheese dip was missing, the sweet chili and pleasantly hot, mayo-based "diablo sauce" dip were tasty. So too were the items that seemed freshly fried rather than heat-lamp weary: chicken wings, "Snake Bite" jalapeno poppers, and "southwestern eggrolls" that had more intriguing seasonings than any Chinese version I've had.

There were simple cheese quesadillas (just Jack cheese melted in a small tortilla) with my chili ($3.99/$5.99) as well as with the above sampler. The chili is labeled as award-winning and all-meat ("Not a bean to be seen!"). It was indeed nothing but both ground and shredded beef, but ironically the broth could have been, well, beefed up. It was "a little watery," in the words of the fellow food writer across from me.

But that might have been rectified with a little hot sauce. The only other negative note in our otherwise peppy culinary canción was his pulled pork sandwich ($6.99) on bulkie roll, which he could have had as pulled beef or chicken (the pork was also available on the specials list topping a beef burger). In addition to my off-putting sample forkful being fatty, the BBQ sauce was uninteresting to both of us, despite being described as their "famous homemade" pride and joy. Tomato came across more than spices. Well, his fries were good.

With the two entrées, however, the restaurant and I were friends again. What they call Pasta de la Casa ($10.99; meat or seafood $2 or $4 extra) is fettuccine in a rich smoked chipotle Alfredo sauce. It was as tasty as it sounds, with a mild heat lagging behind at the back of my throat. But the dish I would return for is the salmon enchilada ($13.99) with a saucier version of that chipotle diablo sauce. The fish was fresh and the combination luscious, with pinto beans also inside the corn tortilla and Monterey Jack melted on top. Even the side salad was made interesting with corn kernels and a generous dollop of sour cream.

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