A menu from Urban Cactus showed up in my office shortly before Christmas. I didn't look at it–I was busy replenishing the water in the coffee machine, like a good corporate citizen–but I happened to drive past it last week, pulled in, judged it by its cover, and nearly pulled right back out onto the road.
Could you blame me? I'm jaded; there is not much new under the sun. And, I mean, first there's the name: Urban Cactus Healthy Mexican Eatery? That sounds like a restaurant in a downtown skyscraper that caters to fat executives with more money than time. Then there's the location: adjacent to the Motel 6 in a so-typical Orange County minimall with not enough parking, plunked down on that desolate, wide stretch of Chapman Avenue directly between the 5 and 57 freeways.
Then there's the decor. I haven't seen such a fresa-looking Mexican restaurant since Newark Airport. The decor is spare, pastel and the menu is mounted on the wall. There's no salsa station, no drink machine, sparse artwork. It looks for all the world like Baja Fresh's minimalist Japanese cousin.
The similarity ends there, though. Urban Cactus is not one of those gringo-oriented burrito shacks slinging out tubes the size of a puppy where everything tastes of bean juice and sour cream. Neither is it some faddish, New Age temple to health where hippy feel-good ingredients are shoehorned uncomfortably into slightly tortured, quasi-Mexican dishes through the use of tomatillos and cumin.
So you'll understand why I was taken aback when the first item on the menu was carne en su jugo, as evocative of Guadalajara as bagels are of New York, available as tacos, burritos, or plates. Then there was chicken pibil, rajas con queso, bison picadillo, barbacoa, and–¡maravilla de maravillas!–cactus in guajillo sauce. I ignored the quinoa lurking in the side dishes, because quinoa looks like sperms in aspic and always tastes like mud, and I'd have to be desperate before I ordered it for my lunch.
Fresa airport decor or not, this place is through-and-through Mexican, but with upgraded ingredients. The tacos are made with organic corn masa, pressed into disks so thick they're nearly gorditas; the cactus I ordered put into tacos was absolutely perfectly cooked, with a minimum of the sticky baba that makes them the Mexican equivalent of Louisiana's okra. I wish the guajillo sauce were spicier, but it balances nicely, and not enough restaurants serve nopales.
The carne en su jugo, while not up to the standards of the late, lamented Cocina de Mi Abuelita in Santa Ana, is an amazing taco filling. How can you hate beans, beef, bacon and chile?
The chicken pibil has the right texture, the right pickled onions and the right achiote-and-orange marinade; it desperately needs a hit of intensely spicy habanero salsa. The barbacoa tastes good and isn't too salty, which often is the death-knell of barbacoa; even the beans are a rich purée, topped with crumbled, good quality queso fresco rather than forlorn shreds of rubber mozzarella.
If tacos are not on your mind, though, you should order the plate rather than the burrito. The same ingredients go into both items, which is why they're the same price, but the corn tortillas that come with the plate far outshine the pasty flour burrito tortilla. The rice, which does not belong in a burrito (sorry, San Francisco hippies), tastes much better swiped through the beans. Squeeze the lime over the lettuce, add a dash of salsa, and you have a salad; salads also don't belong in burritos.
The surprise, though, is the arroz con leche, sweet rice pudding sold in a display at the register; it's got a heavy hit of not-so-diet-friendly condensed milk, but it's addictive. It far outshines the flan, which is too sweet.
Portions are very large–I'm assuming the "healthy Mexican eatery" has to do with the provenance of the ingredients–and impressively cheap. The most expensive things on the menu are meat plates, which run $7.29; tacos run $1.99-$2.75 each and are filled more generously than your average lonchera.
So this is what happens when you cook abuelita's recipes with the amazing ingredients we have access to in SoCal; I like it.