At first glance, Urban Cactus in Orange resembles a Chipotle clone as imagined by a fresa: the streamlined look; the emphasis on fresh, organic, “healthy” ingredients; bowls; cilantro-spiked rice; a minimalist menu. Then there are the alta cocina aspirations: buffalo picadillo! Salsas in squeeze bottles! Prepackaged arroz con leche! And that name—seeing its sign hanging from a newish shopping plaza off the 5 freeway, you don't know whether Urban Cactus is an art gallery, clothing store or some overpriced hipster haven.
But as with anything involving Mexicans, you have to move past the stereotypes. Fact is, Urban Cactus is magnificent, a place that does reach for loftier heights than your run-of-the-mill taquerías—and why shouldn't Mexis aim up instead of at one another? It's paisa to its soul. I've never seen any restaurant in OC, for instance, that lists a burrito de nopales on its regular menu, yet here it is: unapologetic strips of cactus, cooked so they imbue their wonderful vegetal essence. Here also is a taco de queso de rajas, something all mamís cook around the Lenten season, but that rarely pops up in taquerías. All the meats are marinated so you can close your eyes and imagine grilling them with los primos in Montebello on a Sunday afternoon. And for dessert, the prepackaged arroz con leche is perfect: not too sweet—barely sweet at all, actually—but becoming more and more addictive until you find the hefty serving gone within minutes.
I do have a few quibbles. The romaine lettuce in the burritos is just empty roughage to placate workers from the nearby UCI Medical Center into thinking they're eating wraps; the corn tortillas, while made with good-tasting masa, always seem to need a couple of more minutes on the comal to cook completely. And given this is supposed to be a health-focused restaurant, Urban Cactus should've gone exclusively with aguas frescas instead of Mexican Coke and Jarritos, as iconic as those sodas may be. But those are easy fixes; Urban Cactus can now stand in the same pantheon as Taco María, Anepalco's and Soho Taco as the chingones who are changing what it means to eat Mexican in la naranja. Now, gimme another burrito de nopales!