Sunday, 19 May 2024

The Foodie Freak: The Cactus Grill



Cactus Grill: 3900 Bayliss Ave., Clearlake, telephone 707-994-0905.


People keep telling me “Ross, you have to go to the Cactus Grill, they have the best food!” So when I was out and about recently my wife suggested we eat there.


Having been a SCUBA instructor for 10 years I’m well acquainted with good Mexican food since I’ve spent a lot of time diving down there. Your average American thinks Taco Bell is a fair representative of Mexican food but they couldn’t be more incorrect; that’s like saying McDonald's is New California cuisine.


The Cactus Grill is small, able to seat only about 30 people, but it’s quaintly decked out in the Americanized version of Mexican décor. The large cheerfully painted geckos hung on the wall add a whimsical touch. There are tables and chairs outdoors to accommodate more people.


When you sit down at the table they give you a bowl of tortilla chips, and I looked at my wife and asked “No salsa?” She responded with, “There is a salsa bar over there,” and pointed to the other side of the room. This made me wonder, “How does my wife know so much about this place?”


At the salsa bar there are several different types available such as fresca, cucumber, habañero and a couple of others. I’m a big fan of tomatillos so I went for the salsa verde, but the roasted salsa was also really good.


My penchant for flirting with pretty waitresses was thwarted when our server, a big guy named Ralph, came to our table. You could see Ralph was taken aback when he asked for my order and I responded with, “I want whatever you recommend.”


He asked me what I like and I told him I prefer seafood but I’ll eat anything. He recommended the paella burrito. Full of fish, shrimp, linguica, rice, and drizzled with a chipotle cream sauce, it was a good and filling meal. I actually had so much left over that I had to take it home. OK, I’ll admit I may have eaten too many tortilla chips and salsa.


My wife ordered the tostada, which showed up looking more like a salad in a fried tortilla bowl. She asked for it with chicken, which is charbroiled and lightly seasoned. The tostada also included black beans, tomatoes, cheese, and generous dollops of salsa, sour cream and guacamole.


My wife said she really liked the flavor of the charbroiled chicken because it was simple and authentic, not overly seasoned with “Mexican spices.” Now this may come as a surprise to some of you, but Mexicans don’t actually put chile powder in all their food. That’s more of a “Tex-Mex” principle.


Ralph was so poised and charming that my wife thought he might be the owner of the place. Her comment, “He has the air of propriety,” got me wondering again: “Why does my wife know so much about this place?”


We ordered some sodas to go with our meal and they were served in large, one-liter-sized cups so you definitely get your money’s worth with the drinks.


My wife’s Italian heritage keeps her loving Italian food but she was born in New Mexico and so she also loves all things southwestern. If you want that translated into its most basic form it means you can put black beans on a bowl of ramen noodles and she’ll like it more.


Her birthplace has given her problems when traveling. Not exaggerating at all here, swear to god, U.S. Customs officials have actually asked her, “If you were born in New Mexico, why do you have and American passport?”


I compound the problem by teasing her about it, saying she’s one of those immigrants stealing American jobs. I’m very lucky that she’s a beautiful woman but I have to wonder if she married me just to get a green card.


The menu is quite varied, and has a lot of seafood offerings on it, more than the usual restaurant of this kind. Prices are reasonable and the portions are generous. We were both so full when we left that we had to pass on ordering a dessert. My wife looked longingly at the flan on the menu, and said, “We’ll have to come back again to try it.”


She wants to go back? Is it really the dessert she wants? Or is it something else? I have to wonder …


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.


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