The South-Side Mexican Restaurant You've Probably Never Heard Of
One of the things I love about Wichita is that it is an exceptional food town. With a growing and seemingly endless amount of choices, it’s easy for foodies to get hung up on the familiar haunts and well-visited sections of town. However, I’ve always fancied myself a bit of an urban explorer and delight on leaving the beaten path occasionally.
Recently, I dined at Cactus Cantina, a Mexican restaurant on South Hydraulic that just celebrated its 25th anniversary. An article that touted their authentic dishes, potent Margaritas, “Flaming Fajitas” and charismatic owner drew me into this place of which I’d never heard.
It’s far from the popular haunts in Old Town or College Hill and the nondescript, windowless building has a banner that says “Tamales” in big letters out front. Once inside, it’s a warm and inviting place, decorated traditionally, with the exception of a disco ball in the main dining area. I’m told this was from a brief period where the restaurant was converted to a dance club to help weather the recession. Since then, it has returned to full restaurant status, with the disco ball as a memento.
Once seated, we received the complimentary basket of chips and salsa. I admit that I’m guilty of judging a place by its salsa, but in this case, it was good because the salsa was chunky and had a great flavor to it. It primed my hopes that I was in for a night of very authentic Mexican cuisine.
As per our usual routine with Mexican restaurants, we ordered the queso and loved it as well. Our margaritas came and as advertised, it was a delicious margarita, potent and not generic. My wife and I debated what the other flavor we tasted in it was, finally deciding it was either pineapple juice or mango juice. It’s not your generic margarita mix that you find at so many local establishments.
When our waiter came to take our order, I was surprised he was the owner, Daniel Ramirez that I had heard so much about. Daniel moved to Wichita in 1993, giving up a promising career cooking for the Cheesecake Factory in Redondo Beach, Cal., to help a family friend who was opening a restaurant. Eventually, he became the owner and the rest is history.
But being a recent Wichita import myself, I couldn’t resist asking him about what it was like to come from California to the middle of Kansas. He told me the story and admitted that he was hesitant to come here at first, but now is glad that he did. He feels, as I do, that the sky is the limit in Wichita and that people can achieve their dreams and live up to their true potential.
After our conversation, we finally ordered dinner. My wife ordered the beef enchiladas and I asked Daniel for a recommendation between two pork dishes that were on the menu. He recommended the Teocaltiche Plate, which is described in the menu as “chunks of pork meat simmered into a blend of spices”.
He warned that the other dish, which appeared under Mexican Specials, may be too hot for my palate. I’m thankful for the warning, as while I love spicy food, I can’t deal with the hotter varieties like I could when I was younger. When our meals arrived, we were blown away.
This is not your garden variety, generic Mexican food. The sauce that the enchiladas were smothered in was absolutely delicious; it was warm but not spicy. The Teocaltiche Plate was also impressive. The sauce was almost like a mole sauce. I loved it and it made absolutely terrific leftovers the next day!
Here’s the best part. As we were preparing to pay the bill and leave, we got to see the Flaming Fajitas, which are actually lit on fire and then brought to your table. I don’t normally order fajitas but after seeing that, I may have to make an exception next time.
So our trip off the beaten path was an absolute success and I highly encourage you to check out the Cactus Cantina and talk to the owner Daniel Ramirez. You’ll find hospitality, great drinks, and authentic, delicious Mexican cuisine!
2802 S Hydraulic Ave
Wichita, KS 67216
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