Friday, October 26, 2007

Dish to Go: Cactus Taqueria

Freshness and Value Draw the Crowds
5642 College Ave., Oakland
Rockridge neighborhood
PH: 510.658.6180
Open Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
Credit cards accepted

Anytime after 6 p.m. on a weeknight, you’ll see a line coming out of Cactus Taqueria at the corner of College and Shafter Avenues right across from the Rockridge BART station. Many tired, business professionals line up to get a quick Mexican dinner to take home from this upscale-yet-casual taqueria.

You’ll see me there at times, but admittedly mostly on the weekends when I just got off the BART after spending all day roaming San Francisco and I don’t want to think about making dinner. Cactus provides a fresh alternative to cooking, but you won’t go broke unlike eating at other Rockridge establishments.

The people behind Cactus (which has a second location on Solano Avenue in Berkeley) really know their market. This place is clean, bright, and caters to a crowd looking for sustainable cuisine. All the meats are sourced by Niman Ranch and the poultry from Fulton Valley Farm. They also cook with vegetable or olive oil.

My friend Stella introduced me to Cactus awhile back because one of the key things about the place other than the food is the noise factor. There’s a lot of it, which means it’s perfect for a mom with kids (such as Stella and her young and rambunctious son, Lucas). Families can come here and not worry about making noise because everyone is making noise. Which is probably why I come to this place primarily for take out. :)

Cactus offers the typical Mexican taqueria faire, which includes burritos, tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tostada and tamales. There are several varieties of each dish, and a slight “have it your way” approach to ordering, which can be overwhelming when you look at the boards as you walk in for the first time. When you bite into the food, you know it’s fresh and home-made.

But now that I’ve given a general overview, here are some specifics about the food I typically eat (because when you go to a place often enough, you become a creature of habit):

The burrito mejor—this is the large burrito, which is the typical size of most burritos in the Mission District. Pictured is the Pollo con Mole Rojo burrito, which is chicken with red sauce of tomatoes, roasted chiles, ground nuts, and a hint of Mexican chocolate ($5.95 for the burrito, $7.45 for the plate). I got it with black beans, and it was packed nicely. I like a well-packed burrito because I hate it when it’s slightly loose and it ends up falling apart half-way through. But not this one.

The burritos are served with home-made chips that are slightly thick and are actually not my favorite chips around town. The oil, even though it’s vegetable and/or olive, still doesn’t look appetizing to me when the paper bag they’re in gets all drenched.

The crispy tacos are supposedly the popular item here and I love crispy tacos instead of the soft street tacos. However, the one time I tried Cactus’ crispy tacos, they were made overflowing with shredded green lettuce. I felt like I was a lawn mower trying to get to the meat inside the tacos. I don’t really recommend the crispy tacos, unless you’re into eating a salad with your tacos.

My mainstay for my takeout dinners at Cactus are the tamales. I’m a big fan of the cornmeal tamales. It’s like comfort food to me.

Most of the tamales are sold two for $4 or $4.45 or three for $5.25 or $5.95. I typically just order two tamales and they’re always filling enough for me. The tamales are served with salsa fresca, tamale sauce, pickled onions (tasty but really leaves a strong onion taste in your breath) and Mexican cream (so unnecessary IMHO). I usually go with the Chicken with Green Anaheim Chili Sauce, but sometimes enjoy the special pork tamales when available.

Tamales aren’t made to order, naturally, because they have to be prepared ahead of time. This means they can run out pretty quickly and unlike a burrito that’s assembled on the spot, when they’re out of tamales, they’re out of tamales.

Cactus also sells special drinks and Mexican desserts. The weakest link, however, for Cactus in my opinion is the salsa bar. I love salsa, and Cactus offers a variety to choose from, but most of the ones I’ve tried have been too “creative” for me. I like my salsa primarily medium or hot, but not with all the odd cabbages or pineapples I sometimes find at Cactus. For me, I’m the regular tomato, or the occasional salsa verde, guy.

Does Cactus offer the best burrito or tamale on the East Bay? I don’t think so. But it’s a clean environment with value meals that are perfect for a quick dinner on the run.

Single Guy rating: 2.5 stars (get fresh quickly)

Explanation of the Single Guy Chef’s takeout rating system:
1 star = Might as well cook yourself
2 stars = Nice to know it’s an option
3 stars = Definitely will return again
4 stars = I have its number on speed-dial
5 stars = Can I live here?

Cactus Taqueria in Oakland


Unknown said...

hola chefben mmmm the tamale picture is especially beautiful! I have eaten here before, but since I am generally in gastro-tourist mode when visiting Rockridge, I'm not usually looking for taqueria fare...

Anonymous said...

my ears were I know why. What I wouldn't give to eat a good tamale right now...I'm trying to find a decent Mexican, Chinese, Thai,_____ restaurant here in my new home- Norfolk/ Virginia Beach- so I have to go thru some less than average ones first. Today I went to this Mexican restaurant that looked as bright/clean as a Cactus, but I was pretty disappointed. When the menu has to give definitions of the items, that's a bad sign...
chez stella
p.s. Lucas is behaving a bit better at restaurants-thank goodness! We now can go to restaurants that are quiet, elegant, and have real tablecloths :-)

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, you can always take it to go after your gastro-tourist visit in Rockridge! LOL.

Hey Stella! I'm sure you'll find some good tamales in Virginia. You have to post and let us know when we come and visit! ;-)

tavolini said...

AW MAN!!! I have been in SF since last monday and wish I wish I would have run across your site earlier. I did try some excellent bars since I was alone on this trip, but next time out, when I am with the lady, I will definitely be using your tips.

Thanks SingleGuy!


BTW, Brazil Cafe in Berkeley, not impressive.