Cactus: One-of-a-kind Latin/Island food in Kailua.

Cactus as Oasis

An Oahu restaurant offering a pan-Latin American menu is novel enough. But add influences of Hawaii Regional Cuisine and an emphasis on fresh, local and sustainable ingredients whenever possible–and there’s a formula for what seems will be a winner.

Cactus opened its doors recently, adding to the burgeoning food scene on the Windward side. Founder, executive chef, recipe- and cocktail-developer John Memering comes from a culinary background based in Portland, Ore., as well as several years at Alan Wong’s and at Kalapawai Cafe.

The light, congenial vibe at Cactus appears genuine with staff greeting patrons warmly in the casual, clean atmosphere. Cactus is easy to find with a corner location on Kailua Road and a parking lot adjacent.

It’s refreshing to see that Cactus’ menu doesn’t go for the lowest common denominators. The restaurant respects patrons’ food knowledge, or at least an openness to try new things. From fried guindilla peppers to a twist on panzanella salad to masa-crusted chicken breast, the lunch and dinner menus have enough variety to warrant several visits.

As with many restaurants, some items are available at both lunch and dinner. The main difference is an expansive taco offering at lunch versus richer dishes at dinner. The majority of dishes come in satisfying, but not gut-busting portions. Most diners will not find themselves having to deal with leftovers, unless a zealous sampling of appetizers precedes the main meal.

Under the “Pinchos & Shareables” (appetizers) section of the menu, the Cactus Guacamole ($8) consists of freshly made, thick, hearty tortilla chips with three types of salsa and guacamole made from Poamoho organic avocados. The chips and dips are perfect to satisfy a post-beach session (or a hangover). Resist or give in to the temptation to scoop the entire guacamole serving on to one chip: The guac is good enough to eat straight.

Local squash and Big Island Goat Cheese Croquettes ($7) crompises four fried cakes over a roasted Hauula tomato-chipotle sauce. While they appeared slightly burned on one visit, the large golf ball-sized fritters tasted both hearty and light–crunchy outside, soft inside, what tastes like tarragon, mint and lime mingling with squash and goat cheese.

Other pupu look appetizing, from house-made Argentine fry bread to Big Island boar empanadas to a daily ceviche “inspiration.” Salads and soups are available in half and full orders, giving lighter eaters and vegetarians more meal options. From a Cactus version of the Brazilian black bean stew feijoada to a grilled local day boat fish salad to daily soup, prices range from $5–$16.

Affordable lunch entrees range from $8–$15. The tacos come two to plate, on a double layer of soft corn tortillas. The housemade turkey chorizo and Waianae potato tacos are topped with pickled red cabbage, queso fresco and salsa Mexicana. The moist filling isn’t overly greasy, as traditional pork chorizo can be. Potatoes help bulk up the meal. Kiawe-smoked Hamakua mushrooms tacos with charred Kahuku corn, goat cheese, avocado and cilantro crema are tasty and hearty enough even for die-hard meat eaters.

Other interesting taco offerings include Shinsato Farms Pork Al Pastor, Grilled Day Boat Fish Marinated in Achiote & Sour Orange, Chilé/Lime-Marinated Kulana Flank Steak Al Carbon and Jidori Chicken Tinga. There is also a version of a Cuban sandwich (the famed “medianoche” stuffed in a crusty roll), carnitas and lomo saltado with beef or chicken.

A choice of one side with each entree leaves a difficult decision between yucca fries, coconut-coriander rice, arroz verde, vegan refried beans and ‘Nalo greens salad. The yucca fries are thick, crisp and filling. They are a bit bland, but try dipping them in salsa or other sauces that may be leftover from appetizers. The sweet potato fries are shoestring-style and salted sufficiently.

Meatier and richer dishes await diners at dinner time. With a variety of beef, chicken, duck, pork and seafood–yet more difficult (albeit tasty) decisions await ($14–$28 per entree).

Malbec-Braised Kuahiwi Grass-Fed Beef Short Ribs and Slow-Roasted Shinsato Farm’s Pork Shoulder Pernil look especially promising.

But our dinner visit stayed on the light side, with one chicken and one fish dish. Pan Roasted Jidori Chicken Breast, Cilantro Risotto with Meyer lemon confit, Manzanilla olives, vino blanco and Aji Amarillo (Peruvian yellow chile pepper) had a great balance of tart and salty flavors. Unfortunately, the chicken breast was a bit dry. The creamy texture of the cilantro risotto helped to temper this. And the flavor and color are novel, with the cliantro not unpleasantly strong.

For the fish dish, this particular day’s “Daily Day Boat Fish Inspiration” was a thick cut of ‘ahi, seared medium-rare, with yucca mash over a mojo sauce. The freshness of the fish made the sensual process of cutting up each bite most satisfying. The rest of the dish is an exercise in fusion, although maybe not so successfully this time around: too much ginger in the mash and a creamy sauce that drowned the flavor of the fish.

The drink menu here is almost as ambitious as the food. We haven’t space to go into it here, but if you’re attracted by handmade, diverse cocktails, this is a worthwhile drinking destination.

Cactus has a few culinary kinks to iron out. Memmering and staff seem to see themselves as pioneers, but apparently have no intention of letting uniqueness be their only claim to fame. They’ll keep exploring the new.

Next week: Kailua’s The Grove.