Prickly Pairs

Written by Carey Sweet Category: Three Bites Issue: June 2013
Group Mid-Level
Character count 2500

It’s cactus season in Arizona, and Valley chefs are finding creative ways to present this desert-to-table staple.

Barrio Queen
7114 E. Stetson Dr., Scottsdale

Mexican cuisine has long celebrated nopales, the firm but fleshy pad of the prickly pear cactus. The flavor is vegetal and slightly tart, like green beans with a note of clean celery. Some say it’s an acquired taste, but once you’ve acquired it, it’s a beautiful thing. Barrio Queen chef/owner Silvana Salcido Esparza tours Mexico several times a year, constantly updating her already rich understanding of authentic regional cooking. So while her recipes are fresh and contemporary, they embrace true heritage, too. She stuffs soft tacos with goodies like chilled smoked salmon pulled into meaty shreds, curly strips of grilled nopales, and a flurry of queso fresco, or a savory blend of cactus, fiery serrano pepper, onion and tomato. One of our favorite tacos is a juicy, breakfast-y mix of cactus strips sautéed with serrano, onion and tomato, then topped with a golden-yolk fried egg and sprinkled with more ripe tomato chunks. It’s served open-faced for a knife-and-fork feast (or a napkin-necessary nosh if you choose to eat it with your hands).


Rusconis American Kitchen

Rusconi’s American Kitchen
10637 N. Tatum Blvd., Phoenix

Chef/owner Michael Rusconi favors local ingredients in his regional American cuisine, and you can’t get more characteristically local than cactus. On his seasonally-changing menu, he’s currently showcasing fresh prickly pear, whose magenta fruit is redolent of raspberries or watermelon, with a bit of kiwi tang. It makes a delightful salad dressing, bringing subtle sweetness to a medley of Amish blue cheese crumbled over crisp apple pears, mini peppery greens and spiced pecans, or anointing a mélange of wood-roasted chicken, sweet strawberries, toasted almonds and homemade mozzarella. Pork and cabbage are soul mates on many menus, but Chef Rusconi puts his own twist on the earthy duo, pairing fork-tender osso buco with red cabbage braised to succulence in prickly pear juice, and plating it with seasonal sides such as crisp asparagus over garlic mashed potatoes.




Cartwrights Sonoran Ranch House

Cartwright’s Sonoran Ranch House 
6710 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek

When Eric Flatt opened Cartwright’s and Tonto Bar & Grill, he introduced Valley diners to a treasure chest of local game meat, garden-fresh produce and Native American delicacies. Not only does he feature indigenous jewels like prickly pear, jojoba seeds, mesquite beans and saguaro fruit, but he harvests them himself, poking down the saguaro fruit with Indian segai (greasewood) poles. Then he incorporates them into modern, seasonally-changing thrillers like salads and breads sprinkled with dried saguaro seeds, or a saguaro fruit barbecue sauce that tastes a bit like rhubarb. Cacti have starring roles in the prickly pear and sour crema cheesecake with tequila-marinated berries and Arizona citrus sauce, and the ocotillo flower and cholla bud salad with wild arugula, pepitas and jicama in lime-mesquite honey vinaigrette. Harvested items appear only as specials, but you can always count on prickly pear margaritas, Cactus Cool-Aid, and prickly pear sorbet with homemade peanut brittle.