To celebrate our daughter's birthday, we head out to Blue Ash's Cactus Pear, a veritable institution after 10 years in Cincinnati, an eternity in the restaurant business.
It's tucked in a corner of a nondescript strip mall, and the first time we went there, we drove by the place twice before seeing the sign. Inside, over the long bar, the Ohio State football game is on, but we head out to a pleasant table on the covered back patio overlooking a park. Unfortunately, the evening breeze is too cool for al fresco dining, and we soon ask to be relocated to the dining room.
This shuffling doesn't faze the wait staff at all, and we quickly find ourselves ordering drinks while seated in a spacious booth. From the dog-eared list of specialty cocktails (our waitress explains that they only have two copies), I choose something called Tres Compadres ($6.50). Served in a martini glass, the muddy orange/brown mixture includes tequila, Cointreau and orange juice. It's a well-balanced concoction -- neither too alcoholic nor overwhelmingly sweet, but doesn't look very appetizing. My wife's margarita ($6), served on the rocks, is large and pretty, but disappointingly bland and watery; there's just no kick to it.
The current menu reputedly contains customer favorites culled from a decade's worth of selections. If you have a favorite dish that didn't make the cut, the kitchen will do its best to re-create it for you.
My kids are starving (they're always starving), so they immediately scarf up a big bowl of complimentary chips and salsa. We also get a side of guacamole ($7) that's chunky, redolent with herby cilantro and packs a wallop of jalapeno heat. Now, I'm a big fan of heat, but this is spicy stuff. In fact, it proves too much for my wife and daughter, who try soothing their mouths with more corn chips. A plate of crunchy, cornmeal-crusted Calamari ($9) is much more to their liking and comes with a soothing side of creamy aioli.
The kids split the Caribbean Fajitas ($12). After tasting that guacamole, we have the jerk BBQ sauce served on the side, which is a good idea. It's sweet, but also shows enough spice to be too much for my daughter's already flaming tongue. Sides of sauteed onion and peppers are standard issue, though pineapple salsa and onion sour cream set the dish apart.
My wife's Blue Corn Enchiladas of Beef ($14) taste good, and it's a huge portion, though it suffers from a dreary visual presentation. Stripes of lemon sour cream are drizzled across the plate, but it's otherwise just a mush of dark colors: blue tortilla stuffed with reddish-brown meat topped with dark brown mole sauce.
My braised Pork Loin ($16) includes several slices of well-seasoned (if slightly overcooked) meat that are much improved by a delicious pear-chipotle glaze. The sides of lumpy mashed yams and grilled asparagus are homey and unique, more than I usually expect from Tex-Mex. It all pairs nicely with a draft Dos Equis ($3).
Throughout the meal, the owner, Swami, stops by to see how we're doing. When Swami's in the house, he makes you feel the way you always should at a restaurant -- like somebody's happy you're there and passionately cares whether you're having a good time. He's circling the room, chatting with friends, asking pointed questions that show he remembers them and cares about what's happening in their lives, offering a taste or this or a sip of that.
With this kind of attention to customer satisfaction, small lapses are promptly corrected and quickly forgotten. More often than not, though, the service staff anticipates our needs. For instance, our server asks what kinds of cups the kids would like to drink from -- glass or plastic. They're just in that age range where they could go either way, and rather than assume, she's proactive.
In fact, everyone here shares Swami's gracious, generous spirit -- even the musical trio setting up in the corner. The gentleman with the enormous upright bass encourages them to pluck the heavy horse-gut strings to get a feel for his beautiful antique instrument.
We finish our meal with a lusty chorus of "Happy Birthday" over a slice of delicious, homemade White Chocolate Bread Pudding ($7) that's as big as a shoebox and studded with pine nuts and yellow currants. Satiated, we're packing our leftovers when our waitress notices we intend to take the delicious homemade salsa. Immediately, she appears with a full container of fresh salsa for us.
Ultimately, it's that kind of service and attention to detail that elevate Cactus Pear above similar spots. It feels like a Tex-Mex version of Cheers as seen through an Indian looking glass -- a strange combination to be sure, but one that works because of the passion and caring of its people.
Go: 9500 Kenwood Road, Blue Ash
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty of salads, chicken, fish and vegetarian dishes
Accessibility: Fully accessible