Tex-Mex restaurant Cactus Pear in Corryville has been a Cincinnati favorite for years -- and not just among the campus crowd. The diverse menu, large portions and reasonable prices make it top pick for families, large groups and couples.
Keep in mind its proximity to the campus, however, and plan accordingly. On one of our visits during March Madness, a large pack of Bearcat fans armed with Bud Lights swarmed the bar and maintained a stadium-worthy noise level for hours. The excitement kept things lively, but others nearby who had come strictly for dinner were clearly annoyed.
Inside the dining room, walls are adorned with bright paint or brick and Southwestern artwork. (I remember when the inlets in the bricks once held colorful wax remnants of well-used candles when the place was P.A. Adderley's. My folks brought me there for Susie Wong sandwiches when I was a kid.) The three, small dining areas are a mix of booths and two- or four-top tables with plenty of room in between for comfortable conversation without feeling cramped.
The Pear's extensive menu is a nod to many tastes -- most with a Southwestern influence. Guests are treated to warm chips and the Pear's own, unique, roasted tomato salsa that has a smoky and spicy flavor.
Appetizers are creative renditions of Tex-Mex favorites, like quesadillas and queso dips. The Tijuana Quesadilla ($6.95) is stuffed with artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, smoked turkey, chihuahua cheese and chipotle pepper sauce. On our last visit, we sampled the Spinach Queso -- a creamy blend of cooked spinach, artichokes, cream cheese and Chihuahua cheese, served with toasted pita chips. It's a delicious alternative to the processed cheese quesos you'll find at Mexican chain restaurants.
Homemade soups -- like the spicy black bean topped with tomatoes, onions and sour cream ($2.50/$3.50) or the Tortilla soup loaded with chihuahua cheese and tortilla strips ($2.95/$3.95) -- are also fine starters. And, the large-enough-to-feed-two Nacho Salad ($6.95/$7.95), filled with black beans, greens, melted cheeses and chicken, steak, eggplant, Portobello mushrooms or shrimp, is a favorite among poor, starving students.
Light dinner or lunch offerings include several sandwiches, like the Chicken Chula Vista ($6.95), a grilled breast topped with guacamole, aioli and bean sprouts on a multi-grain bun, and the Aztec Tofu ($5.95), also with guacamole, sprouts, aioli and marinated cucumbers.
Somehow "light" just didn't fit in with our dinner plans. Perhaps that was our attentive server's intent as he managed to keep our frozen margaritas (also available by the pitcher) and draught Dos Equiis continuously refilled -- along with several baskets of chips and salsa -- without request. No, we passed right on by the sensible sandwiches and went for the gusto: the house favorites, the Tex-Mex specialties. Fajitas -- shrimp for one of us ($13.95) and Pork Tenderloin ($12.95) for another -- arrived hot and flavorful with warm tortillas, pico de gallo and sour cream.
My Chicken Burrito ($10.95), filled with black beans, cheddar and chihuahua cheeses and topped with ancho chili and tomatilla sauce and a drizzle of lemon sour cream, was flavorful, filling and by far, my favorite Pear dish yet. Two other house notables are the Red Pepper Noodles ($8.95 half/ $11.95 whole) -- a mix of red pepper penne pasta, grilled chicken (or tofu), green bell pepper strips, mushrooms, garlic, olive oil, Romano and feta cheeses -- and its spicier cousin, the Shrimp Marguerite ($9.95/$12.95) pasta with added shrimp and spicy chipotle.
Although not on the menu, the Pear does cater to kids, offering a special menu of cheese enchiladas and fries. The service is accommodating and will allow you to modify most dishes to your liking.
Go: 3215 Jefferson Ave., Clifton
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Reasonable to Moderate
Payment: Major credit cards
Beyond Red Meat: Plenty of choices -- lots of seafood, and strictly vegetarian entrees.
Other: Carryout available. Free parking in lot.