Ten years ago it was hanging plants and collections of vintage advertising art. Now it's tortilla-making machines and stacked cases of Corona beer. Then, a crowd-pleasing name was invariably Irish, or sported a couple of initials coupled with a semi-goofy surname. Nowadays, the name must refer to the Great American Southwest and its denizens, and hint at the presence of Fajitas on the menu.
From E. Z. Pumpkins to Jose's Iguana Cafe may seem like a huge cultural leap. Hardly. While the Tex-Mex megatrend reflects a more multicultural attitude than the fern bar, the target audience -- suburban yups, with or without kids -- is identical, and even some of the food is the same. These places serve huge portions at a decent price. What they don't offer is individuality; having a memorable experience in such a machine-tooled atmosphere is rare.
The Cactus Grill isn't part of a chain. Yet. But its owners have big plans for chain-hood, and they'll probably make it. We had to wait for a table even on a rainy Tuesday, and the customers -- including my companion -- were gobbling their food and enjoying themselves. Certainly much of it was gobble-worthy; mass-market Mexican restaurants are no longer afraid of such exotica as cilantro and jalapenos, and the Cactus Grill's offerings were reasonably sophisticated. But the thrill wasn't there.
Maybe it's the ubiquitous flour tortillas. The decline of Tex-Mex cuisine, if not civilization, began when restaurateurs abandoned the wonderful corn tortilla for the inferior, bland flour version.
Or maybe it's the fajitas. Everybody serves them these days, and they're rarely very good. The mesquite-grilled Laredo platter ($10.95) included both bacon-wrapped shrimp and beef fajitas; both stuck to the sizzling metal platter and tasted mostly of salt.
The mixed Michoacan plate ($8.45) enjoyed by my luckier companion pleased, though. It included a nice cheesy chili relleno, savory beef flauta, a beef taco which disintegrated in relleno goo, and an excellent cheese enchilada. This was, however, supposed to be a chicken enchilada. Our waiter, bless him, doggy-bagged a chicken enchilada for us to take home.
Actually, we had quite a lot of doggy-bagged leftovers, due in part to our over-indulgence in barbecue-flavored salsa, chile con queso ($3.50) -- undistinguished except for a lively dose of cilantro and a hint of Dos Equis -- and tortilla soup ($2.75), a tasty, bean-heavy vegetable soup blanketed with Cheddar, like liquid nachos.
We probably heard more of "Can I get you anything?" and "Can I take this away?" than we really needed, but our waiter's puppy-like friendliness and enthusiasm were sweet; if he had a tail, it would have been constantly wagging.
Where: White Marsh Mall.
Hours: Open daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit Cards: MC, V.
Features: Tex-Mex food, burgers.
Non-smoking section? Yes.
Call: (410) 931-6322.