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updated: 3/21/2014 1:06 PM

Cactus Zone a bright spot for crafty, casual Mexican

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  • Cactus Zone's pork platter pairs pork tenderloin topped with pineapple salsa, right, with slow-cooked pork called cochinita pibil.

       Cactus Zone's pork platter pairs pork tenderloin topped with pineapple salsa, right, with slow-cooked pork called cochinita pibil.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Cactus Zone serves chips with a trio of salsas, from left, mango cilantro (mild), tomatillo crudo (medium) and cuatro chiles (hot).

       Cactus Zone serves chips with a trio of salsas, from left, mango cilantro (mild), tomatillo crudo (medium) and cuatro chiles (hot).
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Homemade churros sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon are served with Mexican hot chocolate at Cactus Zone in Sleepy Hollow.

       Homemade churros sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon are served with Mexican hot chocolate at Cactus Zone in Sleepy Hollow.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Cactus Zone moved onto Main Street in Sleepy Hollow in the space once inhabited by a wine bar.

       Cactus Zone moved onto Main Street in Sleepy Hollow in the space once inhabited by a wine bar.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Al pastor (aka pork tenderloin) is a part of the Mexican pork platter at Cactus Zone in Sleepy Hollow.

       Al pastor (aka pork tenderloin) is a part of the Mexican pork platter at Cactus Zone in Sleepy Hollow.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
By Carolyn Walkup
Daily Herald Correspondent

Editor's note: This new version of the review corrects the name of the owner.

Cactus Zone touts itself as specializing in Mexican street food, but the street in question would be an exceptionally nice one.

The restaurant, opened a little over a year ago by Kishwore Gangwani, has a well-rounded menu of small and large plates, served up in the little-changed well-appointed dining room that used to be the Three Vines wine bar and bistro. Other than a poster that pictures various hot peppers, one would not guess this is a Mexican restaurant.

One visible giveaway is the large selection of tequilas on the bar, mostly meant for sipping, much as one would wine or scotch. The drinks menu includes a variety of margaritas, of course, along with a full bar.

But it's the food that sets Cactus Zone apart from the average local Mexican joint. Right off the top, chips and salsa are not given away, a generous common touch but one that often fills up the customer before he or she even orders. Here, chips are freshly fried to order, and salsa comes in a a trio of artfully designed small dipping bowls.

Flavors are a mild cilantro mango with pineapple juice and cilantro, a fairly hot tomatillo crudo and a fiery hot cuatro chiles, which, as the name says is made with four hot Mexican chiles, and the hottest of all, fire-roasted tomato habanero. My favorite was the cilantro mango, which still had a little kick at the end; I didn't dare try the tomato habanero.

Chicken tortilla soup was the night's special at a mere $2 per cup, so I couldn't resist. It was full-flavored and contained a good amount of fresh corn kernels, but it could have been a little spicier. The cup portion was just right to allow for lots more food to come.

Next, I made two choices from the street tacos list of small plates, the carne asada, a citrus-marinated skirt steak with avocado slices, diced onion, cilantro and cotija cheese, and wild mushrooms, which were cremini on this particular night, with queso fresco, garlic and tomatillo sauce. Both were served with good-quality corn tortillas. Flour tortillas, less common in authentic Mexican cooking, are available by request.

The grilled steak strips had a nice charcoal hint and were not overcooked, overall making a terrific and well-seasoned taco filling. The wild mushroom taco was a light bite before the main course, but nothing special.

This menu section of a dozen choices clearly shows off the restaurant's concept to full advantage. One could easily make a meal of several of these, accompanied by a libation or two. Among the choices we did not have room to try are barbacoa, or Mexican beef pot roast with pickled red onions and guajillo honey aioli; sour orange pork with pickled vegetables and fire-roasted tomato habanero salsa; fried fish (tilapia) with cabbage and cilantro slaw and guajillo honey aioli; and lengua, or triple-cooked beef tongue with diced onions, cilantro and the ubiquitous tomatillo salsa.

On to the main courses, accompanied by corn tortillas, chipotle black beans, cilantro rice and usually sour cream. We chose the authentic Mexican pork platter and the chile relleno plate.

Two preparations of pork were paired on the platter -- al pastor, a Mexican classic of grilled pork tenderloin strips with pineapple onion relish, and cochinita pibil, slow-cooked pork shoulder with a flour breading. I preferred the al pastor, probably because I especially like grilled meats. The texture of the cochinita was too stew-like for my taste.

The chiles rellenos suffered from a bland tomato sauce and what appeared to be too much time on the stove. The stuffing of garlic spinach and Chihuahua cheese was tasty, but the egg batter breading should have had a crispier texture.

From the short dessert list of churros, flan and fried plantains, we chose the churros to share. These delectable deep-fried treats sprinkled with cinnamon maple sugar and served with a chocolate dipping sauce, when fresh, are the epitome of great street food.

A grouping of four arrived just out of the fryer, which is the ideal way to eat them. They were a perfect way to end our little South of the Border feast.

Not wanting to let those salsas from the start of our meal go to waste, we asked to take them home. Our attentive waitress added a generous helping of fresh chips to the carryout box -- a much-appreciated gesture.

The restaurant was very quiet on the cold night we were there -- some lively background music would be a welcome touch. When the weather finally turns to spring, Cactus Zone's welcoming patio awaits.

• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

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