Chipotle In Name Only

That you enter Iron Cactus from the River Walk under an echt-Aztec effigy ought to be a clue to what awaits within
Iron Cactus host Michael Gillmore shows off a dish of Chipotle Salmon .
Iron Cactus Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar
River Walk at N. St. Mary’s & Commerce
11am-10pm Sun-Wed,
11am-11pm Thu-Sat
Entrées: $9.95-17.95
Credit Cards
That you enter Iron Cactus from the River Walk under an echt-Aztec effigy ought to be a clue to what awaits within. OK, not that kind of clue; there are no sacrificial scenes of warriors about to be dis-heartened or maidens on the verge of volcanoes. Nor is the interior décor plastered with Mock Mayan (it’s really more Mock Modern — though not unpleasant). But I am suggesting that the cuisine is one of extremes.

The menu doesn’t really read that way; it looks instead like a typical Mex/Tex-Mex tome with a few Southwestern tricks up its sleeve — not the Az-Tex I’d love to be able to baptize it. Let’s start with the tapas y botanas section and the Gulf Coast crab relleno; it sounds luxurious and maybe even picante, what with red-pepper-infused olive oil drizzled over a stuffing of crab and Mexican cheese nestled in an Anaheim chile. But it’s really rather boring, the stuffing alternately crabby and bready (with cheese not a major player), the spotty dribbles of infused oil, cilantro-pecan pesto, and “Mexican” corn relish not significant enough to count.

But the chipotle poppers we ordered almost as an afterthought turned out to be flavor bombs — even though we couldn’t detect a trace of the namesake chile. In fact, I’m almost ashamed to admit that I liked these culturally compromised creations: they’re based on what appears to be a blanched, neutralized jalapeño shamelessly stuffed with two cheeses and shredded chicken, excessively (but effectively) breaded, and served with a rich ranch dressing superfluously studded with chunks of avocado — exactly the kind of thing this critic usually rails against. I’m accused of eating more than my share.

Iron Cactus’s roasted-poblano Caesar salad promises strips of roasted chile and queso fresco, and though few rajas surfaced and the cheese seemed more like pulverized parmesan, we liked this one, too. The poblano dressing was more understated than effusive but it worked, and the quantity was just right — no death by sacred cenote drowning. And even the suspect strips of red and blue tortilla added a nice crunch to the already-crisp romaine. That two couldn’t finish it is testimony to its size, not its quality; at $6.95, it’s a deal.

Extremes again bedeviled the entrées, suggesting that chipotle is touted as a term due to its popularity but that the kitchen is loath to use it in any significant quantity. Chipotle-grilled salmon will illustrate the point: it’s said to be marinated in tequila (maybe, but not noticeably) and glazed with chipotle. Normally demure dining companion reacted testily when I scraped her salmon in order to scare up some glaze, but I did uncover some — though not in quantities adequate to have much of an influence. The expected black-bean-and-corn relish was almost equally AWOL. (DC liked the fish anyway.) Peppery, sautéed vegetables hit an acceptable middle ground in seasoning. But get this: A side of cilantro-lime rice was so limey that it verged on inedibility. Go figure.

If the rice was zesty to a fault, the Iron Carnitas were a hit upside the head. Considering the elusiveness of chipotle up to that point, there was no reason to imagine the pork tips (carnitas in name only) bathed in “bittersweet red chile sauce” would be assertive. Yo, mama! DC took one bite, and though I desperately wanted to like this dish, even to the point of suspecting chocolate as an additive, much of it went begging. True, the poppers were beginning to weigh in, literally, at this point …

We nevertheless did manage to squeeze in a shared dessert, the margarita pie, at our waiter’s suggestion. It, too, was excessive, but in all the right ways, right down to the contrastingly caramelized crumb crust. Oh, I might have used just a little more of the cajeta drizzle, but perhaps that would have gilded the lily unnecessarily.

The agave from which tequila is made is a member of the lily family, FYI. You can gild away to your heart’s content at both the grill and its bar, or at the separate Agave Room bar that flanks the passageway leading into the basement shops of the disinterred Aztec Theater. The El Agave margarita ($6.75) with Margaritaville tequila and Cointreau, is real but pale when compared to the pricier Ultimate ($9.75) with El Tesoro Platinum and Grand Marnier — but maybe you’d rather the El Diablo, shaken with jalapeños? The bar offers 76 tequilas by the shot, and there are numerous tequila flights of three in half-ounce pours. I enjoyed the silver series with Don Eduardo, Patron, and Corralejo, and decided that the Don won. Appetizers, such as aji-tuna taquitos that only needed a little lime, are available to assuage any guilt over simply sipping. Put the bars and restaurant together and you already have a tourist magnet — just the kind of place the River Walk needs, even though Iron Cactus is a chain with operations in Austin and Dallas. With a little more work on the food, the locals might decide to brave the bustle as well.

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