[embed-1]There’s been mucho taco talk in the Lowcountry of late: Semilla, Papi’s Taqueria, Azul Mexicano, El Pincho, and another Mex 1 location have all opened up shop recently with Mexican inspired or influenced cuisine. Food truck Rebel Taqueria scored a Workshop stall in September, Dashi is working on a storefront on Remount Road, and Maui Tacos has plans to open on Meeting Street later this year.
Too much of a good thing is a great thing, right? And the beauty of tacos is you can never really have too many (tequila is another story, friends). With that in mind, get ready to welcome Charleston newcomer Pink Cactus to Spring Street, going into the old Nacha Mama’s space.
Pink Cactus owner, a local native and certified sommelier Brooke Warden says she’s always loved Mexican food, so opening up yet another Mexican joint made sense. “I love spice, I love the relationship between food and beverage — I’ve been studying wine and beer and spirits for years, it’s an academic obsession.”
[embed-2] Warden’s hospitality career includes working with Modern American, French, Italian, and tasting menu-focused concepts like McCrady’s. But traditional Mexican fare — specifically from the interior of the country — is what stole Warden’s heart. “I want to bring something simple and clean [to the city], not just my interpretation of a taco.”
Helming the Cactus kitchen is chef Jeremy Paige, who comes from Brooklyn with a background working in Mexican restaurants Empellon and Gran Electric. His menu will focus on regional Mexican dishes with an emphasis on Oaxacan fare. Paige says it was chef Alex Stupak (founder of Empellon and co-author of Tacos: Recipes and Provocations), who stoked his passion for Mexican cuisine.
“I was coming out of culinary school and my advisors told me that someone exciting was coming to New York to open a restaurant,” says Paige. “Once I started working with him [Stupak], I fell in love with Mexican cuisine, the nuances of it. Just going from state to state within Mexico things change so much, it’s like I have the entire world at my disposal.”
We don’t have a full menu yet, but some teasers of Pink Cactus offerings include small bites like Yucatan inspired cauliflower Papanteca and Queso Fundido, plates like enchiladas de mole Madre and Chile en Nogada, plus a wide array of salsa and house-made masa tortillas. Beverages will include traditional aqua fresca and agave spirits that are “very vegetal, making drinks that are clean and refreshing.”
[embed-3] Warden says they’ll keep the menu very small with a focus on artisanal ingredients. The biggest boon to this Spring Street spot, according to Warden, will be the masa flour made in house. “It’s more labor intensive than people think,” she says. “You don’t get the flavor of the corn [without this flour], that flavor profile is the perfect neutral vessel for classic sauces and moles. House-made masa is like the difference between house-made biscuits and something that is store bought.”
Pink Cactus will operate the whole process in-house too, including nixtamalization — a process that involves soaking corn in a solution (usually lime water) that breaks down the outer fibrous shell to grind it down. “In Mexico it’s just such a common, normal thing,” Warden says of the time-intensive process.
Warden recently traveled to Mexico for research, “I wanted to get some more concrete ideas,” she says. She’d been to Oaxaca, and this time visited San Miguel and Guadalajara to get a broader feel for the country. She echoes Paige in extolling the virtues of Mexico’s versatility: “Things change drastically from each region, between mezcal, tequila, etc. [On this recent trip] I got to witness masa flour being made in the rustic, traditional way. They nixtamalized the corn right in front of me, and I got to see this beautiful corn smut, a corn fungus that’s actually a delicacy, like a truffle.”
Staying with a family in a ranch right outside of San Miguel, Warden is giddy describing how they grow their own corn and make masa and milk cows for fresh cheese all on one farm. “They sustain themselves with what they make.”
While there won’t be any cow milking at Pink Cactus, Warden and Paige hope to achieve that level of authenticity at the restaurant while also “pushing boundaries.”
“I think sometimes people are afraid — there’s no reason to have a menu that looks like a safety net,” says Warden. “We want to do something Charleston hasn’t seen, like bone marrow tacos. We’ll modify for people, there will be lots of vegetarian options, but we will have lengua (cow tongue). We want to capture a wide audience.”
Pink Cactus is currently undergoing construction, with plans to open before the end of the year. Warden says they’ll start with dinner service but will move to lunch and dinner once they’re on their feet. Keep up to date with Pink Cactus on Instagram.