Set in the once-home of both Nacha Mama’s and Garcia’s Tortilla House on Spring Street, Pink Cactus is sticking with the genre, offering sophisticated, regional Oaxacan fare and potentially turning ¡Oaxaca! into a local battle cry, or at least a notable buzzword.
Located in the southern part of the nation, Oaxaca’s cuisine is something of the “soul food” of Mexico, and key culinary contributions include cinnamon-infused chocolate, stringy Oaxacan cheese, and mole. Despite being commonly summarized as “the thick sauce made with chocolate,” there are actually seven classic Oaxacan mole preparations, only four of which contain cacao.
Such a chocolate-free, cashew mole can be found on Pink Cactus’ tetela de borego ($8), which the waitress charmingly compared to a Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme. And she’s not wrong. (Don’t ask me how I know this.) It’s extremely small and quite spicy, filled with barbacoa lamb and garnished with fresh watercress leaves. Yet something about the combined mouthfeel and flavor really is strikingly similar to the one found while making a border run. Or maybe that’s more of a testimony to the power of suggestion?
Nonetheless, note that Pink Cactus is about as far as one can get from fast food. They’re not only making their own corn tortillas, they’re actually grinding the masa for the tortillas in-house. If that’s not enough, their Instagram indicates they’re utilizing varying corns (white, blue, reddish-purple) and creating tortillas specific to each application, efforts which result in a thick, chewy round with an unmistakably fresh taste.
While they don’t include any homemade tortillas, the gambas ($12) are a beautiful sight. The five, head-on local shrimp are ensconced in a flavorful, smoked pepper-based rub that’s more than tasty enough to render the accompanying arbol aioli unnecessary. Yes, they’re messy and the heads are a bit too cooked and crunchy to comfortably consume (again, don’t ask me how I know this), but it’s still a dish worth sharing.
Available at lunch and dinner, the taco de coliflor ($4) elevates its namesake ingredient. The vegetarian offering is rich with the flavors of chipotle, and the pumpkin and sesame seeds add body to each cauliflower-filled bite. Meanwhile, the taco de pescado ($5) comes with three fried chunks of fish plus Brussels sprouts, cotija cheese, and radishes. While all of that sounds enchanting, in reality it’s hard to taste much over the noise of the pickled onions.
Speaking of volume, note the hip, chill vibe of the interior is pretty much instantly shattered by the incredibly loud music. Booming both inside and out, the spacey world/electronica beats evoke an ultra-hip Buddha Bar ambiance, spiked with the nervous expectation that exasperated neighbors might soon show up to shake their fists and bitch about the noise. Hide from them inside, where great care has been given to the design. Utterly transformed, the small space is now chic and stylish, with white walls, dark wooden banquettes, and fun Mexican curios, not to mention the world’s most enviable kitchen doors.
Owner Brooke Warden is also a sommelier, and the menu includes a smattering of predominantly Spanish wines by the glass and bottle, as well as creative cocktails, most of which feature tequila or mezcal. The signature Pink Cactus margarita ($8) is a spectacle. It arrives garnished with a dab of black salt, presumably an attempt to balance the libation’s bubblegum flavor and Barbie doll coloring, both naturally derived from the fruit of the rose-hued prickly pear cactus.
Should you elect to dine outside, technically in a parking lot shared with The Veggie Bin, note that as the sun sets, things get mighty dark. However, even blindfolded, we would have discerned that the tamale de costilla con mole coloradito ($16) inexplicably contained two different types of tamales. The first was fair and tender, filled with juicy braised short rib and a touch of well-prepared white masa. ¡Magnífico!
The second — dark, dense, and mealy — resulted in the following conversation between my dining companions.
“What am I eating? Is this meat? What is this?”
“It’s masa. It’s entirely too much masa.”
In the end, we were informed it was actually a lamb tamal, later discovered to be part of the brunch menu and thus (presumably) a few days old, which probably explains it. On the upside, the mole Colorado ladled over both is superb, nuanced, and spicy, and confirms chef Jeremy Page’s firm grasp of technique.
While Puebla, the state adjacent to Oaxaca, is credited with inventing the chile relleno ($15), Pink Cactus makes it all their own with the addition of manchamanteles or “tableclothing staining” mole. A single roasted poblano pepper is filled with perfectly cooked duck meat and topped with melted cheese. With nary a molecule of egg batter in sight, the unexpected twist — and breakout star — is the unusual mole, bright red and possessed of light cinnamon and clove notes.
Similarly, the enchiladas de mole negro ($18) are a celebration of the best-known mole variation, the chocolate/nut/cinnamon kind. Also the most substantial item sampled, the two white meat chicken-filled tortillas are accompanied by a hearty portion of smoky achiote rice and refried black beans so thick and overcooked that they were mistaken for some kind of fudge in the darkness. Nonetheless, the mole itself is complex and flavorful, culminating in an uncommonly satisfying variation on enchiladas.
While decidedly, even relentlessly focused on bringing something unique to the Charleston dining scene, there’s also a lot about Pink Cactus that conjures memories of Pancito & Lefty, the now-shuttered joint that also offered an authentic, sophisticated take on tamales, queso fundido, and mezcal cocktails. Perhaps the whole ‘refined Mexican small plate’ concept employed by both was before P&L’s time, but here’s raising a glass of neon pink prickly pear juice in the hopes Pink Cactus’ painstaking, admirable efforts — most obvious in the handmade tortillas and complex, traditional moles — are rewarded.