On Val Panizzut's first visit to his wife?s Mexican hometown, the co-owner of The Prickly Pear vowed he would name his first restaurant after the delicious fruit borne from cacti. Today, the fruition of that fruit-inspired idea offers expansive views of Lake Norman from its generous windows or patio seats, as well a menu of Mexican cuisine. Not content with just offering traditional tacos and burritos, the kitchen crafts modern Mexican dishes that have earned it numerous local press mentions. They pair the usual flavors of cotija cheese, chipotles and cilantro with, for example, fruits such as pear, mango, and pineapple, all in an effort to add savory, piquant, or sweet depth to shrimp dishes and adobo-rubbed chicken. To augment the adventurous atmosphere, live musical acts entertain guests on Thursday and Sunday nights?but they never say in advance exactly where in the restaurant they?ll hide as they play.
Monterrey’s chef, born in the restaurant’s namesake city, populates a menu with traditional Mexican dishes such as chilis poblanos, five kinds of fajitas, and seafood. In the sizzling fajitas ($9.95+), strips of steak or chicken roll up into flour tortillas as soft as a mattress stuffed with daydreams, and chihuahua cheese melts inside two deep-fried poblano peppers ($9.95). Delight taste buds with seafaring dishes such as the camarones al chipotle, where shrimp mingles with vegetables in a creamy chipotle sauce ($12.95), or tackle 10 inches of soft tortilla with chicken or steak, rice, bell peppers, and surfer jargon in the Super California burger ($11.95). Although not covered by this deal, the cantina pours carafes of homemade sangria alongside lime and peach margaritas ($9.50/half pitcher).
Inside the brightly decorated restaurant, chefs re-imagine Mexican plates with California-style touches. Surprising ingredients pepper Baja Soul's entire menu, including tucking caramelized red onions into steak tacos. The fish tacos—a house specialty—reflect the cross-border fusion, especially the Negra Modelo fish, battered in Negra Modelo and topped with refreshing pico de gallo and chipotle crema. Adventurous chefs remix spices and flavors in a sextet of house-made salsas, such as the piña-fire flavor brewed from roasted habañero chilies and sweetened with grilled pineapple.
Behind the full bar stocked with imported and craft beers, mixologists season mojitos with freshly pressed guarapo, or sugar-cane extract, and pour house-made margaritas and shots of premium tequilas. While servers whip up tableside guacamole, diners can play with interactive touchscreen booths that stream music and videos.
Owner Dalton Espaillat can be stubborn when it comes to what he allows in his kitchen at Three Amigos Mexican Grill and Cantina. He won’t permit premade sauces, or anything but the freshest vegetables and meats. He insists that the previous day’s rice, beans, and stove be discarded, and that new batches be whipped up in their stead. Dalton’s team of skilled chefs is more than happy to oblige, nimbly folding their ingredients into Mexican specialties lauded by reporters from CBS Charlotte as the best in town. The culinary team also specializes in traditional seafood dishes such as camarones a la diabla, loaded with plump shrimp. The kitchen staff extends their culinary expertise to a sweeping array of enchiladas—including the enchiladas poblanas with mole that reporters from Creative Loafing praised as “boldly complex” and “densely flavored.”
Come nightfall, the chefs turn their attention to a late-night menu of Dominican specialties, from empanadas to chimi burgers—ideal snacks after a long night of dancing or rustling oxen. Customers await their meals out in the lively dining room, clinking glasses of micheladas and freshly squeezed margaritas.