Venue Review: Prickly Pear
The Charlotte Observer
761 N. Main St., Mooresville
Imagine if France were dotted with small American restaurants, but the only thing they served was chili and hot dogs.
That's the dilemma of Mexican food in America. We say we love it, but we reduce the cuisine of an entire nation to snacks and street food such as tacos and nachos. Where's the complexity of Oaxaca, the rustic richness of the Yucatan, or the ocean-fresh seafood of Veracruz?
That alone makes it worth the trip to the Prickly Pear in Mooresville, an oasis among the fake-Mex, beer-soaked experience of American Mexican restaurants since it opened in 2002. It's heartening just to stand in the foyer and listen to people as they leave: "That was a great meal." "That was really gourmet." You want to grab their hands and thank them for supporting the difference.
The inside is lovely, all high ceilings, earth tones and metallic art of cacti and suns. At sunset, the light through the west windows gives the whole place a cathedral-like glow. That's fitting: It's housed in a former Catholic church built in 1944 with rafters that are believed to date to the late 1700s.
The menu is a comforting blend of the familiar, such as fajitas, chicken, pork chops, beef and fish, flavored with more authentic ingredients including funky huitlacoche - corn fungus that tastes a little like mushrooms - guajillo peppers and cotija cheese. There is even some prickly pear fruit spread around, in the ball of sweet pink butter that comes with your dinner roll, and in the house cocktail, the Prickly Pear Margarita.
Speaking of drinks, proceed with caution. Margaritas come in two sizes, but even the small is a schooner the size of a goldfish bowl. The dark-pink Prickly Pear is fruity but not too sweet. The only drawback is that the salt-rimmed glass is so big and wide, the ice melts quickly, leaving you with margarita water if you don't drink it quickly enough. If you're not up to the challenge, consider not-too-sweet sangria, made with four wines, fruit juice and a little tequila.
But authenticity doesn't mean you can't have fun. Did we mention they have really big margaritas? Guacamole is prepared tableside, from a big tray of fresh avocado, pico de gallo, olive oil and diced jalapenos so you can designate your heat level. With the natural fattiness of avocado, adding a drizzle of olive oil seems redundant. But the fruitiness of the oil brings out the nuttiness of the avocado, resulting in a dip worth fighting for with your last tortilla chip.
Entrees come with a choice of salad or soup. Now, salad is a perfectly nice choice, topped with plenty of crunchy jicama strips. But the cream of corn soup is the way to go. It's soulfully creamy and corny, and they take the time to do a generous squiggle of creme fraiche over the top. Nice touch for a "comes with" that restaurants sometimes pass off with as little effort as possible.
Garnishes and sauces seem to be a speciality of this kitchen. Everything arrives topped, striped, sprinkled or pooled with something. Marbella, a plate of generously filled seafood tortillas, are arranged on a lobster-chipotle cream sauce with as much creamy flavor as the corn soup and a bright green serving of cilantro rice.
Cochinita Pibil, Yucatan-style roasted pork, is finished with a vivid tomatillo salsa and a pile of vinegared onions that give the whole plate snap and contrast. The small chunks of pork could have been a little fattier - that's what makes slow-cooked pig meat such a guilty pleasure - but they were moist enough, served on a bed of red Spanish-style rice.
Tres Leches Cake comes as a tall square of cake in a pool of milky sauce drizzled with Day-Glo stripes of mango and pomegranate sauces.
The only complaint we had was the leisurely pace of service. It wasn't neglectful, but we had to wave down servers a couple of times, first to get a beer long after the margarita had dissolved into melted ice, and again after an extended wait for the check. But it's a tough balance between service so fast you feel like you're being rushed, and service that lets you linger.
In such a lovely space, lingering isn't a bad choice.