Tres leches cake served with ice cream and a berry glaze

Tres leches cake served with ice cream and a berry glaze

On a typical Saturday night in Meridian, a town of some 1,500 people about 50 miles northwest of Waco, the Cactus Grill’s shoebox-shaped dining room hums with conversation.

Cactus Grill is at 120 N. Main St. in Meridian. Hours: Wed-Mon 11-2 for lunch, Thur-Sat 5-9 for dinner. Call 254/435-6062.

Saucy Recipes

Looking for a sauce to enhance your next meal? Here are three possiblities:

Spiced Coffee Sauce

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Spanish Sauce

Glasses of wine clink over candlelight, and friends wave at each other across tables. A block from the downtown square and the historic Bosque County Courthouse, the Cactus frequently draws diners from surrounding counties and beyond for a meal.

Why they come this far quickly becomes clear. Co-owner Veronica Contreras greets customers at the door with small-town friendliness, leads the way to their table, and hands them a menu that reflects the restaurant’s cross-cultural influences. Entrées such as Southwest chicken pasta with creamy chipotle sauce, and beef kabobs with grilled vegetables interweave Latin American, New American, and Mediterranean influences.

I wondered how such sophistication found its way to Meridian until Veronica explained that her husband and head chef, Raul, honed his culinary skills for 25 years at Italian, French, and Mediterranean restaurants in Dallas. The couple eventually moved south to work at a restaurant in Whitney, then opened the Cactus Grill nine years ago.

Since then it has cultivated quite a following. Many visitors “don’t expect a restaurant like this” in Meridian, Raul says. “The food here is not fancy, but I try to make things with good products.”

The décor feels laid-back and Western without being kitschy. Barnwood planks cover one side, and a silhouette of a cowboy rides across the opposite plastered stone wall. Southwestern tapestries hang from the high bead-board ceiling, a wire basket holds an arrangement of deer antlers, and Texas Star wall sconces add a warm glow.

My husband and I visit frequently from our home south of Glen Rose, and we appreciate both the service and the prices—most of the entrées cost less than $20, with the exception of market-price steaks. And we also appreciate Chef Raul’s creativity, especially in his sauces, which reflect the places he’s cooked and his roots in northern Mexico.

“His nickname is ‘The King of the Sauces,’” says Veronica with a laugh. “Almost every dish we serve comes with a special sauce. Every day he makes 10-12 different sauces, and that’s not even counting the salad dressings, which he also makes fresh.”

And because the Cactus has become one of our favorite dining spots, on our most recent visit we invited Dan’s parents, Charles and Grace, to join us and sample Raul’s latest creations.

Many visitors “don’t expect a restaurant like this” in Meridian, Raul says. “The food here is not fancy, but I try to make things with good products.”

We stopped outside the restaurant door to scan the posted evening specials—grilled rib-eye steak with a red wine-roasted garlic demi-glace and sautéed asparagus, plus herb-crusted tilapia with blackened mashed potatoes and sugar snap peas. We kept those in mind as Veronica opened the bottle of Zinfandel we had brought (the Cactus is BYOB) and returned with four wine glasses. Then the dining debate began.

To start, we considered our options, among them grilled asparagus and tomatoes topped with crab meat in a Béarnaise sauce and Parmesan cheese; seared scallops with champagne mango sauce; shrimp fondue; and smoked salmon served with guacamole and sour cream flavored with lime and cumin. We settled on a generous portion of tender yet crunchy fried calamari, which was arranged on a bed of greens dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette. We didn’t leave a morsel on the plate.

The main course proved another difficult decision. The Southwest penne pasta in chipotle-cream sauce tempted us, as did the grilled red snapper with a caper beurre blanc sauce and pecan-crusted pork medallions paired with a lemon butter sauce. The broiled Atlantic king salmon hooked my craving for seafood, and the dill citronette sauce added a piquant note. Served with roasted potato hash, asparagus, baby spinach, onions, and tomatoes, the dish combined flavor and color.

Broiled salmon with asparagus, tomatoes, and other vegetables.

Broiled salmon with asparagus, tomatoes, and other vegetables.

Dan and Charles both opted for the rib-eye special. Dan generously offered me a taste, and I swirled a bite of the tender, juicy meat in the savory sauce. While it was delicious, I prefer the rib-eye on the regular menu because it’s served with a mound of spicy “tobacco” onions on top, plus bacon-and-cheddar mashed potatoes.

For dessert, Raul’s homemade vanilla flan, a nod to his Latin heritage, offers a not-too-sweet finish. A triangle of the creamy custard floats in a pool of caramel sauce, and it’s beautifully presented with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkling of cinnamon. The tres leches and rum-almond-coconut cakes also stand out on the changing dessert menu.

At lunch, the Cactus Grill goes lighter with salads—spinach with caramelized apples, candied pecans, grapes, goat cheese, and champagne raspberry vinaigrette gets my vote—plus pasta dishes, burgers and other sandwiches, Mexican specialties like quesadillas and tacos, and chicken-fried steak.

We’ll gladly make the drive to Meridian to keep up with seasonal changes in the Cactus Grill’s offerings, and to see what kinds of creative culinary combinations Chef Raul comes up with next.

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