"Please email me your favorite cactus recipe, preferably a simple one. Love you, Dad." An email missive from my bachelor father appeared in my inbox, and I instantly worried—knowing him—that he'd decided to try cooking and eating the giant cactus that had been growing in his backyard.
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"It won't die," I recalled him telling me a few weeks earlier. He hacked it to bits and replanted the lopped-off cactus paddles elsewhere in the garden, where new cacti shot up with equal vigor. He shot the large, mother plant with a BB gun for target practice; the beast showed no signs of damage a few days later. It was nigh indestructable. I imagined him mulling over the idea to eat the tenacious plant in an effort to absorb its mana, or simply to find some other way to torment the poor thing.
A day later: "No recipes? I used them in migas. Not a hit." I hadn't responded quickly enough. This time, I emailed my father back and told him nopales, or cactus paddles that have been cleaned and cut into long, thin strips, tasted better when cooked mostly on their own, sauteed with just some tomatoes and onions. Migas, not so much. I couldn't imagine the tart flavor of nopales nor the slimy, mucilaginous texture—similar to that of okra—working well with eggs, tortilla chips, and cheese.
One of the best places to try nopales is at Laredo Taqueria, where you can enjoy the cactus in one of its most humble forms: sauteed with those aforementioned tomatoes and onions, then heaped into a freshly-made flour tortilla that's buttressed with a gentle smear of refried beans to hold the slippery nopales in place. It's a rare vegetarian option at a restaurant that does not otherwise dabble in vegetarian fare, but nopales aren't treated as second-class citizens here. Nopales are a popular staple in the Mexican diet, full of Vitamin C, calcium, and other minerals, and are therefore given the same love and attention at Laredo Taqueria as their fajita tacos, chicharron tacos, or any other meat option.
The fact that each taco de nopales is only $2 makes this an affordable way to experiment with nopales if you've never tried them before, and certainly safer (if only a smidge more expensive) than cutting up the cactus paddles in your own backyard. Which my father swears he wasn't planning on doing. I only half-way believe him.