The Fat Cactus
1374 North Main St., Randolph
Hours: Monday-Thursday, Sunday: 11:30 a.m. – 1 a.m. (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.) Friday-Saturday: 11:30 a.m. – 1 a.m. (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.)
Accepts major credit cards
Accessible to handicapped
Never has the real estate adage “location, location, location” applied more aptly than to The Fat Cactus, described as a Mexicali cantina, in Randolph.
Its location, attached to a hotel on Route 28 right off I-93 and in view of the highway, practically ensures a clientele looking for convenience. Unfortunately, convenience is usually forgettable, and so are the meals here.
The Fat Cactus opened in July 2011, and given the lukewarm response from online reviewers, I decided to give it a year to mature before visiting for the first time. Over several visits, I’ve concluded that most of the criticisms are justified, though there are also many positive aspects.
The Randolph location (there’s another in Lynnfield) was custom-built for this Tex-Mex restaurant, complete with a California Mission-style bell gable and covered patio area for al fresco dining. The restaurant seats 275, while the patio seats 90. On hot, sticky summer evenings, it’s easy to see the appeal of sipping a cool margarita here while enjoying almost-daily live entertainment and taking in the views of the nearby Blue Hills.
If the thousands of empty liquor bottles hanging from the ceiling are any indication, this is a place for people who enjoy drinks. Perhaps the slightly tipsy would not be overwhelmed by the colorful decor, which includes walls painted with orange spots and lime-green sponge bricks and further adorned with colorful enameled suns, fish, and lizards, and stuffed parrots holding beer bottles. Another clue is that the laminated menu has food on one side and drinks on the other.
My duty, however, is to assess the food (even though a few dishes made me wish I had taken up drinking instead).
First, the good. The complimentary chips and salsa were encouraging starts. The salsa was fresh and bright-tasting, bursting with sweet tomato flavor. Said my herb-averse teenage daughter: “It’s so good that I didn’t mind the parsley.”
The tequila lime-marinated chicken wings ($9) were the best things we ate at The Fat Cactus. The plate of 10 meaty and tender wings had a citrusy burst. The accompanying ranch dressing and carrot and celery sticks provided a cooling element.
An order of the bandido baby back ribs ($17) was also a good choice. The tender ribs had been marinated in a Southwestern sauce of brown sugar and spices, and slow-cooked until the meat slid off the bone. The plate came with cornbread, jicama slaw, and crispy fries.
The pasta de pollo San Pedro ($13) is a plate of blackened chicken breast slices served over penne and mushrooms tossed in a creamy poblano pepper sauce and topped with Parmesan cheese. The chicken was moist and flavorful, and not overly charred as I had feared. For the price, however, I expected more than five thin slices of chicken.
The carne asada tacos ($11) were grilled steak marinated in lime juice and spices and stuffed in soft flour tortillas, and served with rice, beans, slaw, and sour cream. The dish satisfied a hungry teenager, but the flavors aren’t memorable for more discriminating palates.
Now on to the dishes to skip. The Puerto Vallarta fish taco ($11) is described as being seasoned and lightly battered. But I found the crunchy, fried white fish so salty and dry that I gave up after two bites. A chicken chimichanga ($11) was bland and uncomfortably heavy with oil.
The lobster quesadilla ($17) here is an affront to the New England seafood tradition. The spongy texture and tastelessness of the lobster, characteristics of its being previously frozen, detracted from the bright freshness of the colorful bell peppers and tomato chunks.
The Fat Cactus offers two desserts, flan and chocolate piña colada pudding ($6 each). We tried the pudding, which was topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, shredded coconut, and drizzled with chocolate fudge. We enjoyed its cool creaminess on a hot afternoon. But aside from the coconut shreds, I couldn’t determine what made it “piña colada.” Also, the pudding tasted like mass-produced supermarket pudding.
Online reviewers have railed about poor service, but we found our servers attentive and prompt.
The restaurant is planning to offer a lunch buffet, Monday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The offerings include enchiladas, tacos, pasta, rice, beans, chicken wings, salad bar, and daily specials, all for $10, or $5 for children.
The lesson to learn from my experience? Avoid seafood at a Tex-Mex place, and lower your expectation for Tex-Mex staples.