ANN ARBOR — The Prickly Pear Southwest Cafe and its neighbor, the Ark, a mecca for folk and roots music, are two good reasons for planning a visit to this Michigan city with a lively food scene.
When you open the door of the Prickly Pear, situated on busy South Main Street, you walk into a cozy, somewhat narrow room with warm lighting, high-backed booths on both sides of the room, and tables in the middle. The restaurant serves lunch, dinner, and a Sunday brunch.
The Prickly Pear describes its food as Southwest inspired, and various online reviews referred to it as Mexican, Tex-Mex, and upscale Tex-Mex, but whatever you call it, we found the Prickly Pear’s food delicious.
One of the people in our party who is a frequent diner there described the place as the kind of restaurant with which she has a love-hate relationship. Love: The food is so good she can’t wait to go back. Hate: The food is so good, she doesn’t want to try any other restaurants.
★ ★ ★ ★
Address: 328 S. Main St., Ann Arbor, MI
Menu: Southwestern inspired
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Average price: $$
Credit cards: MC, V, AE, D
Unlike some places that cover its dishes with large amounts of cheese, the Prickly Pear uses just enough to enhance its high-quality ingredients, she added.
One of her favorites is the seasonal gazpacho soup ($7). It’s a burst of flavors: fresh tomatoes, crunchy celery, subtle bell peppers, and just enough onions and spice to make it interesting. She says the soup is as good in October as it was in August, the height of the tomato season. Pair it with an appetizer of sweet potato cakes ($9 for one, $12 for two), croquettes of mashed potatoes, lightly breaded and sauteed enough that the crunchy coating was a delightful counterpoint to the smooth potato inside.
On another lunch visit she chose the butternut squash soup ($6 for a cup, $7 for a bowl) and the shrimp quesadilla ($11 for half, $14 for full). The soup was blended until smooth, with just a little liquid added — chicken stock, maybe — to make it more than a puree. It was topped with pine nut butter and a few toasted pine nuts for texture. Be sure to swirl the butter through the soup; it adds a lot of flavor.
The half-size quesadilla was plenty with the bowl of soup. The grilled 6-inch flour tortilla had a layer of melted cheese that helped to hold the seasoned grilled shrimp in place — and it was stuffed with shrimp.
According to the menu, the quesadilla comes with a side salad, but the server agreed to substitute the jicama slaw. Jicama is often called a Mexican turnip, but it’s sweeter and milder than most turnips our friend has encountered. Paired with red cabbage and a honey vinaigrette dressing, it added a punch of color to the plate. Ordered as a salad, the slaw is $6, but there was no price increase for the substitution.
Desserts vary daily. On this visit we chose a slice of a dense chocolate cake with a chocolate icing coated with chopped hazelnuts ($8). There was plenty to share, and even some to take home for a treat later that evening.
On that lunch visit, I passed up my first choice, the Habanero New York Strip Steak Southwestern Roll-Up ($15) served with red and green peppers, onions, chihuahua cheese, tomatoes, and sour cream and served with jicama slaw. Instead I ordered a nicely seasoned beef-brisket burrito ($13) filled with the beef, beans, and cheese. It was served with an ample side dish of beans and rice, also seasoned just enough.
On several visits, our servers were attentive and fast. It seems safe to say that everything on the restaurant’s menus comes in only one size: large. Some day we’ll save room for some of the appetizers on the lunch menu, which include Skillet Seared Chihuahua Cheese ($10) with warm pepper chutney, cilantro pesto, and a side of flour tortillas, or maybe the ubiquitous Cheese Nachos ($7).
At dinner one evening, another friend said his half-order of the Warm Cheese & Pepper Salad ($8) could have been a meal in itself: organic mixed greens topped with grilled anejo cheese, roasted peppers, tomatoes, and a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette dressing. But he added a half-order of the Chicken Poblano Rellenos ($15), which consisted of poblano peppers filled with chicken and cheese, dusted with corn masa and pan-fried, and served over sauteed spinach and topped with red mole and a cheese sauce.
Our dinner menus came with a sheet of paper listing the Specials of the Day, and they were tempting, but too much to choose from. Appetizers included BBQ Glazed Sea Scallops with jicama slaw, and Spiced Fried Cauliflower with cilantro lime aioli (each $9). Among three entrees was Grilled Salmon with Chipotle Butter, sweet potato cake, and spinach sauteed ($20). The desserts included a chocolate layer cake, Key lime pie, Chocolate chunk Cheesecake, Apple Almond Torte, and Pumpkin Cheesecake, each priced at $8.
The specials menu ended with a note that specialty beers from Arbor Brewing Co. were available for $4.50, and several patrons were sipping margaritas from what looked like champagne glasses.
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