Cactus Café, a Mexican cantina in Loughborough, is a local institution. It seems as popular now as it did when it opened back in 1990 and on a Saturday evening you’ll struggle to get a table if you haven’t already booked. We went early and managed to get a table for two near the bar and the newly painted fresco. We were directly under a neon Budweiser sign and that’s why all the photos are a bit crappy looking on this post (I can’t entirely blame Siggy’s phone and we were already a bit drunk).

By the time we left, the cantina was full up and as usual people were being turned away. Once owned by the same bloke that recently closed the failing Moomba Australian restaurant on the other side of town, the Cactus has been doing a roaring trade for decades. So what’s the secret of the Cactus’s success? To my mind it has to be the menu which has changed very little over the years and the nachos in particular are spoken about in awed whispers by the locals.

Looks like a nightmare but tastes like the best cheesy dream ever

The nachos come with a generous mixture of cheese, guacamole, salsa, two types of peppers and sour cream. The bowl has been put under the grill for a while to melt the cheese and this means that some of the nachos get a toasting too. There was time when they bought their nacho chips from Sainsbury’s supermarket – I have seen them do so back when I was a student living just round the corner – and they are still not made from scratch on the premises but they are, adorned with all the toppings, a thing of beauty.

The menu includes various types of burritos, quesadillas, enchiladas, fajitas, grills, blackened dishes and their chilli. There’s not a whole lot of choice for vegetarians but there are some options. There are some offers during the week and all the menus and further details about music nights for example can be found on their website.

As well as a constant menu there are the cocktails. Already having mixed our drinks too much, we stuck to bottled beers – Corona and Sol – with the obligatory lime slices in the necks of the bottles, but we have over the years sampled most of their cocktails. They are very good and not overly priced for a restaurant and the bar also serves tequila – although they don’t have an extensive list of different varieties and are maybe missing a trick there.

Again pretty hard to make this look attractive, but it was a joy on my tastebuds

I had a combo carne which combines a Texas beef chilli, Mexican rice, sour cream, guacamole and an open corn tortilla filed with spicy chicken, cheese and refried beans. Siggy had a relatively new addition to the menu – mini quesadilla. Both meals tasted a whole lot better than they looked. The chilli is particularly nice – I’m very picky with my chilli con carne and maybe sometime I’ll share my recipe on this blog.

An awful photo of Siggy’s cute little quesadillas. As someone on a nearby table commented ‘they’re just wraps’ – yup – that about sums up most of what the Cactus is about…

We shared a narrow slice of pecan pie with ice cream for dessert – the pie like most of the items on the menu is something they’ve been serving for years and depending on how drunk may result in me quoting When Harry Met Sally

All items on the menu are combinations of a small amount of ingredients and it’s understandable when you look into the kitchen which is by any stretch of the imagination miniscule – smaller even than the Print Room. The logistics involved in getting meals out in a timely fashion especially when the café fills with large groups must be complex and yet they appear to be able to cope no matter how busy they are.

I was proud to partake in their pecan pie

The service at the Cactus Café is always great, the food is well priced – we had the nachos, the two mains, a dessert and four bottles of Mexican beer for under £40.

So good menu, drinks and service – a winning combination and hopefully something that will stand them in good stead when the competition arrives. Which it will. The Cactus has enjoyed a Mexican monopoly  in Loughborough for years but now a new Mexican restaurant, situated in the hub of restaurants around the cinema complex a few minutes’ walk from the Cactus Café, will soon be opening its doors.