In the Sonoran desert, cactus is king. No matter where you turn, you’ll find evidence of its reign just about everywhere—including on your plate.
While such a menu item might befuddle out-of-towners (“You can eat a cactus?!”), locals and adventurous eaters alike know that beneath its sharp exterior lies the makings of a tasty, tender dish we call nopales.
A time-honored staple in Mexican cuisine, nopales or nopalitos are the prepared pads of the opuntia cactus, more commonly known as the prickly pear. So long-standing is this dish, that its existence predates Spain’s arrival to Mexico and can be traced back to the Aztecs. In fact, the Spanish term “nopal” was derived from the Nahuatl word “nohpalli,” both of which refer to this particular species of cactus.
Don’t let the tough skin and sharp spines fool you—nopales can be quite tender, with a slightly gelatinous texture and satisfying crunch that’s often compared to okra or green beans. When cooked to perfection, they make a flavorful addition to any meal. If left simmering for too long, however, nopales are apt to take on a slimy, less appetizing texture.
Like the vegetables they mimic, nopales also happen to be incredibly nutritious, serving as a good source of vitamin C, magnesium, and calcium. They are typically prepared sliced or chopped, served grilled or boiled, and are used in everything from eggs and soups to tacos and sauces.
We’re so glad you asked. Several restaurants throughout Tucson’s Sonoran culinary scene incorporate the indigenous ingredient into dishes like crispy panko-crusted nopales fries, vegan enchiladas, steak entrées, and more.
Here are a few local spots where you can dine on nopales dishes and discover why this cultural cactus dish truly rules.
Inspired by the flavors of traditional Mexican cuisine along with Spanish and French influences, the menu at Penca is packed with classic ingredients—including nopales.
The restaurant’s vegetarian tacos arrive with a generous portion of grilled prickly pear cactus and are topped with salsa verde, pickled onions, queso fresco, and a sprinkling of cilantro.
For more information, visit pencarestaurante.com.
If you’re new to nopales, sampling the cactus in fried form is a great place to start. After all, who doesn’t love french fries?
This hot, crispy panko-breaded appetizer arrives with sides of house-made tomato aioli and salsa verde. While they’re no longer “officially” on the menu (the manager says that they’re hard to come by year-round), you can still request them from the kitchen, secret-menu style.
For more information, visit agustinkitchen.com.
As the chef and owner of plant-based Mexican restaurant Tumerico, Wendy Garcia knows a thing or two about the power of nopales and often incorporates the cacti into her ever-evolving menu.
You’ll find various nopales dishes, nopales mixed into sides or in various other dishes for an added boost of flavor and nutrients.
For more information, visit tumerico.com.
You don’t have to be vegan to enjoy the Vegan Nopalito Enchiladas at the historic El Charro Cafe, which has been churning out traditional northern Mexico-Sonoran style food since 1922.
This meatless dish features soft corn tortillas loaded with nopalitos and topped with enchilada sauce and vegan cheese.
For more information, visit elcharrocafe.com.
Known for Sonoran-style Mexican cuisine, Charro Steak has found a way to incorporate nopales into a cheesy beloved standby: queso. The Spinach & Nopalitos en Crema comes in side-size portion that’s shareable for two.
For more information, visit charrosteak.com.
Featuring a gallery-like menu with a “Charro Family” spin, Charro del Rey mostly features sustainably sourced seafood served along with other staples inspired by Mexican regions like Sinaloa and Sonora.
The Asparagustos! is one of those accompaniments which features oven-roasted asparagus and nopalito spears, bacon, and a creamy drizzle of chile verde hollandaise.
For more information, visit charrodelrey.com.
Embracing a Mediterranean, European, and Sonoran Desert heritage, the newly opened Charro Vida takes a healthy approach to Mexican cooking.
Nopales dishes like the Vida Bowl are cooked on dedicated wood-fired grills, with this particular menu item featuring nutritious nopalitos along with grains, avocado, roasted papas and corn. You can add protein or even order this dish as a burrito.
For more information, visit charrovida.com.
If you’re extra hungry for nopales (and richly flavored flank steak) order the generously portioned Flank Steak Molcajete at Elvira’s on Congress.
This bubbling-hot dish is served in a traditional stone bowl (the molcajete) and features the grilled steak mixed with salsa verde, nopales, jalapeño, and queso panela.
Keep up with Elvira’s on Facebook.
Have a favorite spot to try nopales? Let us know on the comments.