Prickly Pear brings gourmet twist to Mexican meals
by Staff Writer
by Cathy Swiney
MOORESVILLE – Val Panizzut wants people to stretch their palate for Mexican food beyond the Tex-Mex and street fare that many know so well.
He wants them to experience authentic Mexican dishes that take advantage of modern preparation and artistic presentation for a meal that is full of flavor.
That is the premise behind the menu at his Mooresville restaurant, The Prickly Pear, which goes beyond quesadillas, enchiladas and tacos. Instead, it showcases dishes prepared with chiles such as pasilla and guajillo, sauces such as tomato-jalapeno cream and mojo-habanero, and rice flavored with cilantro and mango.
Also on the menu that is lesser known in these parts is huitlacoche. Called corn smut, this fungus that grows on ears of corn is considered a delicacy and is used on the menu in rice and risotto.
“It’s introducing these very traditional ingredients that have been used for centuries,” Panizzut, who owns the restaurant with Eddie Chavez said. “You won’t find this menu anywhere else.
“It’s a little scary to have a menu that people don’t know and have people walk out when they don’t see anything familiar,” he said. “It’s a risk, but it’s been good to us. In general, people are open to trying different things.”
The opportunity to try Mexican fare that is more fine dining than finger food recently got easier. The lunch-and-dinner restaurant moved from its nine-year home in an old Catholic church near downtown Mooresville to a more central location in a spot on the lake that is not far off the interstate.
“We can’t duplicate the ambiance of the church, but we love being closer to everybody,” Panizzut said. “Here we are significantly busier in the kitchen and dining room.”
Panizzut said he looks forward to seeing the reactions when customers see the dining room’s spectacular view of the lake.
And while the atmosphere has changed, the food has not.
“We haven’t changed a single recipe,” he says. “Of course I wouldn’t. People like my food.”
The contemporary interior is filled with a mix of tables and booths. Tables covered with black cloth topped with white butcher paper are set with utensils and wine glasses and adorned with wine bottles and red votives.
Mexican artwork adorns beige walls, and a cactus sculpture near the bar and stone columns complete the look. The view of the water from the inside is calming, but you can catch a lake breeze with your meal on the spacious patio, enclosed by an open black iron fence.
When you sit down, you’ll notice it’s not a typical Mexican restaurant when your server delivers bread to the table rather than a basket of chips and salsa. But chips and salsa are available as an appetizer.
Tableside prepared Guacamole Fresco is a solid way to begin the meal. The chunky avocado dip, served with chips and salsa, is made with pico de gallo, jalapeno peppers and a touch of olive oil. Calamar al Chipotle, calamari steak served with tomato-honey salsa, is another option.
Marbella is the house specialty winning the most customer attention. The dish combines shrimp, crabmeat, tomato, green onion, ancho rajas and Monterrey jack cheese rolled in flour tortillas. It is served with lobster-chipotle cream sauce, cilantro rice and seasonal vegetables.
Enjoy a little bit of surf and turf with Mar y Tierra. The dish includes petite filet, shrimp a la Diablo, roasted chile poblano, corn, onion, cotija cheese and huitlacoche rice. Filete de Hierro features pecan-encrusted flat iron steak topped with black bean sauce, roasted corn puree, red chilaquiles, wilted greens and cotija cheese.
Those looking for a unique spin on traditional Mexican fare can order fajitas, with meats receiving flavor-enhancing attention. Adobo steak, tamarind-chipotle chicken and mango-citrus shrimp are grilled with onions and red and green peppers. They are served with warm corn or flour tortillas, charro beans, pico de gallo, sour cream and shredded cheese.
Polish off the meal with flair and order tres leche cake or mango cheesecake.