For this mission, the Recon Patrol (RP) went deep undercover in order to bring you the lowdown on a new spot in Shadyside, The Steel Cactus: Authentic Mexican Restaurante & Cantina. We spent a few nights snooping around this smooth-looking, modern cantina, the latest offering from the AMP’D Group (who brought you South Side’s “Local” and “Diesel” restaurant/bars) to give you a taste of their recent Walnut Street addition.
During our first night undercover, we were posing as civilians enjoying a packed and finally precipitation-free “Jam on Walnut.” Pushing through the street crowd, we couldn’t help but notice a commotion coming from a rooftop deck above. Looking up, the party overhead called out to us like a siren song announcing an oasis in the desert. Outside the first floor entrance stands a full-size steel cactus; careful, don’t back up into it. We were lured into line for a couple of minutes before funneling upstairs to join the party. Number one on our agenda was a quick tour, so we grabbed a few beers from the cheery “beer girl” and began our lap around the perimeter.
Now, this isn’t a huge place, but they do a good job of incorporating many unique architectural and decorative features. The whole place renders a warm and inviting feel, with its mix of metal and wood-paneled walls (made from antique wood) and mellow lighting. The main space (2nd floor) exudes a classic cantina feel, with people congregating around the main bar. The front wall of retractable windows was slung open, so The Recon Patrol pushed the limits and grabbed a spot along the railing, giving us a bird’s-eye view of the action below.
Looking down over the swarming crowd below, you felt like you were at Mardi Gras, minus the beads and floats. It rendered a great view of the night’s band, Donora and Radio Tokyo, who belted out original tunes and classic rock covers all night. We observed the crowd throwing down with increasing enthusiasm and tighter dance moves with every passing song. After seeing multiple interpretations of “going swimming” and “the sprinkler” from the crowd on the street, the RP paused for a few final minutes to check out Shadyside’s largest rooftop deck, which offers full dining service and a second island bar. In spite of the overflowing crowd, the intimate, relaxed atmosphere shone through.
Our intelligence reports multiple guests raving about the food. The RP was definitely going back in on a follow-up mission.
The second trip to Steel Cactus occurred on a more mellow evening, but it was every bit as fun. We headed up around dinnertime on a Saturday night with our sights set on some serious Mexican food and cocktails. Another short wait, but Steel Cactus’ text-alert system allowed us to poke around Walnut Street and take in some window shopping. Quoting one Recon Patrol member, “every extra minute of shopping is a good thing.” It definitely beats standing in line.
Our intelligence mentioned that the queso dip was a hot ticket. And to our surprise, the menu listed five different types. We ultimately decided on the guacamole ($7), tremendously tasty paired with their homemade tortilla chips. For dinner I went with the Three Amigos ($7), a chicken, pork and beef taco, served with the standard Mexican-style rice and beans. It was the perfect accompaniment to all the Mexican beers I was drinking and quickly elicited a RP kitchen patrol shout-out.
So did their long list of cantina beers, (Modelo, Corona, Pacifico, Tecate, etc.) and all of their traditional Mexican cocktails. Margaritas are their specialty, served in a glass as big as a fishbowl. Some notable options are “Chunky Pineapple,” and, of course, the famous “Yinzerita.” Maybe $10 is a bit steep for a cocktail, but how can you have a bad time drinking a Margarita with your favorite beer stuck in upside-down?
RP reported back a good time during both of our Steel Cactus visits. It’s a new place, so they are still finding their groove. Our drinks were always full, our food well-prepared and our servers were always attentive. Next time you’re out and about in Shadyside, pop into the Steel Cactus for some great Mexican food, drink and vibe.
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
5505 Walnut St. (2nd & 3rd floors) Shadyside