Last week was spring break. My wife Carolyn is a teacher, so with the week off, we went south to Arizona for a few days.

We stayed at the Arizona Inn, a 1930’s boutique resort hotel with beautifully maintained adobe buildings, lush gardens (challenging in this climate), and a DVD collection featuring actors who have stayed at on the grounds over the past 80 years or so. One night, we watched a movie with James Cagney and Bette Davies called “The Bride Came C.O.D.,” in which Ms. Davis repeatedly falls into a patch of paddle cacti and gets a butt-full of thorns (more on this in a moment).

These paddle cacti – which are abundant all over the state of Arizona – bear two kinds of foodstuffs.

The cactus paddles themselves – called nopales – can be cleaned of thorns and prepared as “nopalitos,” frequently seen in Mexican restaurants, including local places like New Rebozo.  Usually, they’re cooked and sliced thin, to be served in a salad or garnish; they have the texture and a similar taste to cooked green pepper.

Cleaning is very challenging, as in addition to large fang-like thorns, there are many hundreds of small, hair-like clusters of prickles.  We picked some nopales to bring home, and Carolyn brought home a few of their tiny yet painful stingers in her leg (she’s all better now; the little needles seem to work themselves out).

The other prime food stuff from this particular cactus is the prickly pear. This green, oblong bud yields a soft, red fruit that’s used in pancake syrup and margaritas we had at Arizona Inn.  Though it takes a while to process, this fruit of the desert is a beautiful and lush crimson, and it adds a light taste, a little bit like watermelon, with a citrus kick provided by lemon (a commonly seen ingredient in recipes for the syrup, jellies, and other prickly pear products).  When we got home,  we used some prickly pear jelly as a garnish, along with cornichons, on a country pate.

I’ve seen the cactus paddles and the prickly pear fruit available at Jimenez Brothers on Roosevelt, as well at as many other Hispanic markets in the areas.

In a book about the Arizona Inn provided to guests of the hotel, it’s noted that Frank Lloyd Wright was a guest and “voiced admiration for the Inn’s architecture.”  Both the architect of the Inn and Oak Park’s favorite architect drew inspiration from the Southwestern tradition of features such as flat roofs, human-scale spaces, and somewhat hidden doorways. Though Wright’s style is regularly described as Prairie School, it has a lot in common with native desert mountain architecture.  Wright’s regard for the organic connection between the building and the land is shared by current managers of the inn who allow trees (like the cypress, pictured) to grow into existing structures, reflecting and accommodating their natural surroundings.  You can also see how the pinkish cast of the prickly pear bud matches almost exactly the pink adobe of the Arizona Inn.

Food was the main focus of our trip, and in addition to the prickly pear products, we also brought home brown and white tepary beans, cholla buds and saguaro syrup (made from the buds of the region’s characteristic pole-type cactus).  As I experiment with these foods, which I have never seen on any local menus, I’ll post about the results here. In the meantime, if you have any experiences with these ingredients, I’d love to hear about them.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...

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