Blue Cactus  (2 ByWard Market, Ottawa -


I love the Blue Cactus for the same reason I love the occasional B-list movie: you’ll have a great time if you just shut your brain off.  Sure, there’s no way sharks can be taught to shoot lasers, but people accept it and move on simply for the sake of being entertained.  Popular amongst university students and young professionals, the atmosphere in the Blue Cactus is similar to a dance club blended with an upscale restaurant.  The lights are dim, the music is loud, and everyone seems to succumb to the implicit expectation to overdress for dinner.  Partially driven by an appealing multi-level restaurant design and targeted drink specials, this manufactured excitement definitely captures my attention, prompting me to compromise expectations strictly for the sake of entertainment.  Ask Jay Roach, the formula works.

That being said, there was nothing particularly special about the food.  The calamari was less crispy than I prefer, but had a nice spicy flavour and an excellent dipping sauce.  In comparison, the spinach & cheese dip (recommended as being very popular) was an easy crowd pleaser, albeit a little salty.  Finally, my main course for this evening was the chimichanga, a staple in almost any Mexican restaurant.  I can’t say I was particularly impressed with the portion size, as the deep-fried burrito-like wrap was only about the size of my fist, but the flavour was good – especially with the guacamole served on the side.  

When you’re exceptionally good at one thing, it allows you to be adequate yet successful at another.  The Blue Cactus is so good at successfully marketing their entertaining atmosphere, it only needs barely acceptable food for people to return.  


I think the ByWard Market is overrated.  As an Ottawa resident, it has definitely taken its place in my mind under 'tourist attraction', with its generally overpriced and underwhelming restaurants, and the constant flow of drunken students between the months of September and May.  However, when we have guests from out-of-town, we try to stop by for a drink or a meal at some point.  There are the standard choices: we could go to the Irish Village for a rowdy pub experience, or to any of the more Luxe-ish restaurants if it’s a special occasion; there’s Zak’s Diner if we feel like a milkshake and a burger, and then there’s the Blue Cactus.  I think this restaurant has cornered a nice little niche in the Market.  They serve casual food at decent prices, but it’s also nicely decorated and well laid-out so that you can feel comfortable dining in jeans and a hoodie, or dressing up for a celebration in their semi-private dining area upstairs.

We have a terrible habit of just showing up at restaurants on Saturday evenings around seven, and hoping for the best.  And this night was no exception.  We walked in the door and waited 45 minutes for a table of four, which isn’t bad for a Saturday night in the Market.  When we were seated, we decided to start the evening with a round of fruity beverages.  I ordered the Zombie, and it was great.  To accompany our drinks, we had the calamari and the spinach dip.  Both were all right.  The spinach dip was tasty, but difficult to scoop up because of its density; the calamari was good, and the spicy dip that accompanied it was nice, but I’ve had better.  I think my biggest mistake was ordering a burger instead of one of their famous Mexican dishes.  When the Bison burger showed up, it looked great, but I had forgotten that Bison is leaner than beef.  It was also just all right: kind of dry, with a side of boring shoestring fries.  The best part of the dish was the barbecue sauce that came on the side. 

Overall, I think the Blue Cactus is more reasonably priced, and serves better food than other comparable restaurants in the Market.  In the past I’ve had the chimichanga, and it was pretty awesome.  So stick with their Mexican offerings and you’ll be fine.  Everything else is just all right.


(Click to enlarge pictures)

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