Mr. Cactus takes over restaurant space at Cedar Ridge Y in Nevada County | TheUnion.com

Mr. Cactus takes over restaurant space at Cedar Ridge Y in Nevada County

After longtime favorite Apple Alley closed its doors late last summer, many residents who live along the Highway 174 corridor were left wondering when — or if — a new restaurant would take its place.

The wait is over — and the owner of Mr. Cactus, Antonio Hernandez, is gambling that western Nevada County will be hungry for one more Mexican restaurant.

The name may sound a little like a throwback to the "Mexican" restaurants more prevalent in the days before Californians learned about authentic Mexican cuisine, But Hernandez says it is meant to honor his heritage — and the circumstances that brought him to Nevada County.

"I love cactuses because they are survivors," he said. "I came to the United States at 16, I didn't speak any English, I was homeless for months. Now, I'm a citizen."

“It’s not going to be good food

— it’s going to be excellent food.”

— Antonio Hernandez, owner of Mr. Cactus

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Hernandez is originally from Mexico City, but lived in Tehama County for 30 years before opening a restaurant in Yuba City, Carlito's, three years ago.

"We didn't know what we were doing," he said with a grin, adding that he must have been doing something right, succeeding in a location where other eateries failed.

Hernandez said it took him four months to renovate the Apple Alley space at the Cedar Ridge Y, after making the decision to sell Carlito's. The building has seen many incarnations since it was built in 1959, including as a Chinese restaurant, a pizza parlor, a steak house and a Mongolian barbecue joint.

"It's beautiful here, it's peaceful here — I'm tired of big cities," Hernandez said of the move. "I will be focusing 100 percent on this restaurant."

He admitted being nervous about the location, saying, "We'll see what happens; I'm flipping the coin and I'll have to see how it lands."

Hernandez spent some time scouting out the existing Mexican restaurants in the area before making the commitment.

"I'm not saying there is not good food here, but I think there's room for one more," he said, adding, "It's not going to be good food — it's going to be excellent food. Everyone likes our food in Yuba City."

Mr. Cactus features a full menu of both the familiar — chile verde, burritos, fajitas — as well as items not typically found on Nevada County menus, such as spinach tamales and borrego (lamb shanks).

Hernandez is excited about the beer and wine selection, with 12 beers on tap including some from Nevada City brewery ol' Republic.

Mr. Cactus has been open for several weeks now, but its debut has been hampered by a lack of staff. Much of the staff originally hired did not show up on opening day, Hernandez said, forcing him to transfer employees from Yuba City.

"I need to find enough staff to give my customers what they deserve," he said. "Everything goes hand in hand — the service, the food, reasonable prices. And how employees look — do they just need a job, or do they like to be here? It's challenging, but I think it's going to be OK, once people try the food."

Hernandez is planning a grand opening with, possibly, a mariachi band and a DJ, "once we shake out the bugs and get settled.'

"I'm here — and there's no turning back," he said. "I'm not afraid. I have to try."

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

Know & Go

What: Mr. Cactus

Where: 13469 Colfax Highway, Grass Valley

Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily

For info: Call 530-272-7617