cactus salad with queso fresco (ensalada de nopal)

I’ve recently become obsessed with the cactus salad at Cafe El Portal, so I had to recreate it. In a way, I think I’ve ruined my obsession because now I won’t have this intense need to go have it every time I’m anywhere south of Houston St. I guess that’s a good thing though.

What’s driving me wild about this salad is the texture. The cactus leaf has a great snap to it and the simple lime dressing makes it refreshing and light. It’s very easy to make so I would recommend it as a salad to bring to a potluck. It’s different and the flavors are simple enough that everyone could like it. El Portal serves it in a bowl with corn chips and their amazing salsas on the side.

I’ve always been intimidated by cactus, therefore I’ve never cooked with it, but I watched a video on how to clean it and it’s pretty simple. Just use a large, sharp knife and scraped both sides until the splinters have been shaved off. For a video, watch here. Once cooked, the cactus leaf secretes a slimy substance much like okra does, so be sure to rinse under cold water after boiling.

raw cactus strips boiling

cactus salad with queso fresco 


  • 1 pound cactus paddles (nopales), cleaned and trimmed
  • 1 large white onion, peeled
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • 1 cup roughly chopped cilantro
  • 1 serrano chile, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 2 limes
  • 2 teaspoons oil
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 cup crumbled queso fresco
  • Avocado for garnish


  1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cut one side of the onion and add piece to the water. Add garlic clove.
  2. Cut the cactus into 1-1/2-inch strips. Add to water. Reduce to a simmer and cook until tender and dark green, about 10-15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, chop the tomatoes to make about 2 cups. Remove to a colander and allow to drain.
  4. Chop the remaining onion to make about 1-1/2 cups. Remove to a large bowl. Add the cilantro, serrano chile, oregano, juice of the limes, oil and salt. Add the drained tomato; toss gently.
  5. Once cactus is tender, remove to the colander; rinse with cold water; drain. Add the cactus to the tomato and onion mixture; toss gently. Refrigerate at least 1 hour.
  6. To serve, sprinkle with cheese and garnish with avocado slices.

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