Call Lane bar Neon Cactus has launched a new and expanded menu. Mexico is its main inspiration, though it is happy to nip around the world on occasion.
As well as the expected meat and fish, there are vegetarian and vegan selections on offer. Thomas Chalk paid a visit, and reignited his love of corn.
My name is Thomas, and I love corn. I go through phases of craving it, which I sate with several days of playing around with variations on a theme of corn fritters, of whisking up batches of polenta to eat soft like mash and to set for frying later, and of eating corn on the cob for breakfast. I love corn so much I eat it on the cob totally unadorned – no salt, no butter, nothing to get between me and those sweet nuggets of delight. So when I saw several corn-based items on Neon Cactus’s menu, I couldn’t wait to get inside.
We started with totopos, a crispy fried snack made from corn. These puffed squares had a smooth, shiny surface that reminded me a lot of French Fries crisps. Light and not at all greasy, they were a good bar snack, though far enough removed from being identifiably corny not to awaken my lust for the golden kernel. The salsa verde that came with the totopos was surprisingly mild – I’d expected something with a big kick of chilli – but with enough tang to act as a palate cleanser. The friendly barman who had brought them to us pointed us in the direction of their hot sauce collection, should we want to up the ante.
More corn followed – two half cobs coated with a light tortilla crumb, enlivened with the smoke and heat of chipotle. Despite my rather minimal approach to breakfast corn, I can see that corn and chilli are regularly paired for a reason, the sweet and the heat dancing with each other in sensuous harmony. I began to make a mental shopping list featuring corn and polenta and corn again.
It wasn’t all corn. Burritos arrived, with the vegetarian nueva ola burrito featuring that vegan staple jackfruit along with rice, refried beans and some veg. Jackfruit may look like pulled pork, but despite having never eaten the porcine original I am pretty confident in saying that the texture isn’t the same, lacking the protein-y density of meat. But in a flour tortilla with rice and the paste of the beans, its lighter, moister quality worked well. Chipotle chilli brought more heat than was in the salsa verde, with the smokiness adding depth, but it still wasn’t blow-your-head off. There’s a risk with chipotle that it gets used in everything and renders your meal one-note, but this wasn’t the case here. A little more of the soft red peppers and the fresh zing of a little raw salsa wouldn’t have gone amiss, for me, and at £8.50 you can find a cheaper burrito in the centre of Leeds, though not necessarily one you can eat sitting in a friendly bar surrounded by lively murals – and of course there are hot sauces on hand to tweak the heat and acidity to your liking. Across the table, a pork burrito featured. I’m told it was good meat and the welcome inclusion of some crackling.
Next up: more corn. The vegan dish that arrived was billed as “ribs”, but this wasn’t an attempt at making something that mimics meat. Corn cobs, split lengthways into rib-shaped pieces, deep-fried (which makes them curve slightly, further enhancing the similarity of the shape to their meaty counterpart) and coated with vegan gochujang [Korean chilli paste] mayo, a smokey aubergine sauce and engevita nutritional yeast. Ever the professional, I had been making notes as I ate. For about five minutes, all they said about this dish was “Ribs! Ribs! Ribs!” with a big greasy thumbprint next to it. I’m told that the fun of ribs is in the hands-on messiness of eating them, all sticky fingers and lips and gnawing and sucking. By that measure, this was a very successful mimic of ribs: it was not food that could be eaten delicately – the antithesis of clean eating in every sense of the word. The corn was still soft, but with gnarly corners at the ends. The chilli brought enough heat without overwhelming everything. The aubergine was even more delicious to eat than it is hard to show off well in a photo, with the yeast creating a distinctly cheesy flavour despite the dish’s total lack of dairy, and none of the bitterness that works so well in baba ganoush but which would have been jarring here. It’s £6.50 for half a dozen ribs, and I’m seriously considering lobbying Neon Cactus to open for breakfast.
We probably didn’t need the pair of tacos and the sweet potato fries that followed – with the corn and the burritos and the ribs we’d eaten well. But I have the waistline of a reviewer who is nothing if not dedicated. Sloppy Juan tacos combined shredded raw white cabbage and a thick slice of avocado with a soy chilli. The risk with soy mince is that it ends up dry, like some sort of cardboard rubble, and makes meat eaters feel smug. I can’t say what a meat eater thought of Neon Cactus’s soy chilli because I ate both tacos myself (across the table there were some ‘green chorizo’ Rollie Gangs being eaten, a cross between a sausage roll and a spring roll that was reportedly very much a successful fusion) – but for me the soy chilli had a good texture, moist and with enough chew. I’d have liked a little bit more savoury depth to it, and as with the burrito, a little more acidity and freshness would have set off the dish nicely, but the raw cabbage did bring welcome crunch and subtle pepperiness. The heat level was again relatively mild, so hot sauce was a viable option.
The sweet potato fries were topped with manchego cheese and a subtle garlic hum – very much back to the realm of bar snacks (not that this is a bad thing), though elevated by the cheese’s lingering flavour.
The following day at work, I inevitably opted for a sweetcorn-heavy salad bowl in the canteen, and wistfully imagined topping it with rich, cheesy aubergine puree and savoury, warming gochujang vegan mayo.
Neon Cactus is at 35 Call Lane LS1 7BT Tel 0113 245 8400