You’ve come a long way, Piggly Wiggly: Border Grill Cactus Salad

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Børns, “Past Lives”

One of the rewards of being a grownup and buying your own groceries is opening and tasting all the good stuff as soon as you get home—sometimes before you get to the car. When I was growing up, this was not done. We lugged the paper bags into the kitchen, took everything out, and put it all away. If there was any good stuff, Muth doled it out as treats or bribes, saving the really good stuff for Daddy and her. Piggly Wiggly was the only option for groceries in our small town and it was the only place for donut watching.

When I was little and went to The Pig with Muth, I spent my time in front of the donut machine, watching golden inner tubes of dough squeeze out of the hopper into hot oil, sizzle briefly, turn right side up, drain, and continue down the conveyor belt for dusting, frosting, or sprinkling. The other day in the meat department at Houston’s Fiesta Mart, I watched white chunks of pork fat rain down a chute into hot oil, sink to the bottom, pop up brown and crispy, to be scooped up, drained, salted, and served as chicharrones.

Fiesta Mart, with eleven locations in the Loop, was founded in 1972 for Latin American immigrants nostalgic for food and products from home. This warehouse-size store includes a tortillaria, a counter devoted to house-made tamales and pupusas, aisles of Mexican soda, produce bins that offer pre-cut nopales, chayotes, lucuma fruit, guavas, and yuccas, a meat market that displays whole pigs, a bakery that sells bolillos, churros, Tres Leches Cake, Mexican cookies, and sopapillas, and a vending machine that offers Yerba mate. The Fiesta Mart also serves large Asian, Philippine, Muslim, and Eastern European communities.

I’ve bought groceries all over the country—Gelson’s and Westward Ho in LA, Mount Royal in Duluth, the Kiva and Market of Choice in Eugene, New Leaf in Capitola, Hornbacher’s in Fargo, and my favorite, the Vashon Island Thriftway. However, Houston takes grocery shopping to a new level. The Central Market, another nearby option for the ethnic cook, is an indoor Pike Place Market, with an exotic fruit and vegetable section so large it requires a separate building, four bakeries that produce Mexican, Middle Eastern, French, and Asian bread and pastries, and large international aisles representing, not just the usual Mexican and Asian products but staples from Ethiopia, India, Vietnam, Albania, Russia, and Australia.


Fiesta Market has a large Halal meat section.

Mexican pastries

You can’t buy a cowboy hat at the Vashon Thriftway. 

Or a barrel for smoking brisket

More later about Phoenicia Speciality Foods and downtown Asian grocery stores.

Don’t be put off by cleaning cactus paddles, this is a delicious salad. Of course if you live in Houston, you just buy a bag of cleaned, diced Nopalitos.

Border Grill Cactus Salad

  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh or prepared cactus paddles or nopales, needles removed
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 Italian Roma tomatoes, cored, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 1/2 small red onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 1 to 2 medium serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely diced
  • 2 bunches cilantro, leaves only, chopped
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Cotija or Anejo cheese
  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 to 6 lettuce leaves
  • 1 avocado, peeled, seeded and sliced for garnish
  • 1/4 cup cracked black pepper garnish, recipe follows


  • 2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Preheat grill or broiler. Place cactus paddles in a bowl and toss with 1/4 cup of the olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Grill or broil the paddles until grill marks appear on each side, or they turn dark green with black patches, about 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside to cool to room temperature. Cover and chill 2 to 4 hours or overnight. Cut cactus into 1/2-inch cubes. In a large bowl, combine the cactus, tomatoes, onions, chiles, cilantro and cheese with the remaining 1/2 cup oil, the vinegar, the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and pepper. Toss well. Serve on plates lined with lettuce leaves, and garnish with avocado slices sprinkled with cracked pepper garnish.


In a small bowl, stir all the ingredients together. Spoon over vegetables or drizzle lightly over dressed salads as a garnish.

c.1997, M.S. Milliken & S. Feniger, all rights reserved


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3 Responses to You’ve come a long way, Piggly Wiggly: Border Grill Cactus Salad

  1. Ginny says:

    I remember watching the blobs of dough floating down the creek of hot fat. My favorite part was the paddle that flipped the doughnut so the other side could get toasty brown. Just like our sunbathing days. I also remember grilling Muth, “anything good?” Nope, just food.

  2. Ginny says:

    Also, coffee and a doughnut-.05

  3. Patricia Curtis says:

    Looks like a really diverse and fun place to shop…I can see why you wrote about it. Glad Houston has fun places for you to discover, and I am sure the sun is a welcome addition also, it is raining cats and dogs up here. Our yard project is just about complete…putting on the finishing touches of landscape lighting this week, if it stops raining that is!! I love how it turned out!!

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