Foraged Cactus Paddle Tacos

Cactus Paddle Tacos

Green and crunchy, Cactus Paddle Tacos, have the heat of jalapeño mixed with the brightness of citrus and the vegetal crunch of something akin to fresh green beans. Cilantro, cotija, cheese, and lime complete these simple tacos.

If you live in an area with a large Latin-American population it’s likely you can find cactus paddles (also known as nopales) in the market. If you live in certain warm, dry climates then you can also find cactus paddles growing almost anywhere. Which is what I did. Sure they look scary with that faceful of thorns designed to deter even the hungriest herbivore. 

But don’t be afraid to put on some gloves and forage. Picking good, fresh nopales is actually pretty easy. You want paddles that are bright green and flexible, but not floppy. As a general rule, opt for paddles that are about the size of your hand or smaller. If you choose nopales that are much larger than that you run the risk of getting a stringy piece. They can be cooked just about any way you choose, and can even be eaten raw. However, I think they’re best cooked hot and fast with a bit of char. As a mucilaginous plant, nopales give off a somewhat slimy goo (known as baba in Spanish) that can be off-putting. Heat tames the muck.

Cactus Paddle Tacos

If you have never eaten nopales before, you could give them a try by adding them to stews just like any other vegetable. In Mexico, you’ll often see them in scrambled eggs for breakfast. But I think they’re best cooked hot and fast and served in tacos. Because I love tacos. Cactus Paddle Tacos. GREG

Cactus Paddle Tacos
Simple Nopales Tacos with Cotija Cheese (Cactus Paddle Tacos)

Simple Nopales Tacos with Cotija Cheese (Cactus Paddle Tacos)

Print This Recipe Total time Yield 10–12 tacosPublished
Simple Nopales Tacos with Cotija Cheese (Cactus Paddle Tacos)


  • 5–6 fresh, young, green cactus paddles (about 1 ½ lbs)
  • 2 tablespoon vegetable oil (divided)
  • salt and black pepper
  • ½ large onion (peeled and cut into ½” dice)
  • 2–3 fresh jalapeños (stemmed, halved, seeded, and cut into ½” dice)
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 10–12 (4‑inch) tortillas (warmed before using)
  • crumbled cotija cheese (to taste)
  • cilantro leaves (to taste)
  • lime wedges (optional)


Prep the Nopales: Wearing gloves, lay the cactus paddles on a flat surface. Use a sharp knife to carefully cut off the thorns and the little knobs where future thorns would sprout. A thin flexible knife such as a filet knife works best. Try to keep the knife parallel to the flesh when shaving off the thorns rather than gauging them out with the tip of the knife. Next, cut the outer perimeter (about ⅛ inch) from each of the cactus paddles. Once they are thorn free cut them into ½” dice and set aside.

Cook the Nopales Tacos filling: Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the pan is very hot swirl in 1 tablespoon oil then add the diced cactus paddles. Let them sear in place without stirring for about a minute until charred in places. Then stir well and let it char some more undisturbed. The diced cactus paddles will change from bright green to drab, olive green as they cook. Once they are nicely charred all over transfer them to a large bowl. Season lightly with salt and black pepper.

Let the skillet get good and hot again then add the remaining oil along with the diced onions and jalapeños. Cook them in a similar manner as the diced cactus paddles letting them get nicely charred. Add the cumin seeds and red pepper flakes for the last minute or two of cooking, then transfer everything to the bowl with the charred cactus. Toss the mixture until combined, then season with a little more salt and black pepper as needed.

Assemble the Nopales Tacos: While the cactus mixture is still warm serve it immediately on warm tortillas topped with cotija cheese, cilantro, and lime wedges on the side (if using).