Mission Possible

Restaurant: Impossible host Robert Irvine talks about why his makeover of the Mad Cactus was one of the toughest challenges he's faced yet.

The worst service, the dirtiest kitchen, the ugliest decor — celebrity chef Robert Irvine uses superlatives such as these to turn ailing eateries into great television on his popular Food Network series.

So when the Restaurant: Impossible host traveled here in August to give the Mad Cactus a makeover, he dished out biting criticism of the Strongsville restaurant's decor, food quality and balance sheet. But the problems went ever deeper.

"It was awful," Irvine says. "This was the [most] frustrating show we've done because [Mad Cactus owner Tom Krukemeyer] didn't see what he was doing wrong."

Irvine had 48 hours, $10,000 and a crew of 30 to revamp the menu, upgrade the decor and help create a plan to get the 25-year-old business out of the red.

"I don't think they would have lasted," Irvine says. "[Krukemeyer] is pumping money into it, but you can only live on a pass for so long."

Krukemeyer is contractually prevented from talking about his experience until the Mad Cactus episode airs Nov. 2, and Irvine is as nearly tight-lipped about the changes.

But local diners have had two months to try the all-new Mad Cactus, and have found its all-cactus-all-the-time style replaced by a more muted Southwestern theme in shades of red, teal and black with Navajo-print wall panels and mosaics created from some of the restaurant's former dinnerware.

A menu of food that was once prepped in the morning and reheated to order — "It was like going to Taco Bell," says Restaurant: Impossible executive producer Marc Summers — is now dominated by new and freshly made items such as a salsa bar with a dozen hot and mild varieties, puffy tacos filled with fresh fish, and a grilled spiced rib-eye with salsa verde.

Of the more than 18 restaurant revamps Restaurant: Impossible has overseen, Irvine says all of them have survived, and he proclaims a similarly sunny prognosis for the Mad Cactus.

"I think Tom and his staff have the ability to make an amazing restaurant that could last another 25 years," Irvine says. "When you see what we've done in there, it's nothing short of a miracle."

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