Baja California Sur: Where to Eat in Los Cabos
The state of Baja California Sur was one of the few in the republic still unfamiliar to this writer until several colleagues and I had the recent opportunity to visit its southern tip that encompasses San José del Cabo, Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos. The peninsula was sparsely inhabited until the 20th century and unlike much of Mexico, there is little tradition and no looking back. Tourism is the number one industry and most of it comes from the other side of Tijuana. English seems to be the first language, visitors can seem pandered rather than catered to.
But the seascape is magnificent: topaz-colored waves are inviting, lulling the visitor with their gentle roar though at times they swell and menace. They attract tawny surfer dudes and their admirers. Upscale San José del Cabo gives way to tawdry Cabo San Lucas, while Todos Santos provides a scant glimpse of Mexico’s Spanish-occupied past.
Besides beach blanket fun, there is good food to be had. The area’s upscale offerings are not as refined as they are in the northern half of the peninsula; wine is not produced here. But fish and seafood are plentiful and several farms provide organic vegetables to make up for the state’s lack of agriculture; a handful of chefs know what to do with this bounty.
Carbón Cabrón: Smoke Gets in your Eyes
El Merkado Gourmet is the area’s answer to the current ‘gourmet’ food hall craze. It houses 20 self-described open kitchens and shops featuring an array of Mexican and “international” foods; standouts are the good tlayudas at La Carreta which specializes in the cooking of Oaxaca, local oysters and clams prepared simply at The Oyster Bar. The Wine Co., is a good place to sample and purchase wines of the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s best wine producing region to the north near Ensenada. Carbón Cabrón, the market’s fine dining option, does grilled everything in a darkened setting and served at communal tables surrounded by stacked firewood. It serves as a nice break from the sun and surf ambience of much of the area.
Los Tamarindos: Farm to Table
Los Tamarindos follows the protocol of the campestre restaurants popular around the Ensenada area, that is, dishes are made of ingredients grown on premises. The leafy terrace dining area looks out to a 17 acre organic farm set on an old sugarcane plantation that provides nearly all its vegetables (an indoor dining room houses those who can’t take the heat). Resident hens lay the eggs and are occasionally sacrificed, lambs graze nearby and, of course, fish and seafood is locally caught. The kitchen, under the auspices of chef Enrique Silva, centers on a mezquite-fired oven and offers such unpretentious fare as grilled catch-of-the-day aux fines herbes, the aforesaid chicken, simply grilled or a pork chamorro in a light mole verde. Notable are the cooking classes followed by lunch and led by the chef himself.
The Sunset Mona Lisa tries its best to compensate for the area’s paucity of lofty cultural offerings. This outdoor “dining experience” is touted by the Dept. of Tourism as a place to view one of the world’s best sunsets. Indeed, Mother Nature puts on a good show here. The multi-level outdoor space is lovely, and diners sip sparkling wine and cocktails as the big moment approaches, cell phones at the ready to capture the rosy spectacle. Just as it sets, an employee perched on a precipice, blows sober notes from a large seashell, presumably summoning the dozing Aztec Gods and Goddesses. This, followed by pop operatic duets sung to canned music by several strategically placed performers, make for an unintentional kitsch-fest; I was expecting an ersatz Jeanette Macdonald to rise out of the sea on the half-shell and reprise the Indian Love Call. The dinner that accompanies the spectacle aims for high-brow Modern Mexican cuisine; the chefs grab at brass rings but garner few. That said, the experience is good, silly fun and merits a recommendation.
Edith Jiménez is a local legend. Her rags-to-riches story is the stuff of Hollywood film: she has risen from selling live chickens in the market to owning and operating three popular restaurants and a rowdy bar, The Office. Born in the mountains of Guerrero, where she absorbed the love of cooking from her grandmother, she moved to Cabo San Lucas in 1977 and fell in love with Baja California Sur, its natural resources and history, researching the area’s cuisine. She continues to explore the diversity of Baja’s cooking and has even helped produce a series of videos profiling the state’s surviving artisans. While her venues tend to cater to the tastes of less than savvy revelers visiting from el otro lado, interesting specialties, based on local tradition do show up and are worth seeking out. I especially liked Las Tres Serenas, which is casual and proffers more sophisticated fare to an older clientele. A prize should be awarded to Edith’s velvety, jade-green pipian served over a quarter roasted free-range chicken. And I loved the enchiladas de jaiba which come cloaked in a creamy white sauce that doesn’t trump the flavor of the local crab. If she’s in the mood, the gregarious Edith may even join the strolling trio and belt out a ranchera or two. Other options under her auspices are La Pintada, which offers standard Mexican fare and Edith’s which features a wood-fired grill.
NickSan: Sophisticated Japanese
It was a pleasant surprise to experience the sophisticated fare of NickSan, one of the best kitchens in the area. The proposal is Japanese with a smart tropical touch. Executive chef Angel Carbajal offers an omekase of sashimi, nigiri sushi and invented Nipponese botanas in which the superb local seafood is astutely combined with local Mexican ingredients. Not a lick of cream cheese—the use of which is so sadly common throughout Mexico—is to be found here. While the chef incorporates such tropical staples as chile, avocado and cilantro, ( a superb tostada de atún includes all three as well as black and white sesame seeds) these ingredients are carefully combined and perfume rather than overwhelm, leaving the fish to fend for itself. Décor is airy, light and modern – the at times brutally hot outdoors is present but safely behind glass.
Jazamango: The Best of Todos Santos
Todos Santos is a small town that holds, for reasons unknown to this writer, the government-issued denomination of “Pueblo Mágico.” A typical colonial hamlet, its only magic is in the eyes of the beholder. A few decent shops and galleries line the partially preserved but slickly paved streets, a neglected town square centers around a plain gazebo and the rather drab 18th century mission church apparently has some historic significance. The best dining option on the edge of town is pretty, laid back Jazamango. The rustic, outdoor restaurant is set amongst its own gardens and orchards and like Ensenada-based executive chef Javier Plascencia’s Finca Altozano, features honest dishes cooked in a large wood-fired oven and breads baked on premises. It is best to stick to the simplest fare on the menu – clams on the half shell passed through the grill, smoky grilled chicken, lamb barbacoa—as when the acting chef aims for complexity, he tends to miss the mark.
Getting Down in San José: Comida Popular
San José del Cabo, despite its veneer of tony hospitality, is also a real functioning town. The sleekly designed JW Marriott where this writer was housed (caveat: I was invited as press), includes some very good fine-dining options; Úa Culinary Artisans stands out.
The town itself harbors a visit-worthy market and myriad local eating options at more accessible prices. Heartfelt tacos can be procured at the aforementioned foreigner-freindly Merkado. But the place to be on a weekend afternoon is the bustling marisquería El Toro Güero where large families share generous shrimp or mixed seafood cocktails whose fresh contents are happily unmarred by the addition of sweet sauces or ketchup as they would be further down Mexico’s coast. Grilled fish, clams, mussels and octopus are only a few of the other options on the dauntingly large menu. Simple is best here.
At Taquería La Otra, a humble, open-air locale that opens early and sells out by noon, the affable Don Pedrito, permanantly installed in his kitchen, has been serving fine tacos of tender beefy carne asada with hand-mashed salsas since 1982. Taquería Rossy does the kind of fish tacos associated with Ensenada, that is, deep fried, tempura-style, topped with spiky salsa, shredded cabbage and served in a hand-made flour tortilla; Rossy’s tacos of callo (scallops) come highly recommended.