Story by Ellen Carpenter | Photography by Kyle RM Johnson | Rhapsody, December 2016
In the wake of Hurricane Odile, Los Cabos has reinvented itself as a culinary hot spot
Los Cabos has long reigned as Mexico's top luxury beach destination, pampering guests with over-the-top spa treatments, butler service, and infinity pools galore. But over the past year, it has started to earn a new reputation as the country's fine dining capital.
When Hurricane Odile swept across Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo two years ago, it destroyed resorts, littered pristine beaches with debris, and ripped the roof right off the airport. Within a year, most of the resorts and restaurants had reopened, more glorious than ever, but they didn't just rebuild; they reimagined. And food took center stage in this process. “There's Cabo before the hurricane," says Alex Branch, the chef de cuisine at Manta, which opened at The Cape in June 2015, “and Cabo after the hurricane." He couldn't be more right. Gone is the Cabo Wabo reputation of tequila shots and enchiladas. Gone is the interest in celebrity chefs without any ties to the country. Gone is the trend toward all-inclusives. Suddenly, contemporary and creative Mexican restaurants are popping up everywhere, with Mexican chefs at the helm. Here are five eateries that are helping to define post-Odile Cabo.
When asked what kind of food they make at Manta, chef de cuisine Alex Branch instead says what they don't make: “We don't do Mexican food for Americans," he says as he presents me a plate of two chocolate clam shells served atop a bed of ice and filled with a mix of clams, cucumber, habanero, and onion in a yuzu sauce, crowned with a sliver of avocado and a perfectly sized sprig of cilantro. No, this is not stereotypical Mexican fare, but it is the kind of creative, fresh food you'd expect from chef-owner Enrique Olvera, who also runs Mexico City's Pujol, No. 5 on the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list, and Cosme, one of the hardest reservations to get in New York City. He opened Manta in 2015, after a decade of vacationing in Los Cabos with his family. “I've always wanted a restaurant like this in Los Cabos," Olvera says. “I always felt there needed to be a lighter, more contemporary Mexican approach."
Chocolate clams at Manta
Chef de cuisine Alex Branch
Situated in The Cape, an equally contemporary (and very sexy) hotel overlooking El Arco, Manta offers a menu that beautifully reflects the light and airy magic of Los Cabos. There are more than 20 plates to mix and match to make your own tasting menu, and because I'm the indecisive type, I let chef Branch, a gregarious Mexico City native, choose for me: meltingly tender octopus anticucho served with a rich chorizo and dark-beer mayo; a jewel-like salad of tomato, watermelon, and raspberry with a hibiscus chamoy dressing; black miso lingcod tacos served in handmade flour tortillas with just the right amount of chew. “We want you to try a whole bunch of different stuff on the menu, but we don't want you leaving feeling like you need to take a nap," says Branch, who runs the kitchen (Olvera visits regularly and changes the menu every time he comes).
Though every table in the restaurant offers a prime view of the ocean through floor-to-ceiling windows, the best seat is at the kitchen bar, with your back to the glorious sunset behind you. There, sip a glass of chardonnay from the Parras Valley, and watch the meticulous prep cooks carefully slice avocados to top sashimi and plate seafood tostadas so enticing you'll end up ordering one for yourself. You won't regret it.
Flora's Field Kitchen
You may think you're lost as you drive slowly along the pothole-filled dirt road to Flora Farm. How, you think, could there possibly be a farm out here in the desert? But then, after one more turn, you see it: an oasis of green … and an abundance of cool young vacationers in Illesteva sunglasses angling for a seat at one of the picnic tables in the bustling outdoor dining area, where they can have an epic brunch of wood-fired pizzas and lemon ricotta pancakes and drink a pelo de perro—hair of the dog—Bloody Mary made with fresh tomato juice and topped with a kale leaf, pickles, carrots, and a slice of beet.
Patrick and Gloria Greene have owned this 10-acre farm since 1996, but it didn't become the Los Cabos dining hot spot until a few years ago, when they added the restaurant, Flora's Field Kitchen. Last year, Guillermo Tellez, a veteran of Charlie Trotter's, took over the kitchen along with his wife, Leslie, the pastry chef. The majority of the produce comes from the farm, and the meats come from the Greenes' 150-acre ranch, just 20 miles away, which humanely raises cows, pigs, chickens, and rabbits.
A farmhand at work "Mango trees bow heavily with ripe fruit, purple eggplants beg to be plucked from their vines, and bees circle papayas ready to fall."
The pelo de perro Bloody Mary
After polishing off my huevos rancheros and half of my son's cinnamon roll, I head off on a farm tour with Dulce Perea, a manager at the restaurant. Mango trees bow heavily with ripe fruit, purple eggplants beg to be plucked from their vines, and bees circle papayas ready to fall. At Flora's Field Kitchen, Perea explains, there's no pressure to make typical Mexican cuisine—the chefs just want to do the produce justice. “People don't come here and say, 'Ooh I love the Cabo food!' because we don't have a certain cuisine," she says. “So that's what makes it easier to combine this and that and take advantage of all the things that we have."
Perea gives my 3-year-old son, Calder, some food to feed the turtles that are doing laps around a pond, while I watch other kids run around a small playground, as their parents drink margaritas and talk in the shade. The scene is like something out of a blissful vacation guide—and I'm grateful I get to experience it for myself.
It's difficult to imagine a more romantic setting than El Farallon, which is precariously perched on a cliff over the Pacific, with waves crashing dramatically on the rocks right below the candlelit tables (or on them, if it's a particularly windy night). The Resort at Pedregal has been a Los Cabos standby since 2009, but after the hurricane, the hotel rethought this dining space and made it even more irresistible by adding a Champagne terrace. This is not just a gimmick to entice men with diamond rings hidden in their pockets (though, admittedly, this is a great place to propose); Champagne is a serious subject here, and there are 30 available by the bottle and 17 by the glass. For a unique twist, the wines are paired with salts, which naturalize the minerals in the bubbly. On one particularly windy night, I meet executive chef Gustavo Pinet on the terrace, and he implores me to put a few crystals of black lava salt on my tongue and then take a sip of a Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. Suddenly, it's sweeter and smoother, even better than before—which I know is hard to believe.
The cliffside dining terrace
The food at El Farallon is just as impressive. The focus is seafood caught that day, and seeing an abundance of it on ice at the front of the restaurant makes you realize how blessed Los Cabos is in its location. “The fish, the clams, the mussels, it's all coming from Baja California," Pinet tells me. “We're very lucky."
As are diners. A set ocean-to-table menu means you don't have to worry about choosing from all those fish you spied up front and can instead sit back and listen to a guitarist play Spanish-inflected acoustic covers of Madonna songs while you watch the hypnotic waves. I start with a creamy yet surprisingly light crab chowder, followed by a trio of appetizers: a tuna ceviche with caviar lime, cucumber, red onion, and an aji amarillo sauce; a beet and spinach salad with an orange and papantla vinaigrette; and crispy calamari with a fresh tomato sauce. Then comes the main attraction: a beautiful and bountiful medley of grilled totoaba, lobster, shrimp, red snapper, sea bass, and scallops served with family-style sides like marinated mushrooms, grilled asparagus, and corn with epazote mayonnaise. It's so simple, yet perfectly executed. Each bite of seafood tastes pure, just lightly kissed by fire and smoke. This is the kind of meal to linger over, to savor each bite. And if a wave does crash over your table, not to worry: The waiter will bring you a plush towel to dry off—and you'll have a story to tell.
One bite into a grilled avocado at Toro will have you regretting all the years you spent not eating grilled avocados. This one, at Richard Sandoval's oceanfront restaurant, comes filled with a tomato-corn salsa, the black grill marks on the avocado lending just the right amount of smoke to the whole appetizer. It's a marker of all the dishes served at Toro (and there are a lot; this menu is extensive): They're utterly addictive.
A Toro server checks his notes
Richard Sandoval is known as the father of modern Mexican cuisine. He has more than 40 restaurants, stretching from Denver to Dubai (I've eaten at three of them in New York City alone), but Cabo San Lucas's Toro, which opened in August 2015, feels unique—partly because, unlike at Sandoval's place in, say, Scottsdale, you know all the seafood you're eating is as local as it gets, and because the space is so striking and thoughtfully designed. Studio Arthur Casas, a São Paulo–based architecture firm, aimed to blend a typical Mexican courtyard with this seaside setting, and the results are beyond Instagram–worthy. A massive square wraparound ceviche bar is the perfect place to have a pisco-based prickly pear chilcano cocktail and watch the chefs prepare your hamachi tiradito with aguachile sauce and sour apple. Locally crafted ceramic vases are illuminated on the shelving that lines the perimeter, giving the space an equally rustic and modern vibe. The front dining room, with its matching wood-planked ceiling and floors, looks out onto the palm trees dotting the sand and the ocean just beyond.
Tuna and hamachi sashimi at Toro
The setting is all the better when paired with dishes like smoked swordfish and guacamole with plantain chips, tuna tacos in purple corn tortillas with a tangy carrot-ginger salsa, crab and shrimp enchiladas in a subtly sweet tomato sauce, and—my favorite—a miso barbecue escolar fish served with pickled onions and an aioli made using the peppery Japanese spice blend togarashi. Executive chef César Cervantes has led the kitchen since the restaurant opened in 2015, and he takes great pride in his work. “Cabo is a small city, but step by step the kitchens are getting better and better," he tells me while I dig into an astoundingly delicious sweet-corn pudding topped with praline and caramel and surrounded by a decadent moat of eggnog. “And I think right now this is one of the best restaurants in Cabo." Cheers to that.
Café des Artistes
A dramatic stairwell leading to the restaurant
The chefs at the elegant Café des Artistes, in the new JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa, all wear bright white toques that stretch nearly two feet high. This kind of stately dress is perfectly emblematic of the food they cook: Every dish is a true work of art, in appearance and taste. My appetizer of soft-shell crab more resembles a refined Jackson Pollock than something edible. Frenzied rings of honey vinaigrette and balsamic vinegar encircle the crab, which is topped with a delicate salad of shaved orange and watercress; a shower of pecans, sunflower seeds, and tiny magenta edible flowers adds color and texture. I take a photo and then a bite, feeling guilty for ruining such a masterpiece. But only briefly: I clean the plate, greedily swiping the crisp, salty crab and sweet orange through the honey and vinegar.
A fiery sauté
This Café des Artistes, chef-owner Thierry Blouet's second location, opened last November. Blouet, who was born in Puerto Rico and studied in Mexico and France, has run the original restaurant in Puerto Vallarta for 25 years, and the new iteration features a menu combining some of his all-time best dishes with new items created to reflect the cuisine of Los Cabos. It looks like white-tablecloth French fare, but it tastes utterly Mexican. “It's not really fusion," says Mario Rodriguez, the executive chef, fine dining. “We're taking Mexican flavors and preparing the food with French techniques." He and the rest of the team—including Pablo Vivanco, the executive sous chef, and Iván Tapia, the head sommelier—sit with me in the restaurant's lounge before dinner service begins and tell me about their experience in Mexican kitchens and their take on the food scene in Los Cabos. “This is not fast cuisine," Tapia says. “I think that's the new concept of Cabo and San José: to make elaborate dishes for people to enjoy and bring another kind of customer here. We want to take away that idea that Mexico is only beer and nachos."
I do have a few tortilla chips this evening, but they're handmade and accompany a gorgeous grilled lobster tail bathed in a garlic-caper sauce. My husband, Chris, and Calder join me for dinner, just as the sun is starting to dip into the Pacific. Chris devours the zarandeado fish of the day, a firm totoaba served enchilada-style with a spicy tomato sauce and pineapple foam, while Calder surprises us by happily eating the tuna tiradito and stealing half of my lobster. The couple at the table next to us are celebrating their anniversary, and the waiters toast them with a sparkler-topped dessert that has Calder gawking in envy. Five minutes later, our immensely friendly server, Omar, comes bearing our own sparkler-topped cheesecake, and my son's face lights up, literally and figuratively. “We're celebrating your first time here," Omar says. And definitely not our last.