Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Friday, October 22, 2010

Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo

The natural thing to do at a Mexican resort is hang around the pool. Friendly waiters and obliging bartenders indulge your every desire. With everything you need just steps from your room, why venture off the hotel grounds?

No reason at all, if you traveled to the southern tip of Baja California to bake in the sun, drink abunch, and get some much needed rest.

On the other hand, if you leave the hotel property to explore the local area and eat in restaurants frequented by locals, you'll be rewarded with a cultural experience  and more interesting food that will make the trip even more enjoyable.

Cabo San Lucas has dozens of restaurants worth a visit. Mariscos Mazatlan (Narcisco Mendoza and 20 de Noviembre, 52-624-143-8565, mariscosmazatlandcabo@hotmail.com) is worthy of notice as much for the interior as the food.

For appetizers, you can't go wrong with seafood cocktails made with shrimp, octopus, oyster, or sea conch. Shrimp or fish ceviche, raw clams and oysters or avocados stuffed with shrimp are also a great way to begin a meal.

The shellfish on the menu is fresh although rarely caught in local waters.  In Cabo, most of the seafood comes from the mainland, especially Mazatlan, just across the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California).

Fish at Mariscos Mazatlan is served grilled, breaded, fried, and stewed, accompanied simply with pico de gallo or overwhelmed with cheese sauces preferred by many locals. The specialty of the house is shrimp and they are difficult to resist, cooked a variety of ways, with coconut, tomatoes and chilies, garlic, or potatoes.

If you're in Mexico, tacos should be a must-eat, but some visitors shy away because of health issues. For a taste of authentic tacos without the worry, try Gardenias (Camino al Hacienda and Ninos Heroes).

Housed in a rustic concrete building, with a dirt parking lot on the side, the restaurant is only open from 8am to 5pm because their customers are usually on the way to the nearby beach or just coming back.

Locals and tourists (hence the menu in English and Spanish) love the freshly made tacos (shrimp, fish, chicken, pork, beef, fried pork rind, and cactus) and quesadillas (shrimp and chicken). The tacos are served the way locals like them. A homemade tortilla with a topping of your choosing is accompanied with julienned fresh lettuce and cabbage, grilled jalapeno peppers, limes, cilantro and onions, pico de gallo, pickled onions, chile sauce, and squeeze bottles of mayonnaise and hot sauce. If you order the fish taco (which I recommend), you will be given a fat filet of flounder fried crunchy in a light batter and served on a homemade tortilla. It's up to you how many condiments you pile on top.


Shrimp is also a specialty, hot or cold. The Molcajete de Camaron, which the menu calls the restaurant's "signature dish," is brought to the table in a heated, three legged stone bowl called a molcajete. The shrimp are lightly cooked in a savory sauce made with cheese, onions, peppers.  The shrimp cocktail, always served with the Mexican saltine, Saladitas, in their distinctive bright blue wrapper, has onions, cilantro, and a soupy tomato sauce that is irresistible. This being Mexico, cocktails (Margarita, Bloody Mary, Cuba Libre, and tequila shooters) and beer are served all day.

One way to get an overview of the area is to hire a guide for a day. For a little over $100.00US,  companies like Terramar supply not only a guide but a car and driver as well. With a guide you'll be given an insider's look at Cabo San Lucas, nearby San Jose del Cabo, and the surrounding area.

With the help of Terramar's Enrique Lopez, on a recent trip to Cabo San Lucas, I discovered El Torito del los Mariscos (Janette Wilson 1530 Colonia Ejidal, 52-624-135-6386), described as "the most popular seafood restaurant for locals."

The menu at El Torito is only in Spanish because although some tourists have discovered the restaurant, this is where the locals go to eat. Their reasons are simple: the food is good, portions are large, prices are affordable, and there is a large children's play area in back.

El Torito has its roots in Sinaloa where the owners, Jorge and Monserrat Garate have another restaurant in Mazatlan. Rustic, family style seafood dishes are the focus, with a variety of sauces and a lot of deep frying.  In fact, the most popular dish at the restaurant is the deep fried bacon wrapped shrimp with cheese. The gastronomically incorrect shrimp are surprisingly light and delicious, not to mention soul satisfyingly crunchy.

Everything at El Torito is handmade. All the salsas, sauces, and tortillas are made according to Monserrat's recipes as she taught them to Jorge, who is the executive chef.

Ceviches are popular as are aguachile in which raw shrimp, fish, octopus, and squid are "cooked" by a sauce made with limes and Serrano chiles. What distinguishes El Torito from other seafood restaurants is the size of the portions. When you order a shrimp cocktail from another restaurant you will be presented with a glass goblet filled with peeled, deveined shrimp. Here a dozen or more large, unpeeled shrimp with their heads still on are perched on the rim of a molcajete, the bowl filled with a sweet-hot-salty tomato sauce flavored with chunks of onion and pieces of fresh cilantro. You'll get your hands dirty when you eat here and you won't mind a bit.

El Torito opened five years ago as a small, concrete block, cantina style shack, with no more than a dozen tables. In December, the restaurant will move to a larger space next door. Even though the interior will be more finished, El Torito will keep the cantina feeling with open spaces beneath an elevated roof, even in the bathrooms. Besides good, affordable food, what keeps the restaurant popular is the friendly staff and the feeling that even though this is a restaurant, you're being served as if you were at home.

Twenty minutes to the east, San Jose del Cabo is the exact opposite of Cabo San Lucas.  Where one is big, bold, noisy, sexy, and modern, the other has its identity sunk deeply in the history and traditions of the area. The Plaza Mijares and Mission San Jose del Cabo anchor the downtown with its narrow streets, many restaurants, and small stores selling jewelry, handmade local goods, and quality art.

The authenticity of the city is reflected in the decor and menu of Salsitas (Alvaro Obregon 1732, 52-624-142-6787), an intimate bar, restaurant, and art gallery open for lunch and dinner on the border of the Art District, in the central historical area.

The specialty cocktail of the restaurant takes two hands to drink. Served in a large clay bowl filled to the brim, a very generous helping of resposado tequila is flavored with slices of grapefruit, orange, and lime and chilled by a handful of ice cubes. On a warm evening, the refreshingly cool drink was the perfect accompaniment for the chips and four salsas that started the meal. The other appetizer was a traditional Mexican taste treat: deep fried peppers stuffed with tuna, seasoned with lime.

Even if you aren't hungry or thirsty, Salsitas is a great place to stop and enjoy the colorful rooms and beautiful Mexican art.

Also open for lunch and dinner, La Panga Antigua Restaurant & Bar (Zaragoza #20 Centro, 52-624-142-4041) is an intimate restaurant with a reputation for friendly service and quality food.  The dinner menu is somewhat pricey but the prix fix lunch menu, with a starter, entree, and dessert is a bargain at under $20.00US.

After a long morning walking around the Art District, La Panga's shaded patio offered a good meal in a pleasant setting. The organic green leaf lettuce salad with grilled whole cherry tomatoes (a nice touch), escabeche pickled onions, and cracked pepper dressed with a honey vinaigrette was delicious. A basket of freshly baked grilled focaccia bread with onions and basil went well with the salad and the entree, a pan sauteed, salt crusted white fish (Basa) with roasted new potatoes and mixed vegetables (carrots, asparagus, bell peppers, and zucchini) and basil-oil dipping sauce. A bit less salt on the fish would have been preferable but the dish was otherwise well-prepared and delicious. Dessert was a light cheese cake with caramel and fresh strawberries. A cafe con leche caliente finished the meal.

If you can stay for dinner, make reservations at Don Emiliano Restaurant (Boulevard Mijares 27, 52-624-142-0266) where Chef Margarita C. de Salinas presents dishes she describes as "Mexican haute cuisine," with traditional ingredients benefiting from the chef's training at the Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu.

Expect to spend several hours enjoying a meal in the lovely courtyard, sampling not only dishes from the menu but premium Mexican wines from their extensive cellar.

More casual, Tequila Restaurant (Manuel Doblado 1011, 52-624-1155) has a small dining room just inside the front door. But the main dining room is in the large courtyard at the rear of the building, shaded by giant avocado, mango, African tulip, and guava trees planted in the 1920s. Lights hung in the branches create the feeling of a place out of time.
Trained as an agricultural engineer, Enrique Silva, chef and co-owner with Fernando Hernandez, opened the restaurant in 1996 because he wanted to serve organic, locally sourced food. He buys much of his seafood from the fish market at Puerto Los Cabos, the nearby fishing village, with the rest bought from fisherman who sail out of Palmilla and La Paz and Puerto San Carlos on the Pacific.

Most of his produce comes from his own certified fair trade, organic farm called "Huerta Los Tamarindos," just outside of town.  He grows herbs, lettuces, arugula, heirloom tomatoes and many varieties of peppers. Because he has his own farm he can cook with fresh guajillo and cascabel peppers, typically only available dried.

According to Silva, farms in lower Baja California "have been growing organic produce for thirty years. The area is a pioneer in Latin America. Farms started growing herbs and now vegetables. Today it is a hundred million dollar business."

Since he never went to culinary school, Chef Silva didn't learn "how to make stocks, so I learned to use fresh ingredients and herbs with the result the food is light, the taste fresher and lighter."

The menu proudly features fresh produce from his farm in the many salads.  Seafood and vegetables are prepared Italian style, grilled and flavored simply with olive oil and fresh spices. A Mediterranean bias appears in the use of rosemary, the inclusion of pastas and risottos, and fish baked with wine and basil.

The Tequila shrimp locates the dish thoroughly in Mexico with tequila sauce and sides of plantains and black beans. The large shrimp were sweet and delicious. A braised octopus used the fresh guajillo peppers from the restaurant's farm, together with chilies and garlic in a dark, rich sauce.

While the food at all these restaurants is good and definitely better and (mostly) less expensive than what is offered at the hotels, the additional pleasure is in the setting.

Adding to the appeal of good food is the pleasure of Salsitas' art-filled, colorful interior, the open, casual cantina feeling of El Torito, Mariscos Mazatlan's deep blue walls with their fish-filled scenes, or the lush landscaping of the patios at La Panga Antigua and Tequila Restaurant.

At any one of the restaurants I visited on this trip, I could easily spend hours with friends, eating, drinking, and just hanging out and I intend to do just that on my next visit to the two Cabos.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Earth, Sun, Water and Art on the Southern Tip of Baja California

With summer a fond memory and colder weather approaching, now is a good time to think about a trip to warmer climes. While some might happily settle for the familiarity of Hawaii, Florida or Puerto Rico, Mexico is a great destination with its vast, natural beauty, rich cultural history, amazing archaeological sites and wonderfully flavorful cuisine.

Mexico's well-publicized difficulties with crime have caused travelers to steer clear of the DMZ border regions. Tragically, it was those regions that were once the perfect places to experience the melding of two great cultures and peoples. 

Luckily there are safe places to visit in Mexico far from the border, a fact that Peter has chronicled in many posts. A recent trip to the southern-most tip of Baja California showed me what warm-weather fun awaits in Mexico.

Mitsubishi invited several dozen travel and automotive writers to visit Cabo San Lucas so we could test drive two of their new vehicles, the 2011 Outlander Family and Outlander Sport. With Baja so close and since Los Angeles had been cold and rainy all week, I couldn't resist a long weekend of 90 degree weather.

Normally a visit to Cabo for me would center around a frosty Pina Colada enjoyed at poolside. The second focus of my attention would be the spa. When I arrived, I indulged in both.

Given the afternoon heat, the Pina Colada was cooly refreshing. For a massage, the YHI Spa in our hotel, ME Cabo, offered a dozen different treatments, from skin-challenging exfoliations, antioxidant body wraps, waxes of various body parts, to more gentle therapies that emphasized peace, renewal, and beauty. 

Not wanting to be abraded, distressed or defoliated, I chose the Desert Air Massage, which, I discovered happily was administered by two masseuses--Lobita and Theresa--whose four hands meant that both sides of my body could enjoy the benefits of the massage simultaneously. The result was a semi-hallucinatory state of complete relaxation.

Most visitors to Cabo divide their time between relaxing and partying, the ratio of one to the other depending on personal proclivities. It's not by accident that Sammy Hagar ("The Red Rocker") celebrates his birthday October 13th every year at his nightclub, Cabo Wabo. Cabo is party-central.

There are a great many hotels bordering the Cabo San Lucas harbor with very different price points and qualities. The ME Cabo resort, where we stayed, had a typical layout with a grouping of pools, restaurants and bars in a center courtyard lined with tall, wispy palm trees, fronting the beach with an expansive view of the harbor.

The resort was comfortable and could be recommended except for several unforgivable failings. First and foremost, the disco music playing during the day at poolside and at night from the Passions nightclub was unrelentingly loud. In your room, sealing doors and windows provided no relief, even well after midnight. Another curious choice was what the hotel billed as their AWOL Club. During the day registered guests were excluded from the main pool, bar, restaurant and beach front area. The area was available only for those willing to pay a high entrance fee.

Also in the same area and a complete contrast with ME Cabo, the Hacienda Beach Club offers a gated setting with magnificent views of the harbor. The spa and restaurant are first rate. 

Sitting on the veranda of the Hacienda Restaurant and Bar, enjoying an afternoon Mojito, plates of tacos with handmade tortillas, quesadillas, tostadas, tortas, ceviches, and inventive starters like the salad of avocado, shrimp, and hearts of palm escabeche in a vinaigrette is a refreshingly pleasant way to enjoy Mexican hospitality. Lunch lasted longer than expected because we had to sample the Four Milk Cake, a riff on the classic Tres Leches cake, served with a compote of strawberries and blackberries and a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a sprinkling of crushed walnuts.

Just outside Cabo, Las Ventanas and One and Only Palmille offer luxury and great service in impossibly beautiful settings. Also nearby, the Sheraton and Hilton chains have large resort complexes. The Sheraton takes an Old World approach. The expansive property promotes quiet and relaxation in an elegant setting.  


Interestingly, while all the resorts publicize their beach fronts with photographs of clear blue water and large, sandy expanses, swimming is not advised.  The tidal undercurrent and surf are quite dangerous. Which makes the infinity pools at the hotels all the more inviting. 

Cabo San Lucas commands a view of the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) where cruise ships stop during the day. With an iconic rock outcropping and happily basking sea lions adjacent to Lovers' Beach, visitors enjoy the water in the noisy, busy Marina or by taking glass bottomed skiffs or day-tripping boats that travel to secluded areas like Santa Maria Bay or Chileno Beach where snorkeling and swimming among schools of colorful fish is possible in the calm, protected waters.

For the adventuresome traveler who wants more than just creature comforts, there are opportunities in Cabo to test one's skill battling with nature and good sense. And that is exactly what Mitsubishi had in mind. 

Like so many automobile companies, Mitsubishi saw their sales pummeled during the economic down-turn.  Biding their time, they chose 2011 to re-invigorate their brand with a cross-over line of low-price point/high value vehicles that, as we were told,  are "practical, affordable, fun-to-drive, and deliver great miles per gallon."

If you're a foodie, the proof is in the pudding.  If you're a gear-head, you have to put the rubber to the road.

We began the test drive in groups of two writers plus one Mitsubishi representative. Each team would drive one of the cars up the coast and the other model on the return trip.  We paired up as navigators and drivers and hit the road.

There are other parts of Mexico where driving a car is risky, but Highway 1, which stretches north-east from the southern tip of Cabo San Lucas to the area above the fishing village of Los Barriles, feels completely safe, although it's important to keep an eye out for the occasional cow ambling across the highway. I don't know if the drive is as easy as at night, but during the day, the well-paved highway is a convenient way to explore the area.

Starting in Cabo San Lucas, we drove an hour and a half north to Buena Visa on the coast. During the trip we were given details about the 2011 Outlander Family model we were driving:  the MIVEC motor, the Sportronic CVT, the use of plastic polymer components in the fenders, a 710 watt Rockford Fosgate Audio system, the AWC with its active front differential, and the brake energy rejuvenation system.

I vaguely understood what those features were supposed to do, but but they did translate into a car that had plenty of power, good handling (although a bit loose in turning), a quiet interior, a great sound system and comfortable seats. We agreed that the Outlander Family was a very pleasant way to make the drive and take in the passing scenery.

For most of the year, the vast expanse of plant life on the southern-most tip of Baja suffers horribly under cloudless skies and an unrelenting sun. The dull, leafless plants are almost indistinguishable from the brown earth. And then, in the fall, an amazing thing happens.

Unlike the Mayan Riviera, which receives upwards of five feet of rain through out the year, the arid, southern tip of the Baja peninsula averages a mere six inches. And when it rains it pours. That six inches comes all at once when hurricanes cut across the peninsula at the end of summer.

What we saw as we sped north on Highway 1 was the result of that extreme weather. A lush expanse of green covered the hills to the horizon. We took the greenery for granted, but locals pointed out that just a few weeks before, the landscape had been brown and forlorn.

Besides the test drive experience, our Mitsubishi hosts, together with Terramar Destinations, a tour guide service, offered us a smorgasbord of activities, from snorkeling in the protected waters of Santa Maria Bay, ziplining between high canyon walls where you put your trust in the tensile strength of rope and metal, and kayaking in the crystal clear waters where you as often as not battle high winds and a challenging surf.

In addition to the planned activities, we could also venture off on our own to pursue jet skiing, parasailing, kitesurfing where you can combine two dangerous sports, taking a safari into the expansive desert, trying off-roading on bone-chattering "Baja Buggies" or, abandoning all good sense, going sky diving.

For those who wanted a less adventuresome path, but one that still took them away from the confines of the resort property, we could go whale watching, swim with dolphins, sail on what are billed as "Party Booze Cruises" which deliver partying and booze as advertised, or sail around the harbor to enjoy spectacular sunsets, dinner and ice cold Margaritas.

For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed snorkeling in Santa Maria Bay, although the four hour trip on a catamaran was longer than expected. Many people whiled away the time taking in the scenery, singing along with rock classics like "Sweet Home Alabama," Stayin' Alive," "We Are Family," and "Respect," all the while drinking a great many Tequila sunrises, rum and cokes, and ice cold bottles of Pacifico.

The highlight of my adventure activities was an ATV ride at the rustic Hotel Buena Vista.

As a child I had an unfortunate experience on a motorcycle with a stuck accelerator that scarred my psyche and forearm. While an ATV has four wheels and could be considered "safer," those four wheels do not necessarily provide additional control.

After a minute of instruction, our guide led us onto the beach. Controlling the ATV took some getting used to, but, with the clear, turquoise ocean on our right as we headed north on the gravelly beach, it seemed the experience would be worth the risk. Our guide apparently thought the beach wasn't adventuresome enough because he quickly changed course and took us up a rocky hillside.


Since I was still learning the ropes, I fell to dead-last in the pack. That made me the beneficiary of my fellow journalists' road dust. The road was barely a "road," so the ATV had to be steered with considerable care, dodging holes and large rocks. 

With my face hammered by dust and gravel, struggling to stay on the miserable excuse for a road, the vibrations of the engine violently rolfing my body, I released all the pent up emotion of the moment by screaming for no one's benefit but my own, "Ohmygod, I hate this!"

The tricky part on this twisty-turning dirt trail was steering the corners. One misjudged turn could send my ATV tumbling down the cliff onto the pristine beach and crystal-clear water below.

After what seemed like hours, our guide pulled over to the side of a promontory so we could enjoy the view of the coastline. I dismounted my ATV, happy to enjoy a non-vibrating moment only to be embraced by one of our group who smiled broadly as he said, "Tell me that wasn't the most fun ever!"

We spent another hour on our ATV's, traveling further up the coast and then back to the beach. We watched two surfers propelled by "kites" that at times lifted them off their boards, suspending them midair in what appeared to be a magical sleight of hand.  We saw a school of a dozen dolphins following the coastline as they searched for food. We passed campers who were homesteading a beautiful stretch of beach. We stopped for water at a small resort of no more than a dozen cabanas with a fresh water swimming pool perched only a few feet above the surf pounding against jagged rocks.

Our ATV's took us places we would never have otherwise seen. This was definitely fun after all.

For those on the trip who didn't want that much adventure, Mitsubishi arranged for an art walk in San Jose del Cabo, just twenty minutes north of Cabo San Lucas.

The town surrounds the Plaza Mijares, anchored by the Mission San Jose del Cabo, built on the foundation of the original, 1799 Mision San Jose del Cabo de Anuiti.  The small church is charming, as are the narrow streets lined with stores selling a variety of goods. Evenings, through out the year, there are art performances in the plaza, free to the public, which feature a variety of music, from hip hop to traditional Mexican ballads.

Tourists from the cruise ships travel to San Jose del Cabo for a taste of authentic, local culture, something difficult to find in modern, noisy Cabo.  Allowing themselves several hours or the entire day, visitors enjoy a quiet walk around the historical center of town, with its many art galleries, jewelry stores and restaurants. 

Walk west on Calle Zaragoza on the southern side of the church, and sample the paletas, juices, and fresh fruit shakes at La Michoacana. Mexican taste treats, paletas are the wonderfully delicious ice creams on a stick flavored with a variety of fruits and vegetables. An insider's tip: paletas are sold in stores always called La Michoacana, no matter who owns them.  


On Boulevard Antonio Mijares, adjacent to the plaza, small stores sell beautifully crafted jewelry, clothing, and art.

Definitely worth a visit is Veryka: Art Gallery and Boutique (with a sister store in the Cabo marina). The work of talented Mexican artists are for sale. Of particular interest are paintings by Jorge Salazar and Guillermo Olguin Mitchell and the work of Jose Luis Serrano Carrillo, who appropriates traditional folk art objects like Day of the Dead figures and the Tree of Life, turning them into exquisitely detailed sculptures.  

Across the square, Antigua Los Cabos (Boulevard Mijares No. 5) sells art, handmade silver jewelry and a selection of artisanal tequilas. Around the corner, the small shop La Pinata carries toys, jewelry, handmade art, and curios from all over Mexico.

A few blocks from Plaza Mijares, Indian Hands  (Calle Alvaro Obregon 15 Col. Centro, 011 52 624 1052236, Lacalenda.mitla@hotmail.com) curates jewelry by local artists and exhibits large scale work by the talented painter, Adriana Quero Martinez. 


In the central historical district, liquor stores like Los Barriles de Don Malaquias (Blvd. Mijares and Benito Juarez) exclusively sell tequila. With almost a hundred brands to choose from, there are blends, some flavored with herbs and spices, as well as premium, aged, 100% agave brands. For the tequila aficionado, a tasting is offered at no cost.

While Cabo San Lucas is proud of the many luxury hotels that line its beaches, San Jose del Cabo offers more intimate accommodations. The affordable and elegant, El Encanto Suites on the western side of the historical district, is a two-story hotel with 28 rooms, each one adjacent to a garden, small courtyard or pool. You won't find tennis courts, a golf course, or big noisy discos here. But you will find relaxation and quiet in your room, on the compact grounds, or in the Ixchel spa. 

The even smaller Hotel Casa Natalia, with just 16 rooms, is, according to the web site, "like staying in an authentic Mexican home." At a fraction of the cost of the Cabo San Lucas resorts, Hotel Casa Natalia and El Encanto Suites give the visitor an up close and personal experience with Mexican art and culture. 

So if you're looking for an escape to a sunny landscape, the southern tip of Baja California offers pleasures any way you like them: big, brassy, and boisterous in Cabo San Lucas or quietly intimate in San Jose del Cabo, with plenty of raw adventure and interaction with the beautiful landscape in between.