Monday, May 16, 2011

Eat Southern....Cabo San Lucas, the "south" of the Mexican Baja peninsula

Infinity Pool at Playa Grande

Mole, margaritas, fresh shrimp, caesar salad and carbonara...admittedly that seems like a strange list of favorites from a trip to Mexico, but as Mark keeps reminding me, Cabo is barely Mexico. Sitting at the southern end of the Baja peninsula, this desert seaside town provides a nice blend of Mexican culture, with a tourist friendly ease. The restaurants all accept American currency, and yet you can still find a local Mexican woman making authentic masa tortillas in an open kitchen. My high school best friend, Kristin and I met in this resort town with the goals of relaxing poolside by day, and experiencing the culture via food and drink by night. Along the way we enjoyed the traditional cuisine and took some risks, discovering Italian with a Mexican twist.

We stayed at the Playa Grande, a beautiful resort on the beach with five pools, luxurious spa, and great service, save the checking in and out process which you would have thought was a first for them. During the day we enjoyed delicious fish tacos and ceviche, poolside. It could have been the sun and the salt air, or the adrenalin from frequently spotting whales swimming along the beach, but these simple dishes were outrageously delicious. I was reminded that very few simple ingredients: fish, lettuce, tomatoes and lime, often taste better than loading on layers of flavor. Cheese and sour cream, so often used in American Mexican food, were rarely used here.

Banana Wrapped Sea Bass
Our first night we dined at Mi Casa restaurant in downtown Cabo San Lucas, which was walking distance from our resort. We entered the restaurant through a traditional storefront, were led through a hallway that opened onto a lush, colorful courtyard, stepped up almost amphitheater style, with three levels of dining. Giddy about seeing each other after 2 years and excited about the dining experiences that lay ahead, we wasted no time in diving in with La Mixta de la Huerta, a simple salad made from local organic greens, zucchini, red onions, red pepper, corn, crispy fried tortilla strips, cotija cheese and a pineapple-cilantro-jalapeno vinaigrette. The vegetables were crisp and fresh. For a second starter, we chose the Ceviche capengo campechano which included shrimp, baby octopus, fish, and scallops. Surprisingly the ceviche was sweet, tossed lightly with tomatoes, and full of the natural flavor of the fish. The ceviche was not acidic, considering this cooking technique uses acids, typically citrus, to "cook" the fish instead of heat. Alongside a margarita and Don Julio tequila both on the rocks, we found ourselves happy, relaxed, and thus easy targets for the spunky mariachi band. Note to others: you may say "no thank you" to these roving free-lance bands, when they inevitably arrive at your table, in all restaurants, otherwise they will not leave until you tip them.

El Mole Poblano
While the chili-spiced sea bass cooked in a banana leaf served with fresh vegetables and rice, was perfectly pleasing, the El mole poblano, stole the show. Deliciously tender, fall-off-the-bone chicken, reminiscent of southern bbq, was smothered in a complex mole sauce, boasting over 35 ingredients. This meal causes me to contradict my earlier mentioned simplicity rule, forcing me to create a new rule: if you cannot keep your ingredients simple, go extreme! The mole sauce which hinted of chocolate and chili, proved to be the best meal of the vacation. We could not resist an order of fresh masa tortillas made at an open kitchen right in the heart of the courtyard, with a serving of fresh guacamole. These masa tortillas, made by an adorable local woman, have ruined store bought flour tortillas for me, for life. The corn flavor, combined with a slightly mealy texture, juxtaposed the fresh creamy guacamole that teased me, knowing I would not be able to replicate them back home.

Masa Tortillas
For dessert we could not pass up the Tarte de peras en damiana, a pear tart with local goat cheese and liquor, which did not disappoint. The crust was flaky, the cheese was creamy, and it was not overly sweetened, allowing all the flavors to present themselves.

Veering away from the traditional, we tried Doc wine bar and Italian restaurant, which proved to be another favorite. Situated next door to Mi Casa, it is a small cozy restaurant, reminiscent of Italy, with an open kitchen and extensive wine menu. The chefs hail from Italy, so the dishes are based on classics, but there is certainly a Mexican influence on the flavors. We both adored our main courses. Their signature dish called Doc, consisted of guanciale (spaghetti), cream, thyme,  habanera chile and sweet corn. The guanciale was creamy and luscious, yet unlike a typical Italian cream-type dish, it was fiery, flavored by the Mexican chiles. The second dish was equally spicy, the penne arrabiatta included tomato, garlic, parsley and a lot of hot red chili pepper. The red sauce was again redolent of the Italian dishes with which we grew up in the northeast, except for the intense kick of heat. Both Kristin and I enjoy spicy food, therefore these dishes appealed to our nature, but they are not for the faint of tongue. In fact, we garnered major points with the wait staff and owner when they saw we could not only handle the heat, but enjoy it.

On Monday night we discovered our planned restaurant was closed so we ventured to the more touristy marina area. Here we discovered a great little gem of a restaurant, Los Deseos, that while it served great food, to me will be remembered for the service. It was here that we discovered a brilliant perk, shared by many of the outdoor restaurants - ponchos on the back of your chair. Inevitably the 90 degree heat of the day, drops after dark, in true desert fashion. Seeing me shivering in my strappy sundress, our waiter arrived to drape a poncho over me, feeling very romantically, international. Another silly pleasure was a personal purse stand upon arrival at your table. This accoutrement was small, yet completely memorable.

Kristin showing off the poncho and purse stand
On our final night we ventured over to Medano beach, a short cab ride from our resort, boasting a beautiful, swimmable beach (the beach at the resort is off limits for swimming due to dangerous riptides) and a popular, casual, palapa (grass hut) restaurant, cheekily called "The Office". The outdoor tables sit directly in the sand almost down to the water's edge, making for a perfect evening cocktail destination. Along with our now standard margaritas, we dined on grilled shrimp scampi. These were served fresh off the grill, hinting of smoke and smothered in a garlic, butter sauce. The meat was sweet and tender; light fare that made a delicious start to the night.

From The Office, we walked across the street to an upscale sister establishment called Edith's. Edith's may be the most romantically set restaurant, I have ever enjoyed. Set in a verdant courtyard, lit with small white lights and candles, one cannot help but be intoxicated by the exotic vibe. We began with a caesar salad made tableside. To my delight, the entertaining chef broke open a soft boiled egg, and drizzled the runny yoke into the dressing, which may be the secret ingredient as this salad proved to be incredibly creamy and rich, exceeding all previous caesar salad experiences.

Shrimp Scampi
Our main course was a surf and turf for two with lobster, lamb and beef filet wrapped in bacon. The local lobster was tender and rich. The lamb chops were cooked rare, seasoned well, and had a perfect balance of lamb flavor without being too gamey. These chops were so good, I did not think twice about gnawing on the bones, enjoying every last ounce. The filet was wonderful, and felt a bit more natural and flavorful than your typical pristine American filet.

Surf and Turf
After five days of a vacation routine consisting of big decisions like whether to hang on our room balcony with a view of the marina, or go to the the infinity pool at the Ridge, with a swim up bar, or relax at the ocean view pool, or to get an hour and a half massage on the beach, it was hard to leave my close friend Kristin and all of this luxury behind. We parted ways, safe in knowing we had ideas for our next trip, and vowing to attempt our own version of a mole sauce back home, some rainy day, when 35 ingredients doesn't sound daunting. My money is on Kristin.

View of the Marina from our balcony