A culinary awakening in Los Cabos is serving up a new world order in Mexican haute cuisine.
BY JACKIE CARADONIO
DUST SWIRLS AROUND OUR CAR AS IT BOBS AND WEAVES ALONG THE DIRT ROAD, NARROWLY MISSING DEEP HOLES AND BOUNCING ALONG AT A CAREFUL CRAWL.
We’re enveloped in a brown fog, which adds a hint of drama—not to mention uncertainty as we squint through the haze—to our culinary pilgrimage. It has only been half a mile since we turned off the main road just north of San José del Cabo, and already we’re in another world, trading the smooth concrete of the coastal highway for a dirt path surrounded by scrubby brush. It’s ironic that this trail—unruly and unpaved as it is—leads to Flora Farms, the restaurant that not long ago paved the way for Cabo’s modern culinary movement.
When we’ve finally made it to the end of the road and the dust settles, we discover a lush oasis. Gone are the thirsty desert landscapes; in their place are acres of healthy farmland punctuated by long stretches of grass—they almost look like verdant catwalks—and slender palms. The mango trees are in full bloom, their massive fruits tugging at the branches from which they precariously dangle, and the garden’s herbs are bursting from the ground like brilliant green bouquets. There’s an ice cream cart and a sprawling lawn perfect for picnics, and in the distance, a collection of stone buildings connected by streams of twinkling lights is buzzing with action as dinner is about to begin. If there was a heaven for foodies, I’m pretty sure it would look like this.
Soil to Spoon: The History of Flora Farms
When Flora Farms opened in 1996—then, just a little organic restaurant called Café Flora—it was something of an outlier in the local culinary scene. Back in those days, Los Cabos (which comprises San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas) had a good enough reputation as the south-of-the-border vacation spot, with its unrivaled luxury resorts and pristine Sea of Cortez beaches. But what you ate and drank when you got to whichever five-star beachfront property you were staying at typically looked the same: margaritas and guacamole, tequila and tacos. Delicious, yes, but hardly a study of Mexico’s diverse cuisine.
With the arrival of Flora Farms, however, travelers who had been religiously coming to Cabo for decades had a new lifeline to the culture of their favorite destination. Who knew that juicy heirloom tomatoes, giant eggplants, and mouthwatering figs could be grown right there on the edge of the beach? And with those fruits of the earth came ample opportunities to explore Mexico’s finest flavors: sweet corn with cotija cheese, chicharron with spicy honey (from on-site beehives), and quinoa cooked with succulent papaya and shrimp.
In this coup of culinary greatness, Executive Chef Guillermo Tellez—a Charlie Trotter protégé and Michoacán native—is the renegade at the helm. He strides through his gardens with a pile of picks fresh from the earth—Persian limes, broad leaves of kale, and fragrant basil—right into the kitchen where the staff is busy preparing everything under the sun: Neapolitan-style pizzas with house-made mozzarella in the wood-fired pizza oven; freshly baked bread and carrot-almond ice cream for the Flora market; and mesquite-roasted chicken and rabbit rillettes for the dozens of tables outside, where hungry guests are sipping—what else?—margaritas. But here, they’re made with pineapple-infused mescal, cilantro, and jalapeño.
The Next Factor: Top Tables
Tellez says he’s “living the dream” at Flora. “We’re taking it to the next level,” he adds—and he’s right. In the 23 years since the farm has opened, it has led the charge for other Cabo restaurants to forge new territory, too. But only recently has the movement reached a critical mass. Just down the road, Acre Baja is the newest straight-from-the-soil eatery where every last ingredient is hecho en Mexico, from the mescal to the salsa, and served in a chic setting filled with rough-hewn wooden tables and banquettes topped with patterned pillows (made by local artisans, of course).
A few miles west, at Los Tamarindos, Chef Enrique Silva operates one of Cabo’s biggest working farms, producing everything from pasillo peppers—which he dries in the sun for his vegetarian chile relleno—to cauliflower, which he mesquite-bakes and pairs with pepita aioli. Set on a sugarcane ranch from the 1800s, his restaurant serves locally-sourced perfection down to the last detail: Pork shank and Rock Cornish game hen come from nearby farms, while the green mole sauce and achiote are crafted only from ingredients Silva can grab just outside his kitchen.
Down the golden corridor—the stretch of highway named for the glittering resorts that line it on either side—luxury hotels are getting in on the movement too, serving up dishes with deeper roots than ever before. At the new Montage Los Cabos, mescal is putting new spins on fresh ingredients with plates like the suckling pig al pibil—an international twist on the classic Yucatán dish, cochinita pibil—and the castacán tacos, a transformation of one of Mexico’s most classic dishes with crispy pork belly and peanut-chipotle sauce. My favorite, however, turns out to be the simply executed hiramasa de baja, a seared avocado hot and soft with just the right richness and consistency, topped with plum aguachile sauce.
For the freshest seafood, we head next to the local market—that is, the fish market at the Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal’s El Farallon Restaurant. There, we select our catch, which is weighed on an old-fashioned scale and then paired with our choice of accoutrements: sea bass with chimichurri, red snapper with fragrant ajíllo, and shrimp with a tangy tequila sauce. At Las Ventanas al Paraíso, A Rosewood Resort, meanwhile, we discover a traditional Tlaxacalan barbacoa. It’s a throwback to an ancient pre-Hispanic ceremony in which the natives wrapped meat in Maguey leaves and heated it for hours in an underground oven. When the free-range lamb is unearthed from the beach after seven hours of smoldering, it’s a tender and sweet history lesson for our taste buds.
Top Toque: Chef Enrique Olvera
But it’s all the way on the west end of the corridor where we discover Cabo’s most effective blend of culinary authenticity and creativity. Chef Enrique Olvera became a celebrity for his Mexico City restaurant, Pujol, when word of his famous mole madre sauce, which has been cooking continuously for more than six years, made it onto the worldwide foodie radar. His fifth restaurant, Manta, located in The Cape, a Thompson Hotel, is a true testament to the all-encompassing culture of Mexican cuisine. Everything, from the vintage tortilla presses lining the entryway to the handmade ceramic tiles on the floor, nods to Olvera’s mother country.
When we arrive just before sunset, a stream of golden light stretches through the floor-to-ceiling windows to cast an angelic glow on the cooks working with careful focus in the open kitchen. Manta means “blanket,” and it’s clear that Olvera intends to envelop his guests in worldly comfort from their first taste. Yet, nothing here is strictly about the classics. Fish tacos are dressed in black miso, scallops are cooked in shiso, and a variety of moles that look nothing like the traditional brown sauce arrive at our table one after the other. Olvera says he’s eschewing the stereotypes of his own native cuisine with such dishes and yet everything is somehow distinctly Mexican, whether it’s the tortillas made from hand-ground bolita corn or the tres leches cake served with tamarind. It’s an education of the palate, as we parse the flavors of each dish, surmising the origins of each ingredient, whether from Oaxaca or Osaka. That it all pairs well with a margarita is no coincidence. This is, after all, Cabo.
En la Cocina
Learn to make Mexico’s many delicious cuisines yourself at one of these elevated Los Cabos cooking classes.
Flora Farms • Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, join Chef Guillermo Tellez’s team to learn the art of tacos, tamales, and regional salsas, with a focus on the fresh produce and herbs produced on Flora Farms’ grounds. The interactive classes also include a farm tour, a craft cocktail, and lunch.
Los Tamarindos • Prepare—and then eat—a four-course meal with one of Enrique Silva’s chefs, focusing on traditional Mexican cuisine as well as the rich flavors of the Mediterranean. Classes take place amid Los Tamarindos’ 17-acre farm, surrounded by fragrant herbs, ripe vegetables, and the breeze of the Sea of Cortez.
Las Ventanas al Paraíso, A Rosewood Resort • Serious—and seriously aspiring—chefs should head to Las Ventanas’ demonstration kitchen to cook the resort’s award-winning dishes alongside its chefs. Or, take it to the next level and enter the property’s Challenge the Chef competition: Using the resort’s fresh ingredients, guests can prepare an original dish for Executive Chef Rick Gonzalez. If the meal is deemed a “three-spoon success,” it will grace Las Ventanas’ menu for a week.
Esperanza, Auberge Resorts Collection • Esperanza’s cooking classes take students beyond la cocina to explore the natural riches of Los Cabos, to the Baja shoreline to dig for chocolata clams (one of the region’s most delicious bivalves) and the chef’s garden to hand-pick herbs and produce. Back in the kitchen, you’ll cook up traditional fish-and-clam ceviche and pescado zarandeado over a wood-and-coal bonfire.
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