Although a wide-reaching farm-to-table revolution swept through the lower peninsula in the early ’00s, the region’s culinary identity remained loosely defined as Mexiterranean, a clever moniker coined in the ’90s at the posh Rosewood Las Ventanas resort. It’s a term that become widely adapted and accepted as the region’s signature cooking style. Although earnest, this local cuisine was almost always more French or Italian or even Japanese or Chinese than it was Mexican. Today there are probably as many decent sushi bars between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo as there are Mexican restaurants of similar quality.
But what it means to eat Mexican food in Los Cabos is evolving rapidly. Strong undercurrents of European technique and Asian ingredients endure. That’s a perfectly organic evolution. Mexican cuisine is inherently regional, and every notable locality from Oaxaca to the Yucatán has been influenced over time by cultures that have risen and fallen or simply passed through temporarily. Baja’s lower peninsula was Mexico’s last frontier. It makes sense its gastronomic timeline would diverge from the rest.
Various chefs over the years have lurched the region closer to this moment. But for right now, these four restaurants are the ones most authoritatively rewriting the definition of Los Cabos’ unique regional Mexican cuisine:
The arrival of Enrique Olvera’s Manta at The Cape in 2015 marked a profound recalibration of the area’s longstanding flirtation with Asian fusion.
Fusion gets a bad rap because most often it comes from a place of boredom — either the chef’s or the diner’s — rather than from a source of deep understanding of one cuisine or the other. And that’s where Manta stands apart because there is no greater student — or teacher — of Mexican gastronomy than Enrique Olvera (renowned for Pujol in Mexico City). He is Mexico’s most famous chef. Infinitely curious, he has few peers when it comes to culinary anthropology.
Manta means “canvas” in Spanish, and here Olvera has painted his canvas entirely black. The dramatic interior focuses the eye on two things: the ocean and the plate. Manta is a window onto the sea, to the Pacific Rim, literally. Service here is warm and friendly yet unnervingly professional, a cornerstone of every Olvera restaurant I’ve ever been to (five and counting).
Overseen by chef Abisai Sanchez, Manta’s menu doesn’t attempt to replicate Pujol’s but rather to express the unique vernacular of Los Cabos. It is steeped in knowledge of local farmers, regional markets, ancient techniques and current trends. At first glance, the food appears more Japanese than Mexican. But take a closer look at the mushroom ramen. Yes, ramen. It’s a dish in which the noodles are made in-house and literally everything soaking in that pasilla chile broth is grown locally: the mushrooms, the beans and, most notably, the epazote, a uniquely Mexican herb that amplifies this ramen’s sense of belonging.
And then there’s a salad of edamame. The crisp green soybeans are tossed with sesame paste along with broccolini and nopales, a prickly pear cactus that grows wild throughout Mexico. I’ve eaten nopales at Mexican restaurants for decades, yet I don’t think I’ve ever fallen in love more with a version elsewhere than I have with this one.
Still, I like this restaurant best when the kitchen turns its focus inward toward its Mexican roots. The roasted sweet potato served in almond mole is absolutely fascinating. And the soft-shell crab taco with morita chile mayonnaise slathered onto a freshly pressed blue-corn tortilla could very well be the best taco you eat this year in Los Cabos.
Cocina del Mar
For decades, Esperanza has enjoyed a reputation as one of Los Cabos’ premier resorts. The head chef, Alexis Palacios, has floated among the region’s best restaurants since 2009, including an earlier stint here. He served as opening chef at Montage before heeding the call to Mexico City where he opened the Sofitel Reforma. He returned to Esperanza as top chef in October, and shortly after resettling he lured chef Ibrahim Amaya García away from Jazamango in Todos Santos (a restaurant run by celebrity chef Javier Plascencia) to help him usher in an entirely new era for Cocina del Mar.
The outdoor setting is even more incredible than I remember from my last visit to this spot 15 years ago. Partially covered by a giant palapa, Cocina del Mar sprawls across multiple levels of a craggy bluff in a private cove on the Sea of Cortes. The menu focuses on wood-grilled steaks and fresh seafood — lobster, oysters, butter clams, chocolate clams, scallops… but with an entirely fresh take.
Grilled blue shrimp arrive at the table in a cloud of smoke, the spectacle stemming from a small fire set to a bundle of herbs in the base of a molcajete-turned-hibachi. The shrimp, still fully sheathed, their heads not yet lopped off, are dressed with a chimichurri-like slurry of black garlic. The shrimp are exquisite.
Even more impressive is the kampachi ceviche served inside a charred orange. The chefs start by burying the orange in a pile of smoldering charcoal. Once the fruit has turned completely black, they pluck it from the embers, brush off the ashes and core it. The pulp and juice get folded with raw kampachi along with fermented lemon and cilantro, then stuffed back into the blackened hull. When this arrives at my table, I mistake it for decoration. I ignore it. Fifteen minutes goes by before my curiosity gets the best of me. That’s when I touch it and realize it is the appetizer I ordered.
The chefs’ new twist on charcoal-grilled octopus calls for a smear of green curry and accompaniment of grilled bok choy, plus kimchi. While the composition alludes to Asia, the taste is distinctly Mexican, thanks to a pastor-like seasoning on the octopus.
Just about every Mexican restaurant in Los Cabos offers its own Baja twist on pescado zarandeado or pescado a la talla (Puerta Vallarta or Acapulco-style grilled fish, respectively). Here, it’s a whole sea bass marinated in chili paste and garlic then grilled and served family style with large bowls of rice and beans, plus tortillas and several salsas. It is sublime.
Esperanza, Carretera Transpeninsular Mz 10 Km 7 Punta Ballena, Cabo San Lucas, BCS Mexico; Tel. +52 (624) 145-6400; aubergeresorts.com
Montage opened its first Latin American outpost in 2018 in Los Cabos’ Santa Maria Bay, one of the few private, swimmable beaches in the tourist corridor. Chef Odin Rocha joined the resort’s signature restaurant Mezcal two years ago as chef de cuisine, jumping from 1826 at the Rosewood in San Miguel de Allende. Before that, he cooked classic French cuisine at Brasserie Lipp in Mexico City, an offshoot of the 130-year-old Brasserie Lipp in Paris’ Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
That seminal French background reveals itself vividly in Rocha’s modern approach to Mexican cuisine, a perfect fit for the setting. Mezcal is easily the most urbane and also most formal of the restaurants on this list. But maybe “formal” isn’t the right word. This is Los Cabos, after all, and the indoor/outdoor restaurant overlooks a grassy lawn that overlooks the pool that overlooks the beach. Turn your gaze away from that view, though, and you could easily be in New York or San Francisco.
Every ingredient on the menu has a story to tell, starting with the bread and butter, which arrives under a cloche filled with the smoke of smoldering corn husks. The butter is churned in-house from local milk. The bread is baked fresh too. It’s rare that bread and butter is the thing about which I’m still obsessing days after a meal, but I can’t get this pairing out of my head. It is a powerful first impression.
Rocha has created an ingenious tasting menu inspired by Mexico’s most important markets: Xochimilco, La Merced and La Viga in Mexico City, Mercado Negro in Ensenada, 20 de Noviembre in Oaxaca, Valladolid in Mérida and Tixtla in Guerrero, each course paired with a different Mexican wine.
Mexico City’s Mercado Xochimilco, one of the largest flower markets in the world, inspires the salad of squash blossoms and avocado. The fish market in Ensenada provides inspiration for a seafood cocktail of shrimp, octopus, oysters and chocolate clams dressed with salsa bruja, a sauce made with chile de arbol and habanero along with bay leaf, clove and vinegar.
The market in Oaxaca gives rise to tetela, a sort of triangular empanada made from a uniquely brown corn masa, served in chichilo negro, one of Oaxaca’s seven moles, made with chilhuacle and pasilla chiles.
Inspired by the market in Valladolid, two hours east of Merida, Rocha serves Mishima beef sourced from a ranch in the Yucatán, pairing it with chilmole negro, a black mole that Yucatecans typically use on turkey. Alongside this beef I find a marrow bone filled with esquites (corn) and dollops of cauliflower puree scented with Mexican vanilla.
Montage, Carretera Transpeninsular Km 12.5, Int. Bahía Santa María, Twin Dolphin, Cabo San Lucas, BCS Mexico; Tel. +52 (624) 163-2000; montagehotels.com/loscabos
Following up on its longtime success with Esperanza, Auberge Resorts opened its second Los Cabos property, Chileno Bay, in 2017. To oversee the new signature restaurant, Comal, the company tapped chef Yvan Mucharraz, a longtime star of Cabo’s dining scene whose tenure in the region includes previously being both executive chef and food-and-beverage director at Capella’s Resort at Pedregal (now Waldorf Astoria). Before that, the Mexico City native worked alongside Thomas Keller at The French Laundry (Napa Valley), Joel Robuchon at L’Atelier (New York) and Juan Mari Arzak at Tezka (Mexico City).
But for the kitchen, the entire restaurant exists outdoors, completely uncovered but for a canopy of trees, cozily perched on a cliff with stars (and string lights) twinkling overhead as waves crash into a romantic cove in the darkness below. Service is relaxed and familiar, as if everyone (staff and customers) are longtime friends.
Judging from the never-ending menu of 30-plus appetizers and entrees, Mucharraz clearly has a lot on his mind, much of it inspired by Cabo’s local organic farms and fishermen. With so many options, where does one even begin? i’ll narrow it to three things you absolutely must order.
First, the beef short rib doraditas. These are absolutely extraordinary tacos: fresh corn tortillas layered firmly with fatty, slow-cooked rib meat, fried to a crisp in the fat that drips from the meat, then capped with a cool, crisp slaw of shredded beets and lemon confit.
Two, the ceviche of totoaba, a local drum fish. The fish’s rosy pink flesh is tossed with cucumber and fennel and encircled with citrus juices. It is as beautiful as it is delicious.
Three: charred blue shrimp in black garlic paste. Marinated until black, then grilled with their heads and tails intact, these gloriously messy shrimp are insanely good.
Okay, four. There’s local octopus tossed with avocado and kastakan, or Yukatan-style chicharrones — except Mucharraz doesn’t use just pork belly for these chicharrones. He mixes in a few cubes of beef fat, which fry up the same way, only far more decadent. Then he gives it a splash of habanero sauce.
Never mind. Five. The chef’s twist on zarandeado calls for a whole lobina, the local sea bass, the same fish that’s served at Cocina del Mar but completely, utterly different. This one, too, is superb.
NOTE ABOUT TRAVELING DURING COVID: Tourism in Los Cabos is open to international travelers. However, COVID-19 is still a huge concern. You can monitor the local virus situation here. All things considered, Los Cabos feels safe. The local government mandates that all individuals continue to wear masks throughout the destination at all times when interacting with others who are not members of their household except for certain instances, such as when eating, drinking, swimming, etc. From what I witnessed, most hotels take the mitigation protocols very seriously, with strict social distancing, touchless menus, enhanced cleaning, etc. Note that U.S. and Canadian citizens are required to present a negative COVID-19 result within 48 hours prior to returning home, which you’ll need to show at the airport in order to get on the plane. All hotels in Los Cabos offer convenient testing on-site (a system that also allows them to routinely test their own staff). #getvaccinated and #stopthespread