We are all destined to put on a few pounds during vacation. An extra cocktail here, an appetizer there, a slice of tres leches cake that I can still see on my hips.
My recent trip to mexico was no exception. I had visited Cabo with almost the identical group of women (then, girls) in our late teens, and at that point in our lives we were more interested in finding cute guys and free drinks than searching out terrific Mexican cuisine. But during this visit, most of us married, soon to be married (and hence the girl’s getaway), in serious relationships, and too old to party till dawn, we were on the hunt for great food, the perfect margarita, and lots of time by the pool.
There are no shortage of restaurants in Cabo San Lucas, but there is a shortage of great ones. I’m always leery of eating establishments in touristy areas—they have a captive audience, most of whom will never eat there again, so why push to make the restaurant great? That being said, there are a few that do an exceptional job and are worth a second (or third, or fourth) trip.
The first one of these that the crew and I found was Mama’s Royal Cafe. You have to love a restaurant that has a sense of humor about itself, and I was smitten with this joint from the moment I sat down on their breezy patio, covered with a straw roof and adorned with plastic parrots. Kitschy, for some reason, works in Mexico.
An aside about signage in this place: a placard in the bathroom read “Please don’t flush paper products. There’s no Gary in Indiana.” Translation faux pas? A midwestern phrase I don’t know about? If you can tell me what it means, you win…
…a plate of chilaquiles: crispy strips of freshly pressed tortillas topped with grilled chicken, tomatoes, avocado, cilantro and melted cheese. They were served with fresh guac and (for the record) the best sour cream I have ever tasted. And I am the toughest critic there is—we all know how much I love my sour cream. It was slightly runny, but tasted as though it had just been made in the kitchen, and the creamiest, smoothest variety I have ever had. If my Spanish were better I could have gotten the server to give me their secret. But as it stands, he probably thinks that I said something offensive about his grandmother.
The chilaquiles were just as awe-inspiring: the tortilla strips crispy but not oily, the chicken tender and spiced with green chiles, and the cheese and avocado lending a texture that nicely counter-balanced the crispiness of the tortillas. This breakfast could probably cure the meanest hangover in the country, and with coffee and bottled water my breakfast only totaled about $6.
Since we had been so thrifty at breakfast, we decided to splurge for dinner. We had reservations at a restaurant in San Jose, a 45 minute drive from our resort.
Casianos is surrounded by a ton of buzz, known as one of the best restaurant on the peninsula. I’m weary high-end concept restaurants (as this one is), after too many experiences of tiny food, snotty service, and overly-large checks. But one of my girlfriends had been there during a holiday a few months earlier and was still dreaming about the wine list and the tuna. So credit cards in hand, off we went.
Immediately struck by the decor, we settled into a rustic little booth and just stared. This photo cannot do it justice: heavy stripes on the wall that change seasonally (a few months ago they had been red, my girlfriend explained) frame a small dining room laced with exposed wood beams, dark linens, tapestries, rusted iron, and framed sketches. I didn’t just want to eat dinner there, I wanted to live there.
We sat, sipped a nice chardonnay recommended by the sommelier, and waited for the feast to begin. At Casianos there are no menus; you simply choose three courses or five. You let them know if you have any allergies, dietary restrictions, or food aversions, and then you just sit and let chef Casiano Reyes dazzle you with small plate after small plate. We chose three courses (wisely—it turned out to be more like ten courses, so I can’t imagine what five courses would have equaled), and though I didn’t photograph any of the dishes (I couldn’t bombard the other patrons with a camera flash every time something arrived at the table at a place as serene as this), I remember my favorites as clear as day.
An amuse-bouche of honeydew gazpacho was the first to arrive. If you could cream honeydew, this is what it would taste like: rich but sweet, silky, and never enough in my bowl. My bouche was definitely amused. And intrigued: if the amuse-bouche was this good, what could the chef do to top it?
The rest of the meal, that’s what. The first course of appetizers were slid onto our black slate chargers by five waiters working in unison. One large plate carried a variety of mini-plates, cups, glass cylinders and bowls. Each waiter quietly, and in very polite, clear English (thankfully—my Spanish food vocabulary is limited), explained what was on our plates. We were taken aback: each person had a different preparation of the various ingredients. Tiny seared rounds of ahi each rested on their own beds of slaw: some watercress and pear, some cilantro and melon, some on marinated vegetables. The little discs of fish melted on my tongue, punctuated with bites of crisp fruit. It was the best tuna I had ever tasted, and luckily the bride’s sister didn’t care for raw fish, so I got to taste it twice. Also served in the appetizer courses were sea bass on a bed of pesto rissoto (rich, but an incredibly fresh and tender cut of fish), chicken mole baked in banana leaves, scallops in a buttery cauliflower puree, three different freshly baked breads, skewers of cantaloupe dotted with triple-cream brie and roasted macadamia nuts, herbed salads, and too many other tiny bites to remember.
This barrage of tiny tastes had added up exponentially in our stomachs, and we had not even reached the main course. When it arrived—a small cut of overcooked beef on a bed of something forgettable—I was relieved. It was the only dish that I didn’t feel I needed to finish because it was too good to waste. I didn’t count it against the kitchen, either. By this time the dining room was packed and I couldn’t imagine how swamped they were in the back of the house creating all of the masterful mini-plates that were swarming out of the double-doors.
Before we knew it, the beef was removed and we were being inundated with plates of desserts: three each, all in different forms. My strawberry compote, for example, was served with a tiny scoop of vanilla bean mousse. Kirsten’s was in the form of a strawberry ricotta shortcake in a small glass cylinder, Nancy’s topped chocolate cinnamon ice cream, and Siri’s was on a tiny puff pastry. Other flavors intersected in a lemon cheesecake with blueberry sauce, a puff pastry topped with a chocolate cinnamon mousse, boats of dried corn husk carrying molten chocolate cake, and to top it all off, an entire cake for the bride-to-be with layers of cinnamon, cream cheese and chocolate.
Throughout the entire meal, I was in a dream world. I don’t remember a single conversation that took place between my friends and I—all I remember is buttery tuna, tender bursts of scallop, cinnamon swirling with chocolate, and washing it all down with sips of crisp white wines and earthy red ones.
The rest of the vacation was equally dreamy. My waistline expanded as the days went by and I didn’t care. The food, the drink, and the atmosphere left me so relaxed that by the time we reached the horrendous line at customs all I could do was smile.
I’m still serene, even with a crazy week behind me and a crazier one ahead. I’ve been more dreaming about cooking that actually being in the kitchen, so for now, here are a few inspired recipes that I’ll be trying soon. Until I can make it back to Cabo, I’ll have to make do with cooking those fabulous dishes myself, or trying to.
- Scallops with Cauliflower Puree, Parsley and Capers from Martha Stewart
- Chilaquiles and Seared Ahi from Simply Recipes
- The Best Margarita Ever from some weird website, but it really is insanely good
- Chicken Mole Poblano from Tyler Florence
- Cantaloupe, Honeydew and Sweet Onion Gazpacho with Crispy Prosciutto from Emeril Lagasse