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Dining in Cabo: A Little Wine, a Few More Margaritas

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 19, 2008 3:44pm ET

Before diving into my blog on my recent dining experiences in Cabo, I need to relate the latest story in my ongoing travel saga. As some of you may have read here, I am the human travel jinx and I can’t remember the last time I actually took off and landed on time without any glitches.

Before flying home from Cabo this past Saturday, I saw the radar for DFW, where I was connecting to New York, and it looked ominous. But I didn’t say anything to Nancy, I just kept quiet and hoped. Our flight from Cabo took off almost on time (frankly, anything less than 30 minutes late is now considered "on time" for me). We made our connection in Dallas easily and despite the heavy rain storms in the area that had apparently shut down the airport earlier in the day, we took off nearly on time. We landed in New York on time. Could it be? A perfect day of flights?

Nancy proudly proclaimed the travel jinx broken, but alas, she spoke too soon. After waiting nearly 40 minutes for our bags, an airline representative came out to tell us that the bags didn’t make the flight. Not just our bags—the entire plane’s bags. And since the last flight out of Dallas had been cancelled, there wouldn’t be any luggage arriving until the next day (they did eventually arrive, after dinner on Sunday). The streak continues …

As for Cabo, it’s been quite a growth story. I’ve vacationed there a half-dozen times since 1999. Our first trip was B.C. (Before Children) when Nancy and I landed to find an airport made of corrugated aluminum replete with folding chairs inside. It’s grown quite a bit since then, though there are still no waiting lounges nor enough seats to go around.

The road from the airport to the tourist corridor—the strip of prime real estate located between the towns of San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas (together referred to as Los Cabos)—is now paved, though it still provides for some rustic thrills along the way. Sport fishing and whale watching can still deliver great thrills, but golf now rivals those pastimes for Cabo’s biggest draw. There are some super golf courses there, including the three nines at Palmilla and the Ocean Course at Cabo de Sol, with more on the way.

As for dining, I admit to always having a soft spot for Las Ventanas al Paraiso, having stayed there a few times. Unassuming from the road, Las Ventanas draws in the second honeymoon crowd rather than families. At The Restaurant, the wine list is heavy on Californian and Mexican wines and Alejandro the sommelier is well-spoken, engaging and knowledgeable. The kitchen has undergone a few chef changes in recent years, but hasn’t seemed to skip a beat. It still turns out terrific modern Baja/Mexican dishes along with some standard contemporary fare. I went for the chile relleno and was rewarded with a large, gently smoky poblano stuffed with a succulent mix of ground beef, sweet dried fruits and nuts, all topped with a delicate pepper cream sauce. Nancy’s grilled white tuna fillet was seared to a perfect medium-rare and laid over a bed of cactus leaves. It’s an expensive spot, but the open-air bar and dining room which look out across an infinite-edge pool that seems to blend into the Sea of Cortez is still one of the most romantic spots on the corridor.

In contrast to the subdued elegance of Las Ventanas, the lush gardens and large villas at One&Only Palmilla seem to nearly spill over onto the road. After undergoing a major renovation, Palmilla is now arguably the finest resort in Cabo, offering a range of dining options, including Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant C.

Humpback whales are an impressive sight if you take a sail off the coast of Los Cabos.

Both the bar area (where in the true punctilious Trotter manner, if you show up early you’ll still be asked to wait even if the dining room is half empty) and dining room are stunning spaces. The bar looks out over the cliffs and beach where waves crash ceaselessly. It provides the perfect opportunity to spend some time with the 1,500-plus-selection list that features a modern and comprehensive listing of big-name Californian, Italian and French names along with savvy German Rieslings and more. The list is both impressive for its depth and range of offerings in the generally wine-poor Los Cabos and a harbinger of things to come.

Once in the dining room, you’re sitting underneath large, inverted silver bowl light fixtures and surrounded by numerous colored glass vases. It’s all eye-catching but soothing at the same time. The kitchen is separated from the dining room by cylindrical columns of water-filled, curved blue glass columns that lend an aquariumlike feel, while making the activity behind them seem both close and far away at the same time. Knowing Trotter's penchant for keeping an eye on his diners at his Chicago flagship restaurant, it seemed like a sly trick—I assume we were the ones in the fish tank and not the other way around. Combined with the wine list, the overall impression I had was of being back in New York (or Vegas, Chicago or L.A.). There is very little Cabo-like feel here.

I remained undeterred, however, as I was looking forward to Trotter's passion for detail and creativity being unleashed on simple and traditional Baja ingredients, namely grilled seafood. An opening course was a "bento box," a small, upright rectangular box placed delicately on the table and slowly opened to reveal a rush of aromas. Inside was a small slice of wagyu beef which you then seared yourself on a hot stone. Also included was a mille feuilles of tuna tartare that made me salivate for the ensuing meal.

As each course arrived though, I slowly came to the realization that Restaurant C is not about Baja, nor does it pretend to be. Restaurant C provides modern interpretations of classic preparations, all expertly done, but without any risks. A bouillabaisse had a delightfully smoky, earthy quality to it, but offered up the one and only shrimp of the evening (“This is Cabo isn't it?” I thought). The fish course (pan-roasted fillets of sea bass for me and snapper for Nancy) almost played second fiddle to the accompanying vegetable sides, sourced from an organic purveyor according to our server, who was as polished in English as she was in Spanish. The ending course of meat (duck and beef for me, lamb and beef for Nancy) was tender and mouthwatering, but cemented the impression of the meal as one that was more concerned with performance than its sense of origin.

The service is totally professional—a waiter knocks over a vase that shatters and spills, but a team of staffers descends silently and within two minutes it’s as if nothing happened. All questions are answered. All ingredients and preparations are recited without hiccup. No one hovers but someone is always paying attention. The Argentinean sommelier, Gonzalo Amoedo is young and enthusiastic. Everything is right—but too much so for me. In the end, Restaurant C offers more of a taste of home—a polished, sophisticated urban setting—than a sense of where you really are. It's restaurant colonization.

Edith’s Restaurante has been open 11 years now and has evolved into one of the most popular spots in Cabo San Lucas. The tableside preparations of caesar salad and banana flambée come off as genuine, rather than hokey or traditional, thanks to a staff that constantly chats you up. Steaks and seafood are the name of the game. Just put together any combination you want to sample the best of Baja. Butterflied Baja shrimp are slathered with butter and roasted garlic and laid out alongside a mesquite grilled fillet of mahi mahi and a perfectly steamed lobster tail.

While margaritas are large and provide plenty of toothy lime-tinged bite, don’t overlook the wine list. A standard California lineup is there for those who want familiarity, but the buys are in the Chilean and Argentinean sections. A Matetic Pinot Noir San Antonio EQ 2005 is brought out (the bottle slightly cool to the touch) and poured into large-bowled Riedel glasses, a more-than-pleasant surprise. The strolling band keeps the mood going and the crowd is loud and casual. We had such a good time we tried to book another dinner there that week, but were told they were full up, and often for two weeks in advance or more. Edith’s is clearly capitalizing on its popularity—prices aren’t much lower than the restaurants in the top resorts—but the ambience over delivers and it’s a great spot for those who want to dress down for dinner.

While Edith’s enjoys a prime location near the water and draws in the obvious tourist crowd, La Fonda is on the edge of town, on a dimly lit street with locals dominating the dining room. The secret can’t last long though, as the food here is really, really good. The menu is very traditional: Fried crickets and ant eggs are listed along with tacos and tostadas (I opted for the latter).

An appetizer of chiles stuffed with tuna is one of the house specialties. It melts in the mouth, with the gentle green spice of the chile lifting up the tuna. I followed that with an assortment of taquitos—thin, rolled tortillas stuffed with combinations of poblano, cream, beef, potato, chorizo and chicken, which are then lightly fried, all topped with freshly chopped lettuce and grated cheese. Simple, fresh and delicious. Nancy’s pechuga de pollo came slathered with a peppian verde that the waiter recommended over the molé sauce. Made from pumpkin seeds and green tomatoes, it provided a sweet and tangy combo (I wound up dragging the ends of my taquitos through it, it’s so good).

Though the wine list here is proudly presented in a large, wooden wine bottle that opens up like a book, it is for the most part useless (minimal selections, no vintages). Instead, order the margaritas that come in fist-sized tumblers and deliver a mouthwatering punch. Prices at La Fonda are very moderate—$12 (120 pesos) for the four tacos. It would be very easy to overeat here.

As Cabo has grown, so have the dining options. You’ll pay a hefty premium for wine, which remains the lone hurdle to Cabo being a truly world-class destination. But whether you want a modern big-name chef experience or just laid back local flavor, it’s all there.

Las Ventanas al Paraiso
Carretera Transpeninsular KM 19.5
Telephone: 52-624-1442800

One&Only Palmilla
Carretera Transpeninsular KM 7.5
Telephone: 52-624-146-7000

Edith’s Restaurante
Camino a Playa El Medano
Telephone: 52-624-1430801

La Fonda
Avenida Hidalgo y 12 de Octubre
Telephone: 52-624-143-6926

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  February 19, 2008 6:27pm ET
In Cabo, the Baja wines are a better deal (and they are pretty good -- see the JS blog today) and the surfing is excellent. its a great place to go for me to get the best of both worlds -- nice lux for the wife and an easy escape to the surf for me!! PS -- please keep me informed when you are flying so I can stay far, far away
James Molesworth
February 19, 2008 7:08pm ET
Andrew: yes, I saw my colleague's blog. I've also had numerous wines from Baja but to date have been less enthused. I often find the reds a bit heavy and dull. I did have the Mariatinto on this recent trip and agree with JS's impression of it...that's not to say they can't improve of course.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  February 20, 2008 12:59pm ET
I actually had the LA Cetto reserve Nebbiolo at las Ventanas -- it was the least expensive wine on that horribly overpriced wine list and was nice -- balanced and varietally correct. It was a real score as I had pretty much resigned myself to drinking Pacificos. Most of the other Baja wines that I've tried on subsequent trips were along the lines of Arizona wines -- exuberant, chunky, ripe with some interesting blends; fair to good but not great
Scott Boles
San Diego —  February 20, 2008 3:55pm ET
I am glad you enjoyed La Fonda. We ate there twice during a recent stay. Solid both times. And yes, we overate there!
Julio Lasmartres
Mendoza —  February 23, 2008 5:27pm ET
Chile en Nogada. I had the same dish at Las Ventanas al Paraiso a few months ago. The chile was very good and the beach front setting out of this world. Nice selection of wines and prices according to the resort you're in. Not cheap. Great golf course as well.

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