Chocolate clams. Tongue carpaccio. Venison tacos. These are just a few dishes diners in Baja California are trying these days beyond familiar favorites like fish tacos, lobster and margaritas.
The food of Baja has evolved into its own style of cuisine, sometimes called Baja Med, a fairly recent development which makes full use of the bounty of local seafood with sophisticated Mexican gourmet flourishes.
Numerous varieties of shellfish and fin fish never make it to the United States, so a trip to Cabo San Lucas is a chance to experience all those varieties along with a sprinkling of specialties from mainland Mexico. This profusion of local products, combined with Mexican and Mediterranean flavors is drawing chefs to experiment with a variety of local ingredients.
After cooking in Europe for several years, chef Drew Deckman first came to Baja to fish, and stayed to cook. Starting out in Cabo, he’s now based just south of the California border at Deckman’s at El Mogor restaurant in the Valle de Guadelupe.
“Modern Baja cuisine is ingredient-driven,” says Deckman, “from the products of the ocean to the livestock to local salt.”
The Georgia-born chef enjoys using native yellowtail tuna — “One of the fishes that does really well on the Pacific side,” he says, as well as geoduck, chocolate clams and abalone. His unique approach to using local ingredients includes “an alternative surf ‘n turf” marrying beef tongue and clam ceviche.
Delicate sea creatures like scallops, lobster and abalone play off the bold flavors of chiles and fresh herbs everywhere in Cabo, from humble taco stands like the popular Gordo Leles, complete with singing chef, to casual seafood spots like Toro Guero to luxurious resorts.
At the Rancho Pescadero oceanside resort just outside Cabo (pictured above), chef Rodrigo Bueno enjoys the variety of produce grown at the resort’s organic garden and surrounding farms.
One of the biggest changes since he arrived in Baja in 2006, says Bueno, is that “it was hard to get organic products, but then there was a boom.” He also enjoys cooking with sardines from Punta Lobos and cabrilla, a fish similar to sea bass caught in the waters right in front of the hotel. “I love to roast the cabrilla with the skin on — it keeps it crispy!” he says.
Guests at the resort’s restaurant are surprised by the quality of the ingredients and the abundance of local produce, Bueno says. “Because we use so many local ingredients we have stories about all of them — the farmers we work with, the cheeses and other ingredients that come from the nearby mountains.”
According to Bill Esparza, a Los Angeles writer who has played a major part in bringing Baja to the food world’s attention, the area’s food “is influenced by the nearby states of Sonora and Sinaloa, some condiments from the Japanese and Chinese kitchen, the viticulture of the Valle de Guadalupe, the use of olive oil” as well as the talent of both Mexican and international chefs.
Baja cuisine is light, fresh and local, which makes it extra-attractive to health-conscious diners. “Baja has some of the best seafood products in the world, and the chefs and street vendors from Tijuana to Ensenada to La Paz know how to use them,” Esparza says.
Although some of the well-known spots like El Farrallon, Flora’s Field Kitchen and Ventanas Resort are still undergoing hurricane repairs, here’s a few more open spots that Drew Deckman recommends. San José del Cabos is about 20 miles from Cabo San Lucas.
Casianos (San José del Cabo)
“spontaneous” tasting menu that changes each night
Toro Guero (Cabo San Lucas)
Sinaloan-style seafood, casual and “very good” says Deckman
Ediths (Cabo San Lucas)
Guerrero-style steaks and seafood in a lush patio setting near Medano Beach