A Taste of Mexico
There were new treasures to be found in Mexico. Or at least, my eyes were opened anew to treasures that had always existed, but which I’d never noticed before. Amaranth candies, grilled plantains, crystallized sweet potatoes, chilies, chilies and more chilies. I’ve been to Cabo at least half a dozen times and never noticed, never looked for anything beyond shrimp fajitas, fish tacos, or chicken enchiladas (and margaritas, of course). Unfortunately, this is the faint glimpse of Mexican cuisine most Americans are aware of. It’s easy to believe Mexican food is just tortilla chips, beans and lots of cheese. So, all those times I’d been to Mexico, I was content to stay with the familiar.
It’s amazing what a difference just a few years can make. Those people by the pool who ordered quesadillas and club sandwiches completely appalled me this time, but I was among them not so long ago. In Cabo it’s too easy to fall for the Americanization of everything. Cruise ships, luxury shops, and noisy nightclubs make you feel like you’re still in the States, just speaking a bit more Spanish. Few would believe a trace of traditional Mexicana still exists. And though much of it has been overwhelmed by American tourism, there is still tradition to be found if you just take an extra moment to look for it. And that’s really all it takes. A little awareness. A quick glance further down the menu. A peek at a dictionary to look up an unfamiliar word rather than backing away from it. Like me, you might be surprised and delighted by what you discover.
This dessert was one of the first things I ate on this trip and it completely blew me away. The description promised something intriguing, but what arrived on my plate completely shattered by expectations…in a very good way.
A base of crumbly cake topped with a creamy layer of ricotta-like cheese and crowned with tequila-soaked caramelized banana slices. Surprisingly light, slightly sweet and a little savory, this “tart” was a perfect balance of flavors. And this was just the beginning. Accompanying this delicate masterpiece: a thin strip of fried plantain, a shot glass of diced, cooked pumpkin in a sweet juice, and a not-so-attractive but very delicious chunk of crystallized sweet potato. I know, right? I found out later on that the crystallized flesh of sweet potatoes (boniata) and pumpkins (calabaza) are very traditional Mexican treats.
Would you believe that I had this incredible dessert at the Hilton hotel restaurant? Not to mention this was following an incredible dinner of Chicken Pibil: bone-in chicken pieces rubbed in an aromatic, vibrant red combination of spices and annatto known as achiote, wrapped in a banana leaf with peppers and tomatoes and baked until tender, served with fresh corn tortillas, refried black beans, avocado, pickled red onions and sweet plantains. Oh yum. Later in the week, I enjoyed another version made with fresh mahi mahi called Pescado Tikin Xik at El Deseo, a restaurant on the marina in Cabo San Lucas.
This next dish may not be traditional, but it embraces the local flavors, it was unique, and it was just darn delicious. It’s a family tradition to visit Edith’s restaurant every time we are in Cabo and usually we end the meal with their infamous flambéed bananas and ice cream. However, I was encouraged by a kind waiter to try the pineapple pie and, since I was seeking new flavors, I took his advice. You all know how much I love pie. This one was packed full of caramelized pineapple tidbits, topped with a heaping scoop of vanilla ice cream and flanked by a banana sauce on one side and a cinnamon sauce on the other. The pineapple was toothsome but tender, sweet, and sticky. The cinnamon sauce was the real clincher, though. Let me just go on the record that there is something special going on with Mexican cinnamon. You can take keep your Saigon. This cinnamon is spicier and more alluring than any other I’ve had.
Cabo has a bounty of fresh seafood at its disposal, and that is one thing I’ve always taken advantage of when I’ve visited. Succulent shrimp and lobster, tender sea bass, meaty tuna and mahi mahi, all fresh from the local waters. An hour north of Cabo San Lucas, on the Pacific coast of Baja, is the small town of Todos Santos. It’s home to art galleries, shops full of Mexican handicrafts, and a lot less tourists. Mom and I rented a car and drove up there for the day to escape the hordes of cruise ship passengers barraging Cabo. A tiny restaurant called El Zaguan is an anticipated treat of visiting Todos Santos. It serves simple, fresh and flavorful cuisine in it’s small courtyard to those who happen to stumble upon it. We enjoyed a perfect margarita, a bowl of the best guacamole, and plates of juicy shrimp. Mine were called “Camorones Enchilados a la Cubanos” and were presented in a little sea of sweet tomato and pepper sauce. So, not Mexican, but a delicious combination of flavors nonetheless.
One of my favorite discoveries of the entire trip was the strip of “Dulcerias” (candy shops) on a road just outside of Todos Santos. This was definitely a place visited only by locals. The different shop owners spoke no English, so it was a struggle to determine what the different sweets were. Some were obvious, others much less so. Thankfully my mom’s Spanish dictionary has a fairly extensive food section, so we were able to decipher those things with labels. Others will remain a mystery. Among the rows and rows of treats on offer: empanadas filled with guava, mango or cajeta (goat’s milk caramel); coconut in all forms; dulce de leche; discs of caramelized, praline-like almonds, peanuts and pepitas (pumpkin seeds); brightly-colored marshmallows; and hefty chunks of the caramelized sweet potatoes and pumpkins I was telling you about. I ended up leaving with a cajeta empanada (very sweet and flaky), heavy blocks of guava and mango paste (made from the fruit trees just across the road), and a bag of “pinole de maiz”, a flour made from toasted corn. Now I have to decide what to make with it!
The best meal of the vacation was at Don Emiliano in San Jose del Cabo. Our guide book had touted it as the place to go for elevated, authentic Mexican fare. Chef Margarita Carillo de Salinas is renowned for promoting Mexican cuisine around the world. We were not disappointed. My first course was a grilled, heart-shaped piece of fresh penela cheese (similar to mozzarella) set in a pool of slightly spicy, smoked green chili sauce and topped with crunchy tortilla strips.
My main course will go down in the books as one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. You hear chili relleno and you probably picture a deep fried pepper filled and topped with tons of gooey cheese. This chili relleno blew that impression out of the park. Rather than the typical poblano pepper, this was made with its smoked counterpart, the ancho pepper. Sweet, smoky and very tender. It was stuffed to the brim with pieces of juicy shrimp and bits of cilantro. The whole thing was smothered in a light and velvety goat cheese sauce. Absolutely incredible.
And then there was dessert… I had thus far been very disappointed with the dessert selection in Cabo (aside from those mentioned above). Flan? Tres leches cake? Boring. How does a stone-ground chocolate tart with dried chilies and cinnamon ice cream sound to you? Awesome? Indeed. A crumbly chocolate-chili cookie crust, a smooth, dark chocolate ganache filling, a drizzle of strawberry sauce and a scoop of ice cream made from that spicy Mexican cinnamon I so love. I very nearly licked the plate.
This dessert was so delicious, I returned the following night to try another. I knew the coconut tart had to be equally delicious and boy, was I right. This one was even more surprising. The tart shell was piled high with coconut that had been cooked down and caramelized into a very sticky, slightly boozy coconut jam, for lack of a better word. Between the coconut and the crust was a thin layer of cream cheese that was the perfect tangy counterpart to the sweet coconut. I will definitely attempt to recreate this one.
There were many other culinary delights I enjoyed in Cabo, but I’ll restrain myself from exhibiting everything I ate during the ten days I spent there. You might give me weird looks, like the people sitting near me at the restaurants watching me photograph my meal.