By JULIE VAN ROSENDAAL
Friday, March 9, 2018
On a Tuesday night in the arts district of San José del Cabo, the open courtyard of La Lupita is packed with a convivial crowd. Half of them are laughing over tacos and mezcal sipped out of jícaras, small bowls made from the fruit of the calabash tree. The other half are dancing to the live band on a rooftop stage under the stars. Beside me, mixologist Danielle Tatarin, who is known as Dani, sways to a song she recognizes. It's Britney Spears, I think. Or maybe Taylor Swift?
Tatarin is a transplanted Vancouverite who relocated to Mexico two and a half years ago. She brought me to La Lupita because it's her scene and because it has an impressive mezcal list, served with orange wedges dipped in worm salt to cleanse your palate in between tastes. Although everyone is thoroughly enjoying themselves, the place still has a distinctly chilled vibe.
"Cabo San Lucas is more of a party city," says Tatarin, sprinkling chapulines (tiny, crispy fried grasshoppers) onto guacamole scooped up with a corn tortilla. "But San José is more laid-back. There are more surfers, artists and creative types here."
I've been trying to get my bearings from the time my flight touched down and the woman beside me turned and asked, "Where are we?" She knew we were on the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula, of course, but the municipality of Los Cabos can be confusing if you're unfamiliar with the area. North Americans often use the blanket term "Cabo," but in fact the region encompasses three main areas, including the East Cape and the small cities of San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, as well as the resort corridor, a sliver of luxury all-inclusives that stretches between the two. Visitors to the area are beginning to want a more authentic experience, heading out of Cabo San Lucas to absorb more of the local culture and cuisine.
Two cobblestoned blocks away from La Lupita, Drift San José, also owned by a B.C. transplant, is more DIY than all-inclusive; all eight units in the hip, contemporary boutique hotel open up with sliding industrial windows to a courtyard strung with lights and furnished with rustic wooden seats and a tiny mezcal tasting bar.
"If you want to hang out with cool, young people in San José, they're at Drift on Thursday nights," says Tatarin.
"There are a lot of artists and architects from B.C., Portland, New York, L.A." On Thursdays they fire up the smoker and open a food cart at the back of the courtyard to serve bar snacks like Cuban-style beef brisket burritos, smoked marlin baked macaroni and cilantro sea bass sausages with roasted tomato chipotle chutney. "There's this Canadian underbelly," she says of the influx of B.C. entrepreneurs in San José (nearby, Baja Beans coffee roasters was founded by Vancouverites Alec and April Tidey).
Tatarin is well known on Canada's West Coast as the mixologist who opened the Keefer Bar in Vancouver's Chinatown. When Keefer's Cam Watt formed a partnership to open Acre, a farm-to-table restaurant and luxurious event space just outside San José on a 25-acre piece of farmland with a mango orchard, it was an easy sell to convince Tatarin to join them and set up the bar program. "It has that West Coast vibe," she says. "You can hop in the car and be on a deserted beach in 20 minutes.
Cabo is one of the most expensive places to live in Mexico, but compared to Vancouver it's cheap. I rent a pretty cool apartment for about $800 a month Canadian."
We hop in the car to head back to Acre. "U2 played there," she says, nodding to a small, unassuming building across the street. We take our usual shortcut down a wide, dusty riverbed that earlier in the year was engorged with enough water to overflow its banks. The earth seems to be made of sand and dust, but more than one farmer has told me all it needs is a bit of rain to become fertile soil. Most of the water comes from underground springs, and drinking water comes from the mountains. Things grow well here, they say.
Back at Acre, its owners enlisted local horticulturalists to cultivate and maintain the edible gardens, and brought in chefs Kevin Luzande and Oscar Torres to create a farm-to-table menu using the organic produce grown on-site supplemented with seafood caught by local fishermen and corn tortillas made by a lady in Veracruz.
Acre feels a little like a movie set. A boardwalk flanked with palm trees, cacti and dusty blue agave plants leads to the open-air restaurant and bar, built using rammed-earth walls constructed with soil, rocks and clay. "The climate here is similar to Vancouver," says Watt.
"And the rainy season here coincides with the nice time of year back home."
If you want to stay overnight, there are now a dozen tree houses on the property, nestled into the palm forest on sturdy stilts with walls made of pau d'arco branches designed to allow the breeze to waft through. Each has a kingsized bed, a small bathroom and closet area and a heated outdoor shower.
Living spaces are incorporated into the landscape rather than making room for them in the tree houses, which is typical of the area. "I think we knocked down one tree," Watt says of a construction plan created to minimally alter the landscape. "What kid doesn't want to sleep in a tree house?" he asks.
The Acre concept is not only farmto-table, but farm-to-bar, a trend that's still rare in Cabo, but beginning to catch on. "It was kind of a blank slate," says Tatarin. She draws inspiration from her new surroundings. They planted 20 varieties of citrus, from kaffir and finger limes to kumquats, as well as mangos and melons. "It's amazing to have these ingredients at your fingertips," she says. Fresh citrus juices are squeezed every morning. Her cocktails are mostly made with mezcal and flavoured with pineapple, chilies, tamarind, passionfruit, hibiscus, epazote and lime. Sage was one of the first herbs to grow in the garden, and the sage margarita is still by far the most popular. "People who come to Mexico want a margarita," she says. "I wanted them to come to Acre and get a great one."
Beside the bar, there's a tasting room dedicated to mezcal, the artisanal spirit distilled from the heart of the agave plant. It is the grandfather of tequila, handcrafted in smaller batches, often by families who have been producing it for generations. Protected by a geographic indication that identifies its origin, it can only be called mezcal if it has been made in one of nine states.
Although visitors tend to be more familiar with cheaper and industrially produced tequila, mezcal is gaining popularity along with a fledgling cocktail culture. One of Tatarin's side projects is a custom mezcal distilled and bottled for Acre; she also makes her own bitters and non-alcoholic distillates that are already being used by other local bartenders.
More farms concentrated around San José means more locally sourced ingredients and farmers' markets. At one of Acre's supplier farms, the chefs and I watch farmers milk a dairy cow for queso fresco, fresh cheese they make daily by separating milk into curds with a smelly slurry of rennet made from dried cow stomach and pressing out excess whey with the weight of a rock.
It's hot, hovering just under 30 degrees as owner Joshua Esteves motions to the nearby mountains, under an hour's drive away. "At our farm up there, the terroir is completely different," he says.
"The pools of water might be frozen.
There's oak, pine, acorns. The pigs run around all day eating good stuff."
Next door to Acre, the beautifully manicured Flora Farms has been a visitor destination since 1996, with a small brewery and extensive gardens. Ninetyfive per cent of the ingredients on the restaurant menu are raised or grown on-site and everything from bread to burrata is made from scratch. They host cooking classes in an open-air kitchen, and operate a spa and juice bar for visitors staying in the culinary cottages.
Back at the airport, the duty-free shops are dominated by brash displays of tequila. I have to look hard to find the mezcal and find less than half a dozen bottles on a low shelf in the back. With Cabo's culinary and cocktail culture continuing to grow, they'd be smart to make space for more stock.
ACRE The tree-house rooms at this miniresort feature outdoor showers, and vacations include poolside morning yoga sessions, by the mango orchard. Rates start at $275/ night with breakfast. acrebaja.com
BAJA BEANS Located in Pescadero, this café focuses on freshly roasted local beans and hosts a weekly farmers' market. bajabeanscoffee.com
DRIFT SAN JOSÉ This hotel and mezcal bar offers self-serve amenities like a coffee and snack bar to keep costs low for its three sizes of rooms. Rates start at $125/ night. driftsanjose.com
FLORA FARMS An early and ever-growing adopter of the farm-to-table movement, this property now includes an open-air market, spa and events space. flora-farms.com
LA LUPITA A taco spot with a lively social scene, La Lupita also offers a long list of mezcals to sample. +52 624 688 3926
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GRANT HARDER
Nestled below a group of tree-house hotel rooms, the edible garden at Acre (opposite page) is one example of the growing farm-to-table movement in San José del Cabo. Dani Tatarin (above left) moved to the area from Vancouver to develop Acre's cocktail program. Its restaurant uses local produce (top) including queso fresco (middle) to create its dishes (bottom).
At Acre (top left), Tatarin translates the property's hyper-local ethos to cocktails (top right). Another nearby farm (bottom left) both provides milk and produces fresh cheese. Flora Farms (bottom right) has operated in the area since 1996 and helped establish its reputation among foodies. One of a dozen tree-house rooms at Acre (opposite page) sits on stilts in the middle of a palm forest.