I’ll admit it: For years, Mexican food has seemed synonymous to me with street food. Although I mean that in the best possible way; there’s no place I’d rather spend my lunch money than on a gloriously drippy taco from a hole-in-the-wall joint or roving vendor. To my mind, a lightly charred masa tortilla, stuffed with juicy carnitas and generous dollops of salsa verde, is a thing of perfection—a dish that couldn’t possibly be improved upon. At least that’s how I felt before I traveled to Bajain early July, and got a taste of a new culinary movement underway there.
My introduction to this trend—which seeks to elevate Mexican cooking to the level of farm-to-table haute cuisine—was the second annual Food & Wine Festival hosted by the Capella Pedregal resort in Cabo San Lucas. The three-day festival draws a lineup of well-known chefs from around the U.S., who make use of almost exclusively local produce and preparations to cook for a sold-out crowd of 120 foodies.
The culinary team that spearheads the festival—Capella Pedregal’s Food and Beverage Director Marco Bustamante and Executive Chef Yvan Mucharraz—both spent formative years working for Thomas Keller. So the level of creative expertise they bring to Mexican cookery is, thus far, pretty rarefied. But, as I learned, their appreciation of local ingredients and flavors, and their desire to use them more innovatively, is already spreading among high-end American chefs.
I encountered some truly unusual, and sublimely delicious, interpretations of Mexican food at the festival. There was, for instance, Chef Mucharraz’s ceviche made with parrot fish from the Sea of Cortez (whose delicately flavored white flesh seemed completely at odds with the goofy-faced, clownishly colored creatures I’ve seen snorkeling). Also, poblano tostadas piled with locally harvested blue crabmeat and a sticky-sweet slaw of Todos Santos mangoes, prepared by James Beard Award-winning guest chef Dean Fearing; toasted huitlacoche corn bread paired with foie gras, from chef (and Le Bernardin alum) Phillipe Schmit; and a tartare of locally-sourced beef topped (above) with Baja-raised quail egg, from Tim Hollingsworth (Chef de Cuisine at French Laundry for the past 12 years). Accompanying it all were vibrant Cab-Syrah blends from the Guadalupe Valley—where the growing climate is similar to Napa’s—and artisanal cocktails like pale-green jalapeño Micheladas.
While I hadn’t fully prepared for such gastronomical wowitude, other festival guests I met seemed to know exactly what to expect.
“I studied up on my Larousse,” a Dallas-based physician named Sandra confided in me on the first night, over Guadalajara-sourced jamon iberico and herb-infused Ramonetti cheese from Ensenada. “But I also brought my fat pants.”
By my final day in Cabo, I wished I’d had such foresight. In fact, I decided to spend my final afternoon walking into the city’s downtown shopping district, to look for a dress with either an elastic waist or some sort of muumuu-like cloaking capability.
Unfortunately, I struck out. But just as I was about to head past Cabo Wabo, the nightclub owned by Sammy Hagar, above (who had made a cameo appearance at a festival barbecue the night before), I saw, down a side street, a small, red-painted storefront with smoke emanating from its open-air grill. Above it was a floridly lettered sign:
Did I make a taco-stop detour, just two hours before the Food & Wine Festival’s five-course, grand finale dinner? I did. I may be a convert to the new Mexican cuisine, but I’ll never abandon the old.
Sarah Gold is a frequent contributor to Travel+Leisure.com.