Paper lanterns drape from trees. The scent of charcoal wafts from the outdoor stove. Anticipation builds among diners as they sip herb-packed cocktails and wander the gardens where their meal has been sourced.
This is an event at Puerto Raiz in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, a new restaurant from chef Javier Plascencia that will open to the public in late February. Plascencia is from Tijuana and known for cooking “Baja Mediterrannean” cuisine. He owns six restaurants across the Baja peninsula, as well as Pez in Miami. Bracero Cocina de Raíz, his now-closed restaurant in San Diego, earned him a James Beard Award nomination in 2016.
Now, he’s bringing his cooking to San Jose del Cabo, where tourism is growing. Los Cabos (the municipality including Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo) has long been popular for its beaches and spring break vibe, drawing tourists hoping to stay at resorts and eat at American chains. But that’s changing, as evidenced by new design-oriented hotels, a focus on outdoor activities, and farm-to-table restaurants.
“Tourists today have built their trip around food,” Plascenscia says. “San Jose and Cabo are getting better and better with the restaurant scene, the ingredients, and things younger chefs are doing. It’s not like it used to be with Americanized food at hotels.”
Plascencia says executive chefs at hotels used to all be European or American, but now many are from Mexico. Travelers are also more interested in sustainability, something Plascencia and Puerto Raiz co-founder Adrian Vidal are passionate about as well.
The 13 acres that make up Puerto Raiz (meaning “port of roots”) used to be a farm, but it was badly damaged in a hurricane ten years ago. Plascencia and Vidal have spent almost three years planting trees, starting gardens, tending to the orchard, and building the complex’s two restaurants and distillery.
One of the spots, Semillon, will be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, serving casual food like tacos and burritos with made-to-order tortillas.Animalone will feature fine dining with a tasting menu. All the food will be sourced from Puerto Raiz’s own gardens, as will some of the poultry and meat. Plascencia works with a cheesemaker in La Paz, who also provides lamb and goats, and local fishermen in Todos Santos. The restaurants and kitchen are open-air, and while the outdoor distillery’s copper pot still is not homegrown, spirits and cocktails are made with herbs and fruits from the gardens.
The concept is similar to Plascencia’s restaurant Jazamango in Todos Santos, where 60 to 70 percent of the food is sourced from the restaurant’s garden. The restaurant is popular among tourists, something Vidal sees as encouraging for a new type of business in Los Cabos.
“Everyone thinks of Cabo as pools and hotels, but they don’t see this side. Cabo has to grow with purpose and bring projects with messages,” he says. “Businesses can make money but also create consciousness. This year, the whole world is waking up to the fact that we have to take care of the earth.”
In addition to dining and events, Puerto Raiz will host cooking classes for children, composting and gardening workshops, and other seminars, such as how to make the perfect margarita or ceviche. Plascencia says one of his favorite tips for home cooks is to take the left over onions, jalapeño, serrano peppers, and other odds and ends from making ceviche or salsa, and burn them in the oven.
“Until they’re really burned,” he says. “Then grind them up with tortilla chips. We call this ‘Charcoal Dust’ because it looks like an ash, and we use it as a condiment. It’s great to add that charcoal flavor to everything—fish, vegetables.”
He likes to sprinkle it on dishes or mix it with sour cream to create a burnt-ash crema.
“It’s very Baja” he says.