How Local Restaurants in Cabo San Lucas Do Ocean to Table

August 17, 2018

We got one!” shouts first mate Salvador Flores. “Grab it!” He puts the fishing rod in my hand and I sit in the stern- facing captain’s chair. “Now pull back,” he says. I lean back against the force of the fish tugging at the end of the line. Then, “Lean forward. Adelante! Reel, reel, reeeel!”

After a few minutes of pulling back and reeling in, I see the slender 45-inch-long (we measured it later) yellow-green fish with blue markings that Mexicans call dorado, the Spanish word for golden. We don’t have it quite yet though. With a last, desperate lunge, the singular-looking creature—in addition to its vivid colors, its head has a blunted shape like it swam, hard, into a wall—tries to toss the hook. Salvador’s ready though. He grabs the line and pierces the fish with the gaffe, landing it on the back deck of our fishing boat.

Catching that feisty dorado, also known as mahi-mahi, was just one highlight of a perfect weekend in Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula, where a friend and I spent mornings fishing, afternoons feasting on our catch, and sunsets sipping cocktails overlooking miles of coastline. Cabo is a place where you can pack so much into a short stay, and for many American visitors it’s a nonstop flight from home.

We’d booked our fishing excursion in advance with Pisces Sportfishing, one of Cabo’s most established outfitters, operating since 1980. Just after sunrise, we start our day with mochas at The Cabo Coffee Co., then walk down to Cabo’s horseshoe-shaped marina. Pisces Dockmaster Eduardo Vasquez welcomes us and introduces us to Captain Roberto Sandez and first mate Salvador Flores.

Cabo Ocean to Table Fishing
I ask about the gleaming white boat, Valerie, and Eduardo says it’s a 35-foot-long Bertram with twin Cummins engines. Captain Roberto, a grizzled and affable 55-year-old mariner who’s been working at sea for 40 years, asks us if we’d like to chase marlin, which can weigh 100 pounds or more.

I can’t imagine keeping such a large fish and he says that if we catch one, we can release it. But I have visions of enjoying my catch dockside so I ask what else we might find. Well maybe tuna, he says, definitely dorado. “Then let’s go get some
dorado,” I say as he kicks the engine into gear. We motor up the west coast of Baja at 18 knots, passing mile after mile of deserted beaches in front of hills pocked with pines and cacti. Salvador extends the tangones, the arms that put the fishing lines out to the sides of the boats, baits the hooks with small mackerel, and tosses them into the ocean.

For a while we don’t get a bite. I go up to the bridge and chat with el capitan, asking what he likes best about his job. “Pescar,” (fishing), he says enthusiastically. “Pescar, pescar, pescar, pescar!” Suddenly there’s a tug on one of the lines. Then it starts flying out.

Salvador grabs the rod from its holder and hands it to me. I pull back and reel and soon see a flash of gold in the water. I keep pulling and the fish keeps fighting as the base of the rod digs into my lower abdomen just above my waist. When the dorado is just a few feet away, Salvador takes the line and gently pulls the hook off the shimmering fish as he cradles it in his arms. “Not so big,” he says, holding it out to me. It looks pretty big to me, at least 18 inches long.

“I think we could put this one back, but it’s up to you.” I hesitate for a moment, thinking: This is our first catch of the day; what if we don’t get another? Salvador seems to read my mind: “There are more fish out there, hay mas!”
Let her go then, I say with a nod and as soon as Salvador holds the young fish over the water it bolts away, splashing back into the sea and living to see another day. I go back up to talk with the captain and ask how much has changed during the four decades he’s been working Cabo’s seas. “Oh, mucho,” he says. “Even 10 or 20 years ago there were many more fish—dorados grandes! But now they’re harder to find.” Another line starts flying out and Salvador shouts at me to grab that pole. I get in the captain’s chair and put my feet on the foot bench for added leverage. This one is stronger: I fight it for a couple of minutes—then the line goes slack. “Salvador, I think I lost it.”
“No, no,” he says, “Keep reeling!” I pull in the slack then feel a powerful tug, the fish trying to get away, and see an amber flash about 50 feet behind the stern. A couple more sets of pulls and reels and he’s in—a gorgeous golden fish more than 3 feet long. “We’ll keep this one,” Salvador says as he grabs it with the gaffe and tosses it into a tank. Then he hoses down the deck until the blood is washed away.
Inhaling the fresh salt scent of the Pacific, we keep motoring north until we can see the pueblo of Pescadero near Todos Santos, almost 30 miles north from where we began the day. The crew has our lunches stashed in the cooler: chicken burritos and yellow cans of Pacifico beer, yet I’m not eager to eat on the rolling sea.
A pod of dolphins gracefully arcs over the water, a manta ray floats by, and then a sea turtle swims slowly, as if she has all the time in the world. Later there’s a big splash beyond the bow. Captain Roberto shouts: “Marlin! A big one, maybe 5 feet long and 100 pounds.” But I’m content to watch it swim away.
It’s been an exhilarating and full day. After eight hours of fishing, we’ve caught eight large dorados—five that we’ve kept and three tossed back—and one skipjack: in total, they equal about 15 pounds of meat. Salvador has hung flags across the boat’s starboard side showing what we’ve kept: five golden dorado banderas and one white skipjack banner. On the port side are three more dorado banners, each paired with a flag with a T on it: The T is for “Thrown back.”
Since there’s no way my friend and I will be able to eat even a fraction of our catch over this weekend, I ask if we can take some home. “Will the fish get through customs?” I ask Captain Roberto. “Si, no problemo,” he says. Pisces will cut and freeze the fish—all we have to do is buy a cooler and pick it up at their marina office on the morning of our departure.
But we don’t send all the fish home—we keep the smallest dorado, have it sliced by the Pisces crew, and carry the fillets in a plastic bag with ice to a highly recommended Japanese restaurant just a few blocks from the marina.

Daikoku has an outdoor seating area beside a manmade waterfall that feels like a Japanese garden. The restaurant is accustomed to people bringing in their catch, and the chef says he’ll be happy to prepare a meal from it for us. We entrust our well-fought-for cargo to him, take a couple of hours to get cleaned up and reflect on the day, then return to the restaurant after sunset.

The chef ’s advice is to start with sashimi to get the purest taste of the fish. Daikoku has a light touch, thin-slicing the sashimi and topping it with rice vinegar, layu (a type of chili oil), and dashes of sake, soy sauce, and orange juice. It’s heavenly and so fresh. The added flavors are subtle, enhancing the taste of the fish rather than overwhelming it.
We pair our sashimi with the house margarita, made with pure agave tequila and not too much sweetener. Next, we enjoy some nigiri sushi (slices of fish atop rice) and then a seaweed roll with our dorado, some avocado, and rice inside. Both are perfect. Over dinner we decide to change our plans for the next day: originally the idea was to lounge on the beach, but we’d both had such a good time fishing that we decide to go out again.
We haven’t reserved ahead for the second day so we get up at dawn and head back to the marina where we strike up a conversation with Captain Josue “Arturo” Moreno. He says he’ll take us out for a half day for $200, cheaper than Pisces but with fewer amenities. We’re on our own for lunch and water, and we need to get our own fishing licenses. (Pisces gets licenses for its guests.) By mid-morning we’re back on the water as frigatebirds with forked tails soar overhead, and rays of sunlight sparkle like diamonds on the rolling waves.
Just 15 minutes from the dock the ocean erupts in thrashing splashes and silver flashes. “Hay atun!” Captain Arturo says. “There’s tuna!”

Swarms of sardines are in the area, luring the tuna into a feeding frenzy. The first mate, Plutarcho, prepares the lines and just a couple of minutes later we get a bite. He puts the rod in my hands and I’m stunned by the tuna’s strength: I’m in for a fight.

Plutarcho reiterates the lesson I’d learned the day before: Pull back then lean forward and reel in. Compared to the long, lean dorado, tuna are shorter and stouter, true powerhouses, especially this one. The fight lasts about 10 minutes; finally, the tuna is close enough to pull into the boat with a gaffe. It battles ferociously even after thudding against the deck of the boat. Soon we’ll catch another tuna; then Plutarcho reels in two more, one for himself and one for Captain Arturo.

“This was the best possible day,” the captain says. We had “buena suerte—good luck—100 percent.” Motoring back to the marina, Plutarcho cleans our fish and cuts it into fillets. We disembark and head straight to Captain Tony’s, a restaurant with a sign outside reading, “YOU HOOK IT WE COOK IT.” We did our part, now we’re ready for Captain Tony to do his.

Cabo San Lucas Ocean to Table Fishing

The restaurant’s host that day, Pablo, warmly welcomes us and offers us a waterside table. He takes the fish to the kitchen, then asks how we’d like it. We start with sashimi, then have three different preparations: tuna with garlic, with a cilantro cream sauce, and, finally, lightly battered with salt and pepper. All are fantastic and the fish couldn’t have been fresher. I had a twinge of guilt when I’d pulled the tuna out of the water—it was so majestic and had such a ferocious will to live, but feasting on our own catch proves to be immensely satisfying.

Later that afternoon we hire a taxi to go to Sunset Monalisa, a bar and restaurant about 5 miles east of Cabo San Lucas. Its deck offers a sweeping view of Cabo’s beaches and postcard- worthy arch over the sea. The main attraction at this bar/restaurant is watching the sun slip into the sea. Sunset that night is at 5:39 p.m., so we arrive around 5. I sip a raspberry mojito as surfers below catch the last waves of the day.

The setting sun turns the hills golden as a behemoth cruise ship sounds its horn and chugs out to sea. At sunset, a restaurant staffer blows into a conch shell four times, turning each time to honor the four directions, paying tribute to the day as it ebbs away.

On the taxi ride back to Cabo we ask our driver to recommend an authentic local restaurant with handmade tortillas. Walking into Maria Corona, we feel like we’re being welcomed into someone’s home. We choose outdoor seating, an area festively decorated with colorful banners and illuminated with hanging lanterns and gas torches. A trio of middle-aged men wearing matching outfits— two acoustic guitarists and a standup bassist— play traditional Mexican songs on the spacious restaurant’s stage. When they take a break, two women in frilly white dresses perform a butterfly dance, before two men with tap- dancing boots join them. The diners are a mix of locals and visitors—Maria Corona is perfect for travelers but not touristy.

We start with guacamole—local avocados, garlic, serrano peppers, and cilantro—made tableside in a molcajete, the traditional Mexican mortar and pestle hewn from volcanic rock, typically basalt. The server grinds the chilis in the three-legged bowl then mashes in the avocados. Of course, there are margaritas, too.

My friend wants to watch the cooks make tortillas and is invited into the kitchen. She asks the young chef, Emma Bonilla, what her favorite dish is and Bonilla recommends the pork Chamorro, a Yucatanean specialty. It’s made with six different chilis including ancho, pasilla, and guajillo; and spices including cinnamon, clove, and allspice. We take Bonilla’s advice— she recently worked in the Yucatan for two years—and order it. The pork is succulent and flavorful, the portion beyond generous. To top off the night we watch as our server deftly makes Mexican coffee, a potent, and potently theatrical, concoction. It’s made tableside with coffee, tequila, and Kahlua, and poured into a blue- rimmed glass in a flaming cascade.

Later, at Pancho’s Tequila Bar, over a glass of Los Abuelos añejo, I recall that just a few hours ago I’d been fighting tuna, and in a few hours I’d be on the plane home. Yet for the moment I’m still in paradise, savoring the flavors of Mexico, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.