Locavores’ Delight! 2nd Annual Mango Fest at Don Sanchez Showcases Local Food and Chefs
The farm to table movement that first gained major momentum about a decade ago has often been talked about in terms of environmentally focused ideas like organic agriculture methods and long-term sustainability. At heart, though, it has always been about a respect for place; the idea that just as wine reflects its terroir – the soil, the topography, the microclimate – so too does food serve as a very tangible expression of the place from which it was harvested.
When you apply these principles to a place with such wonderful and abundant natural resources as Los Cabos, then put this fresh local produce, fresh local seafood, and ranch raised livestock in the hands of some of the region’s most talented chefs, the results are predictably spectacular.
Rarely, however, are so many great regional chefs been brought together as at Mango Fest 2017, a celebration of Los Cabos culture and cuisine held Friday night, July 7, at Don Sanchez Restaurant in San José del Cabo. Joining host chefs Tadd Chapman and Javier Galindo were Pia Quintana of La Lupita Taco & Mezcal, by acclimation the best taquería in the area since its opening in 2015; and Guillermo Téllez of Flora Farms, and Oscar Torres at Acre, two chefs at farm based restaurants with impressive pedigrees.
The setting proved more than suitable to the eagerly anticipated occasion. Don Sanchez is a very large restaurant, with a central downtown location, an impressively stocked temperature-controlled wine cave, and a patio dining area spacious enough to welcome a small army.
Romantically illuminated by moonlight and festive lamps clustered chandelier-like beneath a massive palapa style roof, guests were treated to a veritable feast, serenaded by lively traditional music, and entertained by folkloric dancing from energetic local youth. The chefs worked their magic at five separate food stations, dishing up small tasting plates with locally sourced ingredients that ran the gamut from pork belly and pulpo to the inevitable mango, creatively spotlighted in an array of delicious desserts.
Delicious food wasn’t the only marquee attraction at the event, however, which was the second annual festival named in honor of the tropical region’s most ubiquitous fruit. Mexican wines were also given pride of place. Valle de Guadalupe and surrounding valleys between Ensenada and Tecate provide over 90% of Mexican table wines, but native Baja vintners graciously shared the spotlight with winemakers from as far away as Chihuahua.
After several hours of preparing and serving food, the chefs took a moment to receive the applause of the upscale crowd, as well as accolades from visiting politicos, since proceeds from the 999 peso ticket prices were earmarked for the local branch of DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia), a government organization which works to strengthen families.
In addition to its social and charitable components, the event was an unmistakable reminder that San José remains well ahead of cape sister city Cabo San Lucas when it comes to fine dining: creatively, philosophically, and in its commitment to regional identity.
During the early years of the 21st century, Los Cabos appeared content to follow the trends developing in the northern part of the peninsula, as Tijuana chefs like Miguel Ángel Guerrero and Javier Plascencia pioneered what came to be known as Baja Med cuisine. Although such fusions were influential – and remain so to this day – they’ve never seemed to completely capture the local imagination.
More potent, and more indicative of Los Cabos’ naturally simpático culinary cousins are the Pan-Pacific fusions developed by chefs like Volker Romeike at Pitahayas, Enrique Olvera and Alex Branch at Manta, and Mariano Takinami at Templo. “We’re playing around with Peruvian and Japanese flavors,” Olvera explained,“because a sashimi, a tiradito, and a Mexican ceviche all share a common language.”
But even as these seemingly natural Pacific fusions reflect Los Cabos’ emergence as an international destination, with cosmopolitan tastes and an increasingly diverse population, they make no appeal to historical identity, and are not rooted in any kind of regionally specific culinary heritage.
That’s why the locavore movement in San José – spearheaded by many of the chefs present at Mango Fest 2017 – is so important. It not only honors the world-class ingredients found in and around this very special place, it celebrates and embraces the unique cultural and culinary traditions of Baja California Sur.
It may seem odd that someone born in Canada would become such a pivotal figure in this regional resurgence, but naturalized Mexican citizen Tadd Chapman has been an extremely influential tastemaker, not only at the superb Don Sanchez, but throughout his expanding group of San José del Cabo restaurants: a list that now also includes Habanero’s, Retro Burger Bar and Local Uno, as well as Chapman’s own organic farm, Sanchez Orgánico.
Local Uno is the most recent offering from what is now a substantial enough collection to merit the brand name Grupo Chapman. Billed as a purveyor of “Baja Soul Food,” Local Uno’s offerings include a beef tongue tamal, free range lamb in an avocado leaf marinade, suckling pig sourced from a local ranch and served with spiced plantain and chile pasilla sauce, octopus aguachile, and fish and chicharrón laden tostadas.
Chapman’s colleagues at Mango Fest could all boast of their own stellar reputations. Flora’s Field Kitchen at Flora Farms was the only restaurant in Baja Sur to crack The Daily Meal’s 2016 list of the 25 best restaurants in México (as opposed to seven in Baja California), and Guillermo Téllez honed his kitchen skills at One&Only Palmilla – perennially voted the best resort in México – before moving to his present position.
Oscar Torres worked his way through some of the best restaurants in Los Angeles before collaborating with co-chef Kevin Luzande and Cocktail Program Designer Danielle Tatarin at Acre. Set on a 25-acre property, just outside of San José del Cabo, Acre offers farm raised specialties in a rustic setting shaded by Baja style palo de arco pergolas. A dozen “treehouse” accommodations are expected to expand its charms from drinking and dining destination to boutique resort by the end of this year.
Pia Quintana is chef and partner at La Lupita, a gourmet taquería in the heart of San José del Cabo’s historic Distrito del Arte. The duck tacos in mole sauce are a show stopper, but so is just about everything else at this comfort food mecca, from traditional tacos al pastor to lamb barbacoa in borracha sauce. The place is packed on a nightly basis, and good luck getting a reservation during the seasonal Thursday night Art Walks.
Javier Galindo, meanwhile, oversees daily operations at Don Sanchez, the flagship enterprise of Grupo Chapman, putting his own stamp on the restaurant’s ever-changing menu of “contemporary Baja fusions.”
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Chris Sands and Michael L. Mattos