Baja California Sur is the southern half of a peninsula that spans a whopping 806 miles, where the desert meets the Sea of Cortes to the east and Pacific Ocean ocean to the west. The sea’s namesake conqueror, a notorious Spaniard who went by Hernán Cortés, first brought international flavor to the dusty land when he “founded” La Paz in 1535. Nearly 600 years later, other cultures continue to influence the region’s restaurants. Carlito Cham has both Mexican and Chinese heritage and opened Carlito’s Place off the beaten path, just south of Todos Santos, in Pescadero. The La Paz native previously cooked for 3.5 years on an ESPN show called Offshore Adventures and owned 10-year-old Salsalito Taco Shop in Marin County, but grew tired of relying on “parking karma” in the Bay Area. As he said, “I found a parking spot. That’s not something to get excited about. I realized I was in the wrong place.” He split with his partner, business and otherwise, and returned to Baja.
The setting was super relaxing, with a palapa covered dining patio, surrounding palm trees, and a bar featuring photos of Cham with his prized catches.
The bar also yielded fresh fruit margaritas from the chef’s partner, Brianda. My Passion Fruit Margarita (80 pesos ~ $6.50) starred sweet-tart fruit from Brianda and Carlito’s yard, blended with ice, served in an oversized glass with a salted rim, and garnished with mint.
Our meal started innocuously enough, with Carlitos Sashimi Salad (180). Baja has some of the best seafood on the West Coast, but in this case, the mixed greens and sesame ginger dressing helped dull the impact of the delectable seared yellowtail.
We fared better with the Stuffed Banana Peppers (120), mild tempura battered chiles gueros cradling minced crab and shrimp. Cham plated the peppers on a liberal dose of mango ginger cream sauce that had a tiny kick, and topped with tobiko.
Shrimp Carlito’s Way (180 or 50 piece) nearly dove off the deep end, since there was so much going on. Cham encased jumbo shrimp in minced krab and scallops, covered with panko and fried. He then served the plump aquatic baseballs in sweet chile sauce, and topped with tobiko (flying fish roe) and spicy aioli. The orbs were kooky, to be sure, but tasted pretty good.
Fresh Blue Crab from Magdalena bay (220) was the first breakthrough dish of the meal, with large fried legs, served cracked. Cham infused the sweet meat with a savory red Vietnamese sauce of ginger, garlic, chile, tomatoes, white wine and butter.
The meal’s big hit was definitely spiny lobster, which Cham sourced from a Punta Lobos co-op and presented in dramatic fashion. The key to this dish was of course the plump, sweet lobster meat, which pulled easily from the shell, along with a sweet curry with a lingering kick that combined ginger, garlic, chile de arbol and chile piquina. The flavor built with each bite, and vegetables like asparagus were a nice complement.
The couple ironically named the King Kong (140) roll for their tiny dog, which roamed the restaurant’s dusty grounds. This was exactly the kind of over-sauced maki that I actively avoid in L.A., since it’s heavy and overly complicated. This particular roll involved avocado, cucumber, shrimp tempura inside, spicy tuna outside. spicy mayo, eel sauce, tobiko, scallions and tempura bits to boot. Thankfully, this was the only fusion dish that never fused.
After our meal, Brianda and Carlito posed in front of their oceanic mural. Some of the dishes were overly fussy and muddled, but when Chef Cham let the scintillating seafood more or less speak for itself, or accented the food with Mexican flavors, the food worked out well. Stick with dishes like crab, lobster and yellowtail sashimi, and Carlito’s Place is worth visiting, especially given the tropical roadside setting, which contributed to the experience.
Our visit to Carlito’s Place was part of a Baja California Sur tour sponsored by Baja.com., Pescadero, Baja California Sur, Mexico