Todos Santos, a Pueblo Mágico (“magical village”) in Baja California Sur that has Jesuit history, proved to be a key cog in a Baja.com tour that exposed us to a surprisingly large number of globally influenced restaurants. At La Casita Tapas & Wine Bar, located by the artsy town’s sole stop light, Mazatlán native Sergio Rivera, who traveled the world via yacht as a private chef, is preparing internationally minded Mexican food.
Rivera started traveling to Todos Santos for vacation in 1989. He worked as chef-manager of pan-Latin restaurant called Ole Ole in Suffern, New York, and took to the sea before opening La Casita in November 2010 with Kim Gianotti Keltto. The colorful space features red, yellow and green walls, an L-shaped bar, and shelves of dribbling wax that took two years to melt.
We started our meal with garlic bread that Chef Rivera treated to pesto and hit of balsamic; followed by simple mixed greens with julienne onion, carrots and peppers.
A number of plates were recognizable, but with different fillings or sauces than normal. For instance, Chef Rivera’s un-fried enchiladas incorporated shrimp, scallops and sea bass, and arrived topped with mild salsa, crema, queso fresco and shredded iceberg lettuce. The sauce integrated roasted garlic, tomato, onion and chicken stock and supported the seafood well.
Chef Rivera played variations of different themes, beginning with marlin ahumada, which we later learned was smoked tuna, a fairly common substitution for the sportfish. The spicy white sauce that graced the first fish-filled peppers consisted of cinnamon, garlic oil, nutmeg, bay leaves, onions, tequila, and jalapenos.
Our second marlin ahumada sported an earthy mole poblano of peanuts, peppers, chocolate, cinnamon, chicken stock to thin it out, and a no-longer-secret ingredient – Animal Crackers – to sweeten the pot. It somehow worked, but not as well.
A dramatic dish that my fellow writers dubbed Cadillac Margarita Shrimp consisted of a slab of pineapple soaked in Cointreau, tequila and Grand Marnier and roasted. Chef Rivera planted a shrimp skewer in the slab, which he coated in a savory, tamarind pulp, bay leaf, oregano, rice vinegar, champagne vinegar and chile flakes. They ignited the base before bringing it to the table, resulting in admiring stares from other tables, followed by several sweet bites.
Chef Rivera’s best dish may have been the pan-fried grouper trio, served with tatsoi and tangy lemon caper white wine tomato and cilantro sauce; sweet and spicy mango ginger jalapeno sauce; and a sauce of roasted bell peppers, tequila, jalapenos, the spiciest of the bunch.
For that week’s Dose of Vitamin P, Pork Ribs (170 pesos ~ $13.50), Chef Rivera slow cooks his baby backs in the oven for 24 hours, testing to see they’re done when he lifts up a bone and it sheds the rest of the rack. He finishes the pork in a pan, then lacquers the ribs in a tangy, subtly spicy chipotle raspberry molasses BBQ sauce, sprinkles with sesame seeds and plumes the pork with an aromatic rosemary sprig. His landlord’s got 10 acres out back, so he’s able to grow a panoply of seasonal vegetables, some of which were lucky enough to join the pork. In this case, that ended up being a tangle of sautéed zucchini “spaghetti,” bell pepper and tatsoi, lightly sautéed in oil and butter and served with Baja Nebbiolo.
Chef Rivera was especially proud of his ribeye, discussing a method for cooking the meat on one side, so the juices don’t drain, culminating with a single flip for a last minute sear. The coffee, cinnamon and nutmeg-rubbed meat appeared in a savory sauce of shallots, Jack Daniel’s, veal stock reduction and cream. The flavor was good, but he kept the steak in the pan well beyond medium rare, so it passed its textural prime.
We were well past the point of being full, but found the intestinal fortitude to polish off a plate of flan, bread pudding, and rich chocolate truffles in a sticky cinnamon-infused orange sauce. Only the truffles were a standout, not that it mattered much at that stage of the meal.
La Casita turned out to be another restaurant we felt could have dialed back the international flavor, but at least in Chef Rivera’s case, there was a natural rationale: global osmosis.
Our visit to La Casita was part of a Baja California Sur tour sponsored by Baja.com.