CONTEMPORARY MEXICAN CUISINE WITH A FLAIR FOR SEAFOODWander the streets of the historic colonial town of San Jose del Cabo and you'll find yourself immersed in Mexican culture ranging from a plethora of art galleries showcasing local and regional works of Mexican artists to a centuries old mission. But what may surprise you is the startling number of restaurants you'll find. While that's a good thing, it also creates a conundrum. Which are worth a visit? Take it from me, La Panga Antigua should be on the top of your list.
Located directly across the street from the historic mission, La Panga Antigua is tucked away behind a single door over which a modest sign hangs. It might not look like much from the outside, but step through the door and you'll discover a charming world of culinary magic. At the front, a small reception area leads to a well-stocked bar. Just beyond the bar you'll find a terrace area with a few well placed tables. Continue down the stairs and you'll find two courtyard areas where al fresco dining is elevated to 5-star status.
Unless you're a fisherman, you might not be familiar with the word "panga", let alone know what La Panga Antigua means in your native language. A "panga" is actually a small, open-bow fishing boat that's been used throughout Mexico, central and south America for centuries. La Panga Antigua could then be best translated as "the old fishing boat"... and in this case, an old fishing boat that harvests nothing but the best of flavors, textures and aromas from the sea. While the menu at La Panga Antigua offers prime beef and chicken, it's clear their passion lies with seafood and what can be done by melding traditional Mexican techniques with contemporary culinary concepts. The result.... what myself and writers from Vanity Fair, Food Arts and Baja Traveler magazines consider to be a must-visit restaurant in Los Cabos.
The dinner menu starts with a smattering of appetizers including a chilled seafood medley drizzled with fresh basil oil, Octopus & Mushrooms "Ajillo" – tasty morsels of the two in a flavorful garlic and guajillo pepper sauce, and one of my favorites, a Tuna & Avocado Timbale served with jalapeño-soy sauce. For a second course I sampled the Shrimp Pozole which is everything a pozole should be – slow cooked rendering flavors that are deep, yet subtle enough so as not to overpower the fresh Baja shrimp.
Main courses include a couple of prime beef dishes – a Filet Mignon & Shrimp duo or a 12oz Rib Eye plus a nicely prepared Chicken Molé served with rice and fried plantains. But I was here for the seafood and was not disappointed. To date, I've tried their Huachinago, or whole red snapper and their Seared Ahi Tuna. If you've spent any time in Mexico, you'll know that a freshly prepared whole snapper – flesh scored randomly from tip to tail to allow the spices to penetrate deep into the meat then fried to perfection – is about as traditional a Mexican preparation as there is. Top it with a roasted tomatillo salsa and you've got a new slant on an old classic.
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On the other hand, the Seared Ahi Tuna is not what you'd call traditional Mexican. Say "seared ahi" to any foodie and they'll conjure up visions of Japanese cooking and sushi bars. It's decidedly Asian, yet, what La Panga Antigua's kitchen does with it plants it firmly into contemporary Mexican cooking, albeit fused with Asian-Pacific sensibilities. How so? By way of a glimmering glaze that paints a generous medallion of ocean-fresh yellowfin tuna in a bath of translucent, taste bud tempting goodness. Perfumed by rosemary, sweetened by honey, made distinctly Mexican by the inclusion of the guajillo's smoky, mild heat... it's tantalizing to look at but most appreciated on the business end of a fork.
WHAT'S DINNER WITHOUT WINE?
Fernande Garvin, author of The Art of French Cooking, once said that "Wine makes a symphony of a good meal", and I couldn't agree more. What it does for a great meal is burn it into memory. Luckily, La Panga Antigua has a diverse wine list with a global range including offerings from France, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina mixed in with a bevy of choices from California. I'm also happy to report that Mexico is well represented with a selection of fine vintages from the famed Valle Guadalupe and Valle de Ojos Negros regions in northern Baja.
The difficulty lies in the pairing, but fortunately the staff is well versed in doing so, don't hesitate to ask for a recommendation. I took the advice of my waiter and opted for a Cabernet blend from La Cetto – one of the oldest Baja wineries and currently Mexico's largest wine producer. It complemented the Seared Ahi very nicely at a price that was quite reasonable.
Desert wasn't an option for me on this visit. It was a case of my eyes being bigger than my stomach, but I don't think that will happen on my next visit. If desert compares with what crossed my plate this time then that's just one more reason to put my oars in the water and row towards La Panga Antigua. If you love great food, you'd be wise to do likewise.
La Panga Antigua is located at #20 Zaragoza in San Jose del Cabo's Art District directly across from old mission. Reservations can be easily made through their website or by calling 011-52-624-142-4041 (international dialing) – within Los Cabos dial 624-142-4041.VISIT LA PANGA ANTIGUA'S WEBSITE
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