SAN JOSE DEL CABO, Baja California Sur, Mexico — The sweet and juicy heirloom tomatoes are the stars in a simple salad topped with sprinkles of feta cheese and anointed with a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Every element is delicious, but perhaps flavors are more intense simply because you know where the food on your plate comes from.
Tequila Restaurant is on one of the narrow streets in the historic district of San Jose del Cabo, a quiet town at the tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula. The sculpted metal sign above the door depicts a life-size blue agave plant, the essential ingredient for tequila, the national drink of Mexico. Inside the historic building is an open-air courtyard under the stars.
My husband and I are seated at a table amid flowering fruit trees, with whimsical paper lanterns and colorful blown-art glass pieces strung between them. Strolling mariachi musicians provide the perfect ambience for this breezy setting. Everything on the menu is farm-fresh and organically grown. The succulent seafood comes from the fishmonger at the local market (Mercado Municipal) or directly from the fishermen at La Playita, a nearby fishing village.
The chef sends over an amuse bouche, a giant grilled shrimp sitting on a slice of fried plantain. Then, in synchrony, two waiters serve us each a glass of sparkling wine. After the unforgettable tomato salad, we order the catch of the day as our main course, a generous portion of sushi-grade tuna that has been lightly seared on the outside, served on a bed of creamy, truffle-infused polenta and accompanied by grilled farm-fresh zucchini.
From an extensive wine list, we select a bottle of Casa Baloyan Tres Tintos (2009), a red blend from the Guadalupe Wine Valley, Mexico's version of Napa. We have been vacationing and dining out in Los Cabos for two weeks, but tonight's flan is exceptional.
We learned about Tequila Restaurant the day before, when we visited Los Tamarindos, one of only two USDA-certified organic farms in the area. We had signed up for a cooking class there, to be followed by lunch. The farm and its adjoining country-style restaurant are in Animas Bajas, about 10 minutes from San Jose, the last half of which is reached via a dirt road, where we pause briefly to let a horse pass in front of our car.
The cooking school and restaurant are in a brick structure built in 1888 and respectfully restored by its owner, our host and teacher, chef Enrique Silva.
He proudly walks us though his diversified crops of tomatoes, zucchinis, pumpkin squash, eggplants, poblano peppers, cactus, lettuce, arugula, radicchio, and herbs he has planted on the 14 acres of farmland he bought about three years ago. Keeping everything organic, he uses garlic, pepper and soap as natural pest repellents. His latest venture is to produce a line of organic seeds for export, and he tells us that he hopes to have six bungalows built for agritourism in the coming year.
Silva was a pioneer who arrived in San Jose more than two decades ago from Navojoa, Sonora, on mainland Mexico. Trained as an agricultural engineer, he came in search of new opportunities in what then was a town with a population of fewer than 3,000. In the 1980s, he witnessed a tremendous influx of federal money that catapulted San Jose to a new level of tourism, creating infrastructure, jobs, golf courses, luxury resorts and vacation homes. The population swelled to almost 70,000.
He has been co-owner and executive chef of Tequila for more than 15 years. While he has watched other businesses, especially restaurants, come and go, Silva has been a mainstay in the Baja culinary world. His menus are authentic, creative and use only high-quality ingredients. Celebrity chef Rick Bayless, host of "Mexico: One Plate at a Time," recently visited with him for a PBS cooking segment.
Silva's greatest joy seems to be overseeing the growth of Los Tamarindos, where he has welcomed a stream of devotees of fresh, locally sourced foods. After the farm tour, our group of nine assembles at a long table with colorful cutting boards at each place to prepare lunch. A cornucopia of vegetables and herbs sits on the large granite counter beside the stone oven.
The farmer-in-chief created the farm because he wanted to be sure he had the freshest produce and herbs for his own cooking. Los Tamarindos now provides organic products not only to his own two restaurants but also to some of the upscale resort properties, such as Las Ventanas, One and Only Palmilla, Capella Pedregal, and Esperanza. They also can be bought at the local organic farm market, held each Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
In perfect English, he teaches us about local ingredients as we learn new techniques and recipes. We prepare a meal of roasted tomato soup (sopa de tomate horneado); fresh regional cheese (called menonita) served on an fragrant, indigenous leaf; and sea bass (corvina) cooked in a banana leaf with achiote (a flavorful, rust-colored paste made from seeds) along with a side of green rice, colored with a blend of basil, cilantro, oil and garlic. He serves dulce de calabaza for dessert, a squash that's been cooked in raw sugar for hours, accompanied by fresh whipped cream.
We move to an outdoor patio table beautifully set with rustic dinnerware and savor our meal over wine. Both the chef and the setting are so relaxed that it's easy to lose track of time. The four-hour lesson has already gone on for six.
At Los Tamarindos, Silva teaches visitors about sustainable farming, but one of his most gratifying roles is inviting local students here to learn where their food comes from so they someday can become farmers, or at least educated consumers.
Silva is more of a realist than a Don Quixote.
"There's no future in farming," he says, at least not beyond experiencing the joy of what is produced. He tells us he receives no subsidies from the government and instead counts on the proceeds of his restaurant in town to maintain the farm.
"Many fail, but some are lucky," he says. "People continue in agriculture for the tradition, not the money."
If you go
Tequila Restaurant, Manuel Doblado 1011, San Jose del Cabo; Dinner daily 6-10:30 p.m.; 624-142-3753; tequilarestaurant.com.
Los Tamarindos Farm open daily noon to 10 p.m.; 624-105-6031; huertalostamarindos.com. Four-hour cooking class with lunch $85.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times