At Manta, Olvera nods to the flavors of Japan and the Pacific Rim.
Los Cabos, the West Coast plaything of A-listers, is a rugged, spirited destination in its own right. Unlike its East Coast sister Cancun, the seaside resort is a little more contemplative and less Spring Break, trading Yucatán’s lush jungle for rolling desert, limb-like Saguaro cacti and crisp blue skies.
And it’s here, in an area that rose to fame for its sport fishing, that Enrique Olvera opened seafood-forward Manta in 2015. It’s located at The Cape, A Thompson Hotel, which gazes out onto Cabo’s iconic arch. “I have one rule: I don’t open restaurants in towns that I don’t love,” the Cosme chef tells Food & Wine. “I’ve been going to Cabo for 15 years. It has a very special magnetism.” (He admits, however, that he was scared that committing to a work project here would sully it as a vacation spot for him. “Fortunately, that didn’t happen,” he says.)
Much of Olvera’s media attention has centered around his elevation of old-world Mexican ingredients, some long forgotten and obscure. The bolita corn, for example, which is hand-ground and nixtamalized for the tortillas at Pujol’s taco bar. That, and his 300-day old moles, famously profiled on season 2 of the Netflix docuseries Chef’s Table. It may come as a surprise then, that his Los Cabos restaurant Manta is overt in its flavors of East Asia.
There’s savory ramen with epazote and black beans, which nods to the best of Japan, a country whose cuisine has deeply influenced the chef's approach to tacos. There are also rice “chicharrones,” deep-fried Thai rice chips that look like the pork skins for which they’re named. “It’s kind of about understanding flavor profiles of both things,” says Olvera. The overarching narrative here is that of the Pacific Rim—Japan, Thailand, Peru—towards which The Cape gazes.
“It’s trying to forget your own stereotypes, and trying to think in terms of flavor than in terms of what you know. It’s thinking more as a cook, and forgetting where ingredients come from. Just doing what your sixth sense, and what your intuition as a cook tells you. That is to me why the dishes are successful. It might sound contradictory, but it works,” he says.
It is not so much a fusion of boundaries, then, as an erasure of them altogether. It’s thinking about flavor, not necessarily cultural origin. Still, it is deeply rooted in its location.
“I always like to understand the context that the restaurant’s located at,” Olvera says. “At Los Cabos, it’s the case of being on the Pacific Ocean, in a hotel, with a beautiful landscape… At Manta, you probably spent most of your time at the pool, so you want something that is fresh, that is light, of the sea.”
His dish of scallop in soy sauce and cucumber with avocado purée, then, is the perfect distillation of place.
Currently, Olvera is able to visit Manta once every six weeks. He divides his time between New York, Mexico City, Oaxaca and, increasingly, Los Angeles. He's preparing to open a new location of Cosme there at the end of this year. Still, he’s planning on being at Cabo during Easter, and was recently at the restaurant during New Year’s, when he tried his hand at DJ’ing for the first time.
He got involved with The Cape when the hotel’s world-renowned architect, Javier Sanchez—also a close friend—asked him to come on board. “He’s one of the main reasons I got involved at Manta and The Cape,” Olvera says. “We both share a love of materials: In my case, love of ingredients, in his case, love of construction materials. Even though he works with cement and I work with corn, how he approaches the material is the same. It’s about trying to not be so egotistical as a person, and letting the materials shine.”
It’s hard not to talk about the architecture at The Cape, even for those of us who aren’t versed in the discipline. Eschewing the white color palette so often chosen for beachy resorts, its walls are a slate gray in nodding to the rugged coastline. The whole hotel is partially outdoors, and the windows of Manta offer floor to ceiling views of Cabo’s signature arch.
“Even though it’s work, it doesn’t seem like work,” he says of his time at Manta. “I always see the sunset with the kitchen crew. Not everyone has that beautiful sunset. It’s a privilege more than a job.”