Cabo Modern Mexican & Tequila Bar
210 Second St., Rehoboth Beach
Appetizers, soups, salads $5-$11
Tacos, enchiladas and burritos $4-$12
Suckling pork tacos, chile-smoked chicken tacos, spiced-rub hanger steak
The story goes something like this: Jay Caputo and Greg Plummer, two of the beach area’s most happening business owners, trekked down to Baja and made a life-altering discovery. In Cabo San Lucas, the pair found and subsequently imbibed Clase Azul—a champion tequila of near mythical pedigree. Aged in oak casks and bottled in handmade Talavera carafes, Azul is the Aston Martin of the tequila set. The makers’ top-shelf stuff—its ultra añejo, which is aged for five years in sherry barrels and stored in artisanal 24-carat gold decanters—costs around $500 a shot.
As Caputo and Plummer sipped their presumably less expensive variety of Clase Azul, inspiration struck. If the duo could replicate the vibe for the Delaware beach set, success would surely follow. After all, who wouldn’t love a place to relaxingly sip high-grade tequila and to nosh on fresh, inexpensive food when needed? Who wouldn’t love the opportunity to edify the oenophiles and craft beer nuts about the complex flavors and the magical, enlivening powers of tequila?
On Cinco de Mayo 2012, Cabo Modern Mexican & Tequila Bar opened its doors on Second Street in Rehoboth. Not quite “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but there you have it.
For Caputo, the acclaimed chef/owner behind Rehoboth’s Espuma, and Plummer, owner of Hammerheads Bar in Dewey Beach, their due diligence paid off. Cabo creates easily one of the beach’s most relaxing and enchanting settings.
Inside the colorful dining room, awash in turquoise, beige and gold, the smell of suckling pig smoking in a back-ally grill mixes with a wood fireplace. Rustic wooden walls, glowing lanterns and wicker chairs all help cultivate a warm, homey feel that extends to the tile-top bar, which is decorated with longhorn cattle skulls, grayscale photos of matadors, and a life-sized cardboard cutout of Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World. And at this bar, you will not remain thirsty, my friends. Not for long, anyway.
Tequila is an obvious selling point at Cabo, and the bar employs dozens of varieties. An empty flask of the legendary Clase Azul sits stridently on the top shelf, above the neatly arranged lineups of Herradura, Milagro, Espolón, and the house tequila, Don Julio—which is used to make Cabo’s zingy margaritas. With ample squeezes of lime, Patron Citronge and agave syrup, they rate among the beach’s best, particularly the Spicy Margarita incarnation, whose pucker-inducing prowess came courtesy of a jalapeno infusion.
For better or worse, those same slaps of spice—deployed with a boldly heavy hand—were the hallmark of Cabo’s cuisine, too. In many cases, the abundant flavors worked miracles, especially when the kitchen took advantage of its delicious rotation of house-smoked meats. Take a plate of suckling pork tacos, whose ethereal notes of smoke danced lithely around vinegary cured onion slivers and red bell pepper atop a subtly sweet corn tortilla. Or the shredded smoked chicken, colored a brilliant rusty red from a rubdown of chile powders and delicate infusion of smoke.
Imparted with just a hint of heat, the tacos were the picture of balance, mingling roasted white corn, a squeeze of citrus and the garlicky, creamy pop of homemade guacamole.
Elsewhere, medallions of spice-rubbed hanger steak hulked over garlic-dressed fingerling potatoes and barely wilted spinach. The beef’s toasted-chile exterior hardened into a pleasing and bitter crust that yielded to a ruby red center. In these types of instances, when Cabo’s bold flavors locked nicely into some stage of equilibrium, its casual dishes evolved into something far more special than standard Baja-Tex-Mex fare.
But all the smoked meats, dried chiles, toasted spices and fresh-squeezed limes in the world couldn’t save some truly vital execution errors that nearly strangled the goodwill forged by Cabo’s carefully plotted blueprints.
Several dishes were just plain overseasoned—and aggressively so. An inert filet of pan-seared snapper craved enlivenment from its companion mélange of summer squashes, tomatoes, capers and poblano peppers. But a few too many sprinkles of salt, integrated with the already briny capers, muddled the veggies completely.
Saltiness choked away the freshness and levity intended for seared tuna slices, an overly seasoned tortilla crust denying shredded jicama, pineapple salsa and lettuce cups an opportunity.
Elsewhere, gloppy plating—a mushy, curiously casseroled black bean enchilada, and a pallid, stale cup of tortilla soup among the more egregious offenders—soured courses almost instantly.
While I appreciated the spicy-sweet aioli and tender braised shortrib that comprised rich empanadas, the shell itself was underdone, and its doughy interior wall suffocated its filling.
It didn’t help matters that I arrived in the dead of January, just as the Cabo kitchen was running out the clock on its winter menu in preparation for a new one. Many of the menu’s most appetizing dishes, including all ceviche and oysters, were unavailable.
That didn’t excuse undercooked churros and their doughnutty centers, or the ho-hum apple pie quesadilla with its still-crunchy and unpeeled apple slices filling flour tortillas.
Jay Caputo is a chef I admire. I’ve always appreciated his razor-sharp focus on flavors, and the way he fuses fine-dining standards with his own unique brand of workmanship and elbow grease. He runs his restaurant empire, which now includes the Rose & Crown in downtown Lewes, with a dry wit and an aloof magnetism that’s earned him lots of admirers.
He’ll be the first to tell me off-season Cabo and summertime Cabo are two completely different entities, but some ratcheting up is in order.
And I suspect that once the warm winds return, and a new menu unfurls, things will pick up. As the breezy summer-hangout alternative to the refined fun of Espuma, Cabo has boundless potential. Like the fabled Clase Azul tequila, perfection needs to be nurtured with craftsmanship and time.