Los Cabos and Baja are full of tourists, and where there are tourists, there are restaurants. And what restaurants: From the lowliest streetside taco stand to the swankiest seaside five-star, you're sure to eat like a king.
Because there are so many short- and long-term expatriates living in Baja, a parallel restaurant culture has grown up beside the preexisting Mexican one. It's easy to tell the difference. "Gringo" places are owned by, run by, or at least targeted to non-Mexicans, and tend to be more expensive, more decorated, and offer a more diverse and often more inventive, although less Mexican-style of cooking. They're also much more likely to tell you where they buy their ingredients, and put more stock in organic or naturally-prepared food. "Local" places are nearly all traditionally Mexican, in cuisine and preparation, with little tweaking of age-old recipes. They're cheaper and, some would argue, more authentic; they're a place to connect with Baja's Mexican culture, and are often mouth-wateringly delicious, but they're not going to blow your socks off with creative cuisine. (The exception to this, as in many things, is Tijuana, where Mexican alta cocina is being invented and reinvented by Mexican chefs for cross-border audiences; there are also a few similar places in Ensenada.)
Bridging the gulf, beloved by bajacalifornianos of all origins, taquerías are Mexican fast-food joints, where everything is made to order and the buzzwords are quick, greasy, and cheap. A taquería will serve anywhere from one type of taco to 20, but the basic model is a few slices of spiced cooked meat or vegetables on a tortilla, served on a plastic plate. Taco stands with a building and running water are thought to be more sanitary than those serving their treats on the street, with the added plus that you can wash your hands before you eat. For lunch, the main meal of the day, some restaurants offer a multicourse blue-plate special called comida corrida or menú del día. This is the least expensive way to get a full meal; look out for these in simple local restaurants, in Baja often with palapa straw roofs.
The star of the region is its fresh and varied seafood. In many restaurants, palapas, and roadside stands throughout the peninsula, the very best meals are, simply, the catch of the day. In areas like La Paz and Loreto, it sometimes seems like everyone has a fishing boat, and the abundance of marlin, sea bass (corvina), and skate (raya) from the Pacific and snapper (huachinango), parrotfish (perico), and crab (jaiba) from the Sea of Cortez is itself a reason to visit.
Up and down the coasts in Baja Sur, you'll find small stands selling almejas, or clams -- a regional delicacy plucked right from the surrounding waters. Depending on where you are, the size and taste of the almejas may vary slightly, but the methods of preparation are generally the same. If you order them served raw, you will be presented with a smorgasbord of toppings including lime (squeeze it on the clam before you eat it; if it moves, it's said, it's still alive and safe to eat), Worcestershire sauce, any number of tiny bottles of salsa, and salt. The relleno, or stuffed version, has been filled with cheese, butter, ham, jalapeños, and tomatoes, wrapped in tinfoil, and baked in an oven or over an open fire.
Baja's influx of culinary influences is not a recent phenomenon, and by no means limited to North America. According to Edith Jiménez-Smith, the namesake of Edith's Restaurant in Cabo San Lucas, Baja's current culinary landscape began to take shape in the late 17th century with the arrival of the Jesuit missionaries. On her website, www.edithscabo.com, she writes: "Spanish missionaries, English pirates, French miners, Italian vintners, Chinese merchants, Japanese fishermen, American mariners, Canadian developers, up to the current tourists . . . all have left, some more and some less, a token of their tastes in food and certain peculiar ways of preparing it." As a result of this cultural mix, you can find Chinese food in La Paz, world-class sushi restaurants along the Cabo San Lucas-San José del Cabo corridor, and dedicated French chefs in Ensenada. Just because there are no beans, rice, or spicy salsa involved, doesn't mean it's not authentic.
In this guide, we've grouped restaurants and other eateries into categories based on price. We're comparing main course prices, or the equivalent cost of a full meal without drinks in places that don't serve main courses. Expect beverage prices to vary accordingly.
A Guide to Restaurant Pricing in Los Cabos & Baja (Main Course Prices, in Pesos)
Very Expensive 200.00 and up
Inexpensive 80.00 and below
Authentic Mexican food has little to do with its U.S. namesake; it's fresher, more diverse, and healthier, going light on the cheese and the cream. It's based on a few traditional ingredients, which haven't changed since before the Spanish touched down: beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, and onions.
Mexican food usually isn't spicy-hot when it arrives at the table (though many dishes have a certain amount of piquancy, and some home cooking can be very spicy, depending on a family's or chef's tastes). Chiles and sauces add heat and flavor after the food is served; you'll never see a table in Mexico without one or both of these condiments. If you're concerned about eating fresh sauces, ask for a bottle.
For more information on Baja's cuisine and menu terminology,
Tortillas -- Traditionally, Mexican tortillas are made from corn, but in Baja, you'll often find flour tortillas, which consist of lard, wheat flour, salt, and water. When the Spaniards tried to imitate traditional corn tortillas with flour imported from the Old World, the humid conditions in southern and central Mexico ruined the dough. They had more success in hotter, drier conditions in northern states like Sonora, Chihuahua, and Baja California, and over time, their popularity spread north. Today, virtually all the tortillas you'll find in supermarkets north of the border are made of flour. However, the traditional corn tortilla, made from corn that's been cooked in water and lime, then ground into masa (a grainy dough), patted and pressed into thin cakes, and cooked on a hot griddle known as a comal, remains king in most of Mexico. You can still find corn tortillas in Baja -- just ask.
Enchiladas -- The original name for this dish would have been tortilla enchilada, which means a tortilla dipped in a chile sauce. In like manner, there's the entomatada (tortilla dipped in a tomato sauce) and the enfrijolada (in a bean sauce). The enchilada began as a very simple dish: A tortilla is dipped in very hot oil and then into chile sauce (usually with ancho chile), then quickly folded or rolled on a plate and sprinkled with chopped onions and a little queso cotija (crumbly white cheese) and served with potatoes and carrots. You can get this basic enchilada in food stands across the country. In restaurants you get the more elaborate enchilada, with different fillings of cheese, chicken, pork, or even seafood, and sometimes prepared as a casserole.
Tacos -- A taco is anything folded or rolled into a tortilla, and sometimes a double tortilla. The tortilla can be served either soft or fried. A classic taco consists of a bit of grilled, spiced meat on a corn tortilla, served DIY with hot sauce, onions, and cilantro. Flautas and quesadillas are species of tacos, too. The taco is Mexico's quintessential fast food, and the taco stand (taquería) is ubiquitous all over Baja.
Chiles -- There are many kinds of hot peppers, and Mexicans call each of them by one name when they're fresh and another when they're dried. Some are blazing hot with little flavor; some are mild but have a rich, complex flavor. They can be pickled, smoked, stuffed, or stewed.
All over Baja, you'll find shops selling licuados -- excellent and refreshing juices and smoothies made from every imaginable kind of tropical fruit. Aguas frescas -- water flavored with hibiscus, melon, tamarind, or lime -- are Mexico's answer to soft drinks. If you ask for "agua" and the response is "What kind?," you're in for a treat.
Mexico has a proud and successful beer-brewing tradition that goes back to the European immigrants who arrived in the early 1800s. Baja's conventional beers are Tecate and Pacífico, available everywhere and roughly similar in flavor and quality. But it doesn't stop there. A trip to Tijuana wouldn't be complete without a trip to the Tijuana Brewery, where master brewers use techniques picked up in the Czech Republic. In San José del Cabo, microbrew lovers now have a home at Baja Brewing Company, a joint run by a group of gringo friends who couldn't face another Corona.
Baja's wine industry is small but growing, a labor of love for the winegrowers of the Valle de Guadalupe, near Ensenada. Some of the best labels are Monte Xanic and Bibayoff; L.A. Cetto produces inexpensive, drinkable whites and reds.
Tequila is the heady result of fermenting the hearts of the blue agave plant, a species of agave that grows in and around the area of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco. It's something of a national pastime in Mexico, and Baja is no exception -- but beware of the bad stuff, which will leave you feeling awful for days, possibly years to come. The best tequilas are labeled 100% agave, which means that they were made with a set minimum of sugar to prime the fermentation process. These tequilas come in three categories based on how they were stored: blanco, reposado, and añejo. Blanco is white tequila aged very little, usually in steel vats. Reposado (reposed) is aged in wooden casks for between 2 months and a year, and añejo (aged) has been stored in oak barrels for at least a year. Leave the José Cuervo to the frat boys and try a Herradura or Cazadores for a taste of the real thing. ¡Salud!
On The Rocks -- While ice in Mexico used to be a game of digestive Russian roulette, nowadays nearly everyone buys purified ice to cool their drinks. You can spot machine-made ice for its cylindrical block shape with a hole in the center. You don't need to avoid ice in hotels or restaurants; at market stalls or street vendors, just ask.
Baja Love Potion -- Where do the spring breakers at Cabo Wabo get that lovin' feeling? As if the sunsets weren't enough, Baja boasts its own native-grown aphrodisiac: Damiana, a liqueur made from the leaves and stems of the Damiana plant. Sold in a babe-shaped bottle that drives the point home, Damiana has a sweet, honey-like flavor and can be served straight up or mixed in with a margarita.
Morning -- The morning meal, known as el desayuno, runs the gamut from coffee and sweet bread to a substantial home run of eggs, beans, tortillas, bread, fruit, juice, and maybe even pozole soup or tacos. It can be eaten early or late and is always a sure bet in Mexico. In Baja, U.S.-style pancakes are widely available, served with butter and sugar syrup or honey. Don't miss out on succulent, ripe tropical fruit, and of course you can't go wrong with Mexican egg dishes.
Midafternoon -- The main meal of the day, known as la comida (or almuerzo), is eaten between 2 and 4pm. Some stores and businesses still close for the meal so people can eat at home with their families, but in places like Los Cabos, where tourists are king, the traditional comida may be cut short. The first course is the sopa, which can be either soup (caldo) or rice (sopa de arroz) or both; then comes the main course, usually a meat or fish dish prepared in some kind of sauce and served with beans; at the end comes a token, small dessert.
Evening -- Between 8 and 10pm, most Mexicans have a light meal, la cena. If eaten at home, it is something like a sandwich, bread and jam, or perhaps a couple of tacos made from some of the day's leftovers. At restaurants, the most common thing to eat is antojitos (literally, "little cravings"), a general label for light fare. Antojitos include tostadas, tamales, tacos, and simple enchiladas, and are big hits with travelers. Large restaurants offer complete meals as well. In Baja, popular antojitos include menudo (a thick soup of cows' feet and stomachs, seasoned with chiles, oregano, and chopped onion), huaraches (a flat, thick oval-shaped tortilla, topped with fried meat and chiles), and chalupas (a crisp whole tortilla, topped with beans, meat, and other toppings).
At a sit-down restaurant, it's considered polite service to clear plates, glasses, and bottles from the table the very instant you're finished with them, and sometimes before. Waiters will ask "puedo retirar?;" a polite "todavìa no" will send them packing.
In Mexico, you need to ask for your check; it is generally considered inhospitable to present a check to someone who hasn't requested it. If you're in a hurry to get somewhere, ask for the check when your food arrives. To summon the waiter, wave or raise your hand, but don't motion with your index finger, which is a demeaning gesture that may even cause the waiter to ignore you. Or if it's the check you want, you can motion to the waiter from across the room using the universal pretend-you're-writing gesture.
Tip 10% to 15% in restaurants, not at all in taquerías. Many restaurants in Baja include a service charge or automatic tip -- check your bill.
desayuno -- Breakfast.
comida -- Main meal of the day, taken in the afternoon.
cena -- Supper.
botana -- A small serving of food that accompanies a beer or drink, usually served free of charge.
entrada -- Appetizer.
sopa -- Soup course. (Not necessarily a soup -- it can be a dish of rice or noodles, called sopa seca [dry soup].)
ensalada -- Salad.
plato fuerte -- Main course.
postre -- Dessert.
comida corrida -- Inexpensive daily special usually consisting of three courses.
menú del día -- Same as comida corrida.
término un cuarto -- Rare, literally means one-fourth.
término medio -- Medium rare, one-half.
término tres cuartos -- Medium, three-fourths.
bien cocido -- Well-done.
Note: Keep in mind, when ordering a steak, that medio does not mean "medium."
cucharra -- Spoon.
cuchillo -- Knife.
la cuenta -- The bill.
plato -- Plate.
plato hondo -- Bowl.
propina -- Tip.
servilleta -- Napkin.
tenedor -- Fork.
vaso -- Glass.
IVA -- Value-added tax.
fonda -- Strictly speaking, a food stall in the market or street, but now used in a loose or nostalgic sense to designate an informal restaurant.
achiote -- Small red seed of the annatto tree.
achiote preparado -- A Yucatecan-prepared paste made of ground achiote, wheat and corn flour, cumin, cinnamon, salt, onion, garlic, and oregano.
agua fresca -- Fruit-flavored water, usually watermelon, cantaloupe, chia seed with lemon, hibiscus flower, rice, or ground melon-seed mixture.
ajillo -- Garlic sauce, often served with fish in Baja; a variety is mojo de ajo.
antojito -- Typical Mexican supper foods usually made with masa or tortillas and having a filling or topping such as sausage, cheese, beans, and onions; includes such things as tacos, tostadas, sopes, and garnachas. Often served as appetizers or snacks.
atole -- A thick, lightly sweet, hot drink made with finely ground corn and usually flavored with vanilla, pecan, strawberry, pineapple, lemon, or chocolate.
botana -- An appetizer.
buñuelos -- Round, thin, deep-fried crispy fritters dipped in sugar.
burrito -- A rolled flour tortilla filled with beans and sometimes meat or eggs, served with table salsas, onion, and chiles. Much smaller than its U.S. counterpart!
callos -- Scallops, sometimes found alongside almejas and ceviche at Baja mariscos stands.
camarones -- Shrimp, served in tacos or by themselves.
carnitas -- Pork deep-cooked (not fried) in lard and then simmered and served with corn tortillas for tacos.
ceviche -- Fresh raw seafood marinated in fresh lime juice and garnished with chopped tomatoes, onions, chiles, and sometimes cilantro. Often served with tortilla chips (totopos).
chayote -- A vegetable pear or mirliton, a type of spiny squash boiled and served as an accompaniment to meat dishes or to flavor soups and broths.
chilaquiles -- A favorite Mexican breakfast dish of tortilla chips cooked in salsa verde or salsa roja, topped with sour cream and accompanied by chicken, beef, or eggs, and a side of beans.
chiles en nogada -- Poblano peppers stuffed with a mixture of ground pork and beef, spices, fruit, raisins, and almonds. They're traditionally served cool or at room temperature, covered in walnut-cream sauce, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Because this dish highlights the colors of the Mexican flag -- red, white, and green -- chiles en nogada are Mexico's official Independence Day dish.
chiles rellenos -- Usually poblano peppers stuffed with cheese, potatoes, or spicy ground meat with raisins, rolled in a batter, and fried.
churro -- Tube-shaped, breadlike fritter, dipped in sugar and sometimes filled with cajeta (goat-milk-based caramel) or chocolate.
cochinita pibil -- Pork wrapped in banana leaves, pit-baked in a pibil sauce of achiote, sour orange, and spices; most common in the Yucatán.
damiana -- The small yellow flower, indigenous to Baja, known for its aphrodisiacal, fertility-enhancing properties. Liqueur of the same name, made from the blossoms, is served on ice after dinner or as a secret ingredient in margaritas.
enchilada -- A lightly fried tortilla dipped in sauce, usually filled with chicken or white cheese, sometimes topped with mole (enchiladas rojas or de mole); tomato sauce and sour cream (enchiladas suizas -- Swiss enchiladas); covered in a green sauce (enchiladas verdes); or topped with onions, sour cream, and guacamole (enchiladas potosinas).
empanadas -- Fried or baked dough packets stuffed with a variety of fillings, from fish or meat to chocolate.
frijoles refritos -- Boiled pinto beans, mashed and cooked with lard.
garnachas -- A thickish small circle of fried masa with pinched sides, topped with pork or chicken, onions, and avocado, or sometimes chopped potatoes and tomatoes.
gorditas -- Thick, fried corn tortillas, slit and stuffed with choice of cheese, beans, beef, or chicken, with or without lettuce, tomato, and onion garnish.
horchata -- Refreshing lightly sweetened drink made of ground rice or melon seeds, ground almonds, and cinnamon.
huachinango -- Red snapper, often served whole, head-on, and accompanied by rice and vegetables.
huevos mexicanos -- Scrambled eggs with chopped onions, hot green peppers, and tomatoes.
huitlacoche -- Sometimes spelled "cuitlacoche." A mushroom-flavored black fungus that appears on corn in the rainy season; considered a delicacy.
langosta -- Pacific spiny lobster, served in Puerto Nuevo with beans and tortillas
limonada -- Refreshing made-to-order drink of bottled water and lime juice; its cousin naranjada, with orange juice, is also widely available.
machaca -- Dried, spiced, shredded beef, often served in tacos or burritos. Very popular in Baja.
manchamantel -- Translated, means "tablecloth stainer." It's a stew of chicken or pork with chiles, tomatoes, pineapple, bananas, and jicama.
masa -- Ground corn soaked in lime, it's the basis for tamales, corn tortillas, and soups.
mojarra -- Tilapia, usually served as a filet in sauces including ajillo and Veracruzana, baked with tomatoes and onions.
pan de muerto -- Sweet bread made around the Days of the Dead (Nov 1-2) in the form of mummies or dolls, or round with bone designs.
pan dulce -- Lightly sweetened bread in many configurations, usually served at breakfast or bought in any bakery.
papadzules -- Tortillas stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and seeds (pumpkin or sunflower) in a tomato sauce.
pibil -- Pit-baked pork or chicken in a sauce of tomato, onion, mild red pepper, cilantro, and vinegar.
pipián -- A sauce made with ground pumpkinseeds, nuts, and mild peppers.
pozole -- A pre-Columbian-era soup made of hominy, meat, chile, and other seasonings. Often served for breakfast with garnishes ranging from cilantro to radishes.
pulque -- A drink made of fermented juice of the maguey plant.
pulpo -- Octopus, often served in a stew.
quesadilla -- Corn or flour tortillas stuffed with melted white cheese and lightly fried.
queso relleno -- Translated as "stuffed cheese," this dish consists of a mild yellow cheese stuffed with minced meat and spices; it's a Yucatecan specialty.
rompope -- Delicious Mexican eggnog, invented in Puebla, made with eggs, vanilla, sugar, and rum.
salsa verde -- An uncooked sauce using the green tomatillo puréed with spicy or mild hot peppers, onions, garlic, and cilantro.
sopa de flor de calabaza -- A soup made of chopped squash or pumpkin blossoms.
sopa de lima -- A tangy soup made with chicken broth and accented with fresh lime.
sopa de tortilla -- A traditional chicken broth-based soup, seasoned with chiles, tomatoes, onion, and garlic, served with crispy fried strips of corn tortillas. Also called sopa azteca.
sope -- Pronounced "soh-peh." An antojito similar to a garnacha but spread with refried beans and topped with crumbled cheese and onions.
tacos al pastor -- Thin slices of flavored pork roasted on a revolving cylinder dripping with onion slices and the juice of fresh pineapple slices. Served in small corn tortillas, it's topped with chopped onion and cilantro.
tamal -- Often incorrectly called a tamale (tamal is singular; tamales is plural), this dish consists of a meat or sweet filling rolled with fresh masa wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed.
tequila -- Distilled alcohol produced from the A. tequilana species of agave (known as Blue Weber agave) in and around the area of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal, by contrast, comes from various parts of Mexico and from different varieties of agave and is considered less sophisticated than tequila (and more easily detected on the drinker's breath).
tomatillo -- Small, tart green tomatoes that come wrapped in delicate, sticky husks. The base for most green salsas, and also used fresh in some salads.
torta -- A sandwich, usually on bolillo bread, typically with sliced avocado, onions, tomatoes, and a choice of meat and often cheese.
tostada -- Large, crispy flavored corn tortilla topped with chopped seafood, tomatoes, and avocado.
totopos -- Fried tortilla chips.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.