There's something awful about those giant nerd pagers that restaurants stick you with as you await your table. My father used to grumble that the ultimate goal of these places is to shuffle as many "feeders" in and out as possible. The moment you walk in, you're given a number and asked to park at the bar, unwieldy "Glowster Plus" gripped firmly in your hand. By the time it beeps, you're either so starved or drunk that it doesn't matter what the food tastes like.
We had pager number 48 during a recent trip to Cabo Flats in Downtown at the Gardens. As we waited for our table, we watched a procession of multigenerational drinkers in glittery shirts and high heels, each hoisting purplish margaritas the size of their well-coifed craniums. Couples on dates strode gingerly past bucket-style patio seats housing no-necked dudes in wide-collared shirts. Meanwhile, gaggles of party girls flooded the restaurant's outdoor area and picked at baskets of chips that came with four kinds of dipping sauces. The place, clubby and loud, was packed tighter than a Cancun dive bar during spring break.
It seems improbable that Cabo Flats would be so successful. After all, the restaurant moved in to the space vacated by the similarly themed Rosa Mexicano only two months ago. But where Rosa focused on innovative, upscale dishes, Cabo Flats has taken a more proletarian aim. The emphasis is on drinking, with cheaper, fairly standard Mexican dishes serving soak-up duty for a much rowdier crowd. The ideological shift seems to have worked — at least for now.
In most restaurants, alcohol serves as a complement to the food. But at Cabo Flats, it's the other way around. The bar is the main point of emphasis in both form and function. A racetrack of lacquered wood and high stools, it serves customers inside and out thanks to two service windows facing the busy patio. Behind the bar (full of drinkers squeezing in to order shots of tequila and cold cervezas) is a raised "stage" with a wide DJ booth and a wall of mosaic tile dripping water into a pool of lava rocks. While we waited, pager in hand, I ordered from the bar before snagging a seat at one of the gold-embroidered couches in the restaurant's foyer. I took a big sip from my prickly pear margarita, sweet and strong, and leaned closer to my date.
"Maybe that waterfall is there to remind us to keep drinking?" I said to her.
"Or maybe it just looks pretty," she replied with a smirk.
With our heads deep in a bowl of tequila and fruit juice, we were starting to feel that Cabo groove. After 30 minutes or so, our pager went off, and we were whisked away to a table on the far side of the restaurant, next to a pair of garage doors that blew with breezy air from the mall walkway. From that seat, things started off pretty good. Before long, our waiter had presented a basket of complimentary tortilla chips, thin wafers of lightly fried cornmeal that had been dusted with chili powder. The cantina-style salsa was ripe with the flavor of chilies, cilantro, and onion, even if it was a bit on the watery side. "I'm not usually a fan of nonchunky salsas," my date said, scooping up a bite. "But this salsa is good anyway."
Cabo Flats' menu skews pretty typical Ameri-Mex. There are about a dozen or so appetizers featuring nachos and a hefty assortment of all things fried, plus more compact sections filled with sandwiches, tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and a few "house specialty" dishes. Of course, there's the typical $9 guacamole, one or two plump Haas avocados' worth of finely mashed dip placed in the center of a porous, stone molcajete. And a small section of freshly made ceviches, including a daily-changing option made with local mahi-mahi, is perhaps the most interesting area of the menu.
We took a stab and ordered the ceviche del dia ($10), a mix of mahi, red onion, and jalapeño done "piña colada"-style. Though the method sounded more like a ceviche-bomination than South of the Border classic, I wanted to give Cabo's chefs the benefit of the doubt. When the dish came out, I really enjoyed the mahi itself: The oceanic fish was fresh, tender, and flavorful. But it was positively quashed by a sickeningly sweet cocktail of lime, pineapple, and coconut juice. The flavor was so astringent that it reminded me of one of those fruity air fresheners people spray in bathrooms and office buildings.
Similar to the ceviche was a bowl of Florida rock shrimp, deep-fried and slathered in a mango habanero glaze ($9). The shrimp themselves were awesome — well-cooked, sweet, and singing the praises of local seafood. But the oversweet mango sauce was a bust. If there was any piquant habanero in there at all, I couldn't detect it.
The restaurant stocks a pretty decent variety of tequilas available by the shot, from Jose Cuervo to high-priced Cabo Wabo. Although most common silver tequilas clock in under $10, there's a host of high-priced añejo, or aged tequilas, that shoot upward of $45 a pop (such as a snifter of Don Julio Real 1942).
As we picked at our lackluster apps, the party next to us ordered round after round of tequila. The quartet of heavy drinkers, obviously gunning for the cheap stuff, was completely gassed up. They shouted and screamed obscenities as they awkwardly stumbled out the garage doors behind us for a midmeal smoke. Even their waiter seemed annoyed — especially when he came by with their entrées and found the table empty. When they returned, they decided to turn their attentions toward mocking the food as loudly as possible. "Whoa," one drunk dude snickered. Bits of taco shrapnel shot from his mouth as he spoke. "This is some really authentic Mexican food!" he said sarcastically.
Drunk or not, this guy was way off-base. For one, I love authentic Mexican food. There's nothing better than some spicy al pastor napped in a handmade corn tortilla, a dish you know could never be reproduced in some massive corporate kitchen. But I wanted to say to him, "Come on, dude! This is Cabo Flats! You knew what this place was all about before you even came in here." Expecting an authentic Mexican meal from a restaurant located in a fashion mall is like expecting reasoned, bipartisan debate from Congress. It ain't gonna happen.
What I do expect, however, is some passion from the person cooking my meal. I don't care if it's authentic or not. If I can taste the love that went into forming the tortillas or mashing guacamole — even if that guac is being made in the kitchen of a suburban mall — then everything else is moot.
I could definitely dig a place that serves killer veggie burritos to go with its $9 cocktails — especially if those fat, baby-sized wraps would have their filling of spinach, mushrooms, cheese, and zucchini distributed properly, so diners don't get just a big bite of tortilla. If more dishes came out like the house's sizzling skillet of carnitas classico ($15) — chunks of pork cooked in a spicy broth until tender — I'd be a damned happy camper. I'd fork up that meat — slightly spicy with a citrusy tang — and stuff it into a steamy flour tortilla, topping the wrap with a dab of guac and some pleasantly tart pickled onions.
Until that happens, though, you won't find me holding a pager there anytime soon.