(Click here to reserve a table through OpenTable.com!) Armed with a margarita and perched in the Treehouse at Cabo's late-night invitation-only soft-opening, I waxed nostalgic (and we all know how painful waxing can be) about similar evenings at the long-gone Chez la Mer. Ahhh, warm Rehoboth Beach evenings floating above the bustle of Wilmington and Second, enjoying how something red and French washed down something nice made from lamb. Or perhaps a cool Riesling that paved the way for a decidedly lobster-centric entrée. Then a bite of proprietor Nancy Wolfe's banana dessert. <<sigh>> Enough already. Life goes on.
In spite of his considerable talents (repeatedly brought to bear at Espuma to high critical regard), multiple James Beard Best Chef Award nominee Jay Caputo simply couldn't get Porcini House jump-started. I maintain that each individual item on the menu was good, but that there was no cohesive theme. Nothing "worked" with anything else. People need to cubbyhole things. But, like its owner, P.H. couldn't be cubbyholed. And the last-minute switch to Italian was too little too late. No matter.
Enter Greg Plummer from Dewey's Hammerheads. With a (slightly) more youthful outlook, an obvious injection of capital -- and what seems to be a quick northward glance toward Lewes' über-successful Agave Tequila Bar, Cabo was born. Multiple tequilas populate the menu, accompanied by fairly straight-ahead Mexican fare. Caputo's signature twists and turns are there. Some are better than others, but none of them are bad.
It's no secret that there have been service and presentation glitches in the totally renovated and remodeled Chez la Mer/Porcini House/Cabo, and nobody knows about the growing pains better than Caputo himself. Once the dust settles, we hope the service and consistency will be up to the level of his flagship Espuma. We have no choice but to expect nothing less.
So let's see what's happening over there:
The Cabo Classic Margarita (Milagro Silver, fresh lime, Patron Citronge and agave syrup) [pictured, right] is quite good, along with the Prickly Pear Agua Fresca (a mix of fresh juice from the prickly pear (nopales), lemon, mango and cranberry), spiked with tequila.
All this effectively prepares you for the nachos [pictured, left], which are delicious. The cheese sauce is a bit thinner than your average bar-food version, but with a decidedly creamy palate enhanced by fresh chips. It also doesn't sieze up as it cools like standard melted cheese. Top it all with salsa, black beans, jalapeños, cilantro and scallions. The only word I can think of to compare these to typical nachos is that they are somehow "lighter." I know: Nachos? Light? Try them and see if you agree.
I started with the Ceviche Trio [pictured, right]. Three generous ramekins cradle Snapper (with roasted peppers, smooth avocado and toasted cumin), Tuna (coconut (!), sweet passion fruit, a dash of citrus, and chipotle crema - smoked jalapeños swirled into sour cream or Mexican Crema), and Lobster (grapefruit [! again] mint, scallions and a hint of fiery habanero). Each one was delicious. The Lettuce Tacos are also good, with seared tuna, shredded veggies and mango relish gracing cold, crunchy leaves.
On each of our five visits (so far), the quesadillas [pictured, left] have been the most well-received, in this order: Veggie, Shrimp and Pork. I believe that it's gotta be the cheese, and I suspect it's that same creamy white stuff that crowns the nachos. (Tommy, am I right?) The Cabo Wedge (can't throw a rock around here without hitting a wedge) [pictured, right] is kicked up a Mexican notch or two with tortilla strips, lots of queso fresco crumbles and a particularly bracing chipotle-laced Ranch. A nice switch from the typical wedge rabble.
As RehobothFoodie.com has grown, people have begun to feel the need to share their innermost restaurant thoughts with The Foodie. And The Foodie loves it! One gripe I get about Cabo is that they charge for their chips & salsa [pictured, left]. To my knowledge, nobody else in town does that. Sure, it's only three bucks, and I'm the last one to ask for anything free. But there's a method to all this: Unlike most other Mexican joints, Cabo offers three distinct varieties of salsa on the menu: (1) the regular light, fresh, crunchy, citrusy and not too tomato-saucy version (the "hot" is the one to get), (2) Spicy Crab Salsa (equally delicious with plaintain chips) and Corn, Chorizo and Black Bean Salsa served with blue chips and creamy queso fresco. So if the regular salsa just shows up at the table uninvited, nobody would ever try the other two. So go with the flow. Get at least one of them, then cool the fire with a marg. See? That was easy. (And by the way, "free" salsa is never "free." If it were, there would be no restaurants left in business. They do have rent to pay and food to buy, after all. "Free" stuff is simply built into the menu prices. So you either pay $3 for the salsa, or a bit more for everything else. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Or dinner. That's why they call it the restaurant business.)
Cabo's pork is smoked on the premises in a roasting box not unlike the traditional Caja China Pig Roaster. Smoking takes as long as it wants to take, and it's not unusual to see Caputo after dark, by the kitchen door, pulling pork al fresco and sending hotel pan after hotel pan of piping hot meat into the kitchen. The texture is perfect. Now comes my grievance in that regard: I think the pork should not be so highly spiced. On one visit, I had the Suckling Pig Burrito [pictured, right]. I believe that Chef got carried away. I can't taste the pork! It's just way too busy (spice-wise) and that that poor pig who found him- or herself in that roasting box needs to be allowed to do what he (or she) does best: taste good. I'm not asking for regular old Memphis BBQ here, but the heavy-handed spices stayed with me all evening, and I still don't know what the pork tasted like. It's a great spice mix, mind you, but it needs to be dialed back about 40%. Please??
The Tortilla Soup [pictured, left] is simply delicious. Topped with crunchy blue-chip strips, it's chock-full of corn, onion, dried pasilla chilis (a Mexican pepper; the name pasilla is often used incorrectly to describe a poblano), and, of course, lightly shredded chicken.
The Smoked Yucatan 1/2 Chicken [pictured, right] tops a nest of stewed onions, green beans and sweet potato puree surrounded by a lake of deeply "chickeny" gravy enhanced with chipotle. The generous portion of meat is encrusted with an extremely pungent spice mixture. Should they dial that one back too? I'm not sure. I think the dish stands on its own. But buckle yourself in for a roller coaster of spicy tastes. There's just a lot goin' on in that bird. (By the way, when I say "spicy," I don't mean "hot" spicy like from cayenne. If I mean "hot," I'll say "hot.")
The Chili-Rubbed Hanger Steak [pictured, left] is a home run. The huge portion marches out smack on top of garlicky potatoes with mushrooms, spinach and ... wait for it ... pickled onions. It's delightful and I guarantee you will not cruise by Louie's afterwards for a slice. The Chicken Enchilada [pictured, right] is presented en casserole and includes red onions, corn puree and a serrano relish on the side. Like Tex-Mex? Then you'll like this. The chicken is flavorful and the combination of ingredients works. And it's in a big ol' flour tortilla. What's not to like?
The Mahi Tacos [pictured, left] are my favorite, but later visits were a bit disappointing in the presentation department. One order had lots of fish on one of the tortillas, and one little piece in another. Maybe the waitron was jostled in the kitchen and the fish redistributed itself? I don't know. But every time I've had them, I've loved the taste but they've come out of the kitchen somewhat discheveled. Guys! They're delicious! Settle on a presentation that makes it out to the table looking as good as it tastes.
I have to mention the side of Spicy Black Beans [pictured, right]. If you're one of those people who is genetically predisposed to hate cilantro, this one isn't for you. But if you like that happily aggressive version of parsley, you'll love this side. They are bracingly delicious.
As you already figured out from the first several paragraphs, Cabo is located on the corner of Second St. and Wilmington Avenue. The Treehouse is hands-down the place to sit -- if there's room. Unlike the traffic jam (and multiple unpaid checks) that used to plague Porcini House's direct access -- and egress -- to and from the deck, guests now enter through the main door -- the leftmost opening facing Second St. Not only can the doorkeeper now keep track of who's up there, but it helps them to get food to the Treehouse a lot quicker.
Yes, there are some missteps, and yes, they've only been open a short time. And I certainly owe it to you to accurately reflect that in the ratings above. But ratings are easy to change, and as I said, I have faith in Caputo, Plummer and the gang. The restaurant is very moderately priced, the Treehouse is certainly a value-added, and I believe the potential there is endless. Give it a try and post your thoughts below. (D., Bar). Price Range: Moderate.