Star Child Awarded 2013 Nautilus Medal
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There is something about the vegetation of a desert climate, its stubborn hardiness in the face of unyielding sun and dry, sandy soil that makes its flavors brisk and robust and intense. It is as if by evolution, each plant acquires the skill to gather every nutrient and refine it into a fiercely flavored treasure, a tough and thorny leaf or a neon-colored flower. Oenophiles, too, will often describe how flavors sucked by ancient vines from the rockiest soils or captured from the fragrant hillsides around them can coalesce into a ruby glass of burgundy. Some people are like that, too, thriving in the toughest climes, blossoming where others wilt, having the will to scrabble for everything they need to produce something wonderful and unexpected.
Our first introduction to Nancy took us by surprise. We wandered into her cafe, crossing the dusty arroyo and cow path by foot, the hand-painted wooden markers and smell of Mexican coffee urging us forward. The tables were set in colorful place mats, heavy-armed native women kneaded dough at the bar, and Nancy appeared gingerly at our table, sun-bleached hair and a brilliant yellow cotton dress draping her tanned, wiry body. We surveyed the menu, inquiring about the cinnamon French toast and huevos rancheros. But it was something about the way Nancy described the heat of the rancheros sauce that caught my ear through a sleepy haze, how “bright” it was, though “not too hot.” My appetite and attention perked up even before the coffee was poured.
After a leisurely wait in the shade of the patio and a few sips of the freshly squeezed orange juice, oversized pottery plates were set before us. Each beautifully presented entree, accompanied by sliced passion fruit, bananas, oranges, and apricots, prompted a grateful sigh from our table. We dug right in and weren’t shy about sopping the last bit of “bright” sauce from our plates. The flavors were clean, crisp, and fresh in only the way something handmade to order can be. A few other guests lingered at their tables as we happily headed off to a sea kayaking adventure.
We had come to the Sea of Cortez for a small family celebration of my husband, Buck’s, fiftieth birthday. As much of an extravert as he is, he’s not much for celebrating big birthdays, unless they are someone else’s. As usual, we had found an out of the way place that suited Buck and me, but was a bit of a disappointment to our city-reared children. We hadn’t fully settled into our casita by the sea when I heard our son, Max banging around on the roof trying to get the television cable operating.
We packed our long weekend with plenty of activities. Sea kayaking was high on our list of things to do, but it was challenging in the choppy waves and both Katherine and Max got a little seasick. The last part of the trip, they got a tow from the guide who noticed their slightly greenish complexions. Snorkeling and swimming with sea lions was more their speed. We found beautiful, isolated coves to lounge in and explore.
As with travelers all over the world who stake their claim to a comforting piece of geography, a hotel, or cafe, we came to regard Nancy’s restaurant as our personal oasis. We’d talk about what we would order for dinner as we headed home from hours of snorkeling among the tropical reefs. The menu was limited, so the choices were few. But so were our days of idle, and each one had to count.
So we tried the fish tacos (see recipe), the sweet and tender barbecued ribs, a crisp lunchtime salad, and chile rellenos. But it was the rich brown cloak of the chicken mole sauce, its complex flavors the best that I had ever tasted, that convinced us that our last night to feast would be with Nancy. I knew by then I could trust her, not only to cook something well, but to leave it entirely to her to make the choice for us, gleaning what she could from the local markets. I knew, too, that she’d put herself into it, always giving to an appreciative audience.
Nancy Hyzer came to Cabo Pulmo in Baja, Mexico to be with her grandchildren after retiring from the snowbound streets of Chicago and a career in public relations and theater management. Restaurant ownership is not something one can ever fully prepare for, but her years of operating a regional theater on a shoestring and her palate-pleasing travels around the world have served her well in her newfound vocation.
There are some things she doesn’t need to worry about—doors and windows, for instance. There aren’t any in the open-air structure, and the temperature is entirely dependant on the trellised shade and the capricious breezes off the Sea of Cortez. Electricity, what there is of it, is solar and wind-powered in the entire enclave. Nancy hauls ice from a town an hour away just so she can boast the only cold beer served in Cabo Pulmo. The candlelit tables at dinner are more than decoration, as they provide the only lighting in the dining room.
Nancy grows as much as she can in her own vegetable garden and buys or barters her seafood from local fishermen camped on the beach in shacks 30 minutes down a dusty road. Nancy said that this was the farthest point south where oregano would grow, and she hurried over to her garden patch beyond the hedge to snip a piece for our inspection. Its flavors were intense, each stem straight and brittle, holding green leaves so tightly packed that I thought I must be inhaling the distilled essence of oregano.
Since Nancy lives and works at the restaurant, the lines between business and home are blurred. Her personal closet, tucked in the corner of the compound, is in view of some of the tables, as well as her library of books and games. The dining room sometimes doubles as a playroom for her grandchildren. The bar area is both a gathering spot for neighbors and a place for customers. A small rack of hand-painted dresses are offered for sale in the corner. The rudimentary kitchen stands in full view of visitors. There is no wasted space or utility. Everything has evolved to serve flexibly and practically; at any given moment a table becomes a place to peel potatoes, serve lunch or host a game of cards.
One morning, I noticed a down comforter still draped across a lounge chair near the corner of Nancy’s “office.” No doubt she must have slept in that chair the night before. And in the way only a tourist who already has her ticket for home could romanticize, I found the idea of sleeping under the Baja stars in her cozy restaurant quite appealing.
Nancy, being the savvy woman that she is and so dependent on her relationships with the native farmers and tradesmen, was an excellent source of information about the area and a great gossip. When we inquired about the dining room at a remote and very exclusive private inn, she quickly told us she had just closed the deal on hiring their much touted chef, and he would begin his work with her in a few weeks.
Finally, our last night in Cabo Pulmo arrived, and we dressed in our finest—no ties or jewels, of course. We lit our walk on the darkened road to Nancy’s by flashlight. We carried a gift bottle of Dom Perignon that we later shared with Nancy as we toasted my husband’s birthday and our good fortune. Nancy and her crew waited in anticipation of our arrival and served an exquisite fresh field lettuce salad followed by a “marisco” of fresh shrimps and calamari and wine and herbs that she tossed with linguine. The piece de resistance was the birthday cake, a dense, buttery, yellow cake topped with a creamy chocolate frosting laced with ground espresso. We all went back for seconds and passed the rest to our neighboring table and the cooks who prepared the feast for us.
We headed home early the next morning but not before stopping to say our heartfelt thanks and a final good-bye. It is not likely we will see that restaurant again. And surely, if in some distant time we find our way back to Nancy’s doorstep, it will have changed, evolving further to survive in its precarious spot. Thinking back to that far-off place, perched in the vast sameness of the desert landscape, I’m inclined to think that it might not really exist at all. That perhaps in the arid heat, far from home and a little out of our element, we conjured a mirage, something to anchor us in our travels, someone to make us feel at home.
For more information about Nancy's or renting Casitas in Cabo Pulmo email firstname.lastname@example.org