A stimulating Mexican experience in Oxnard
By Nicholas Franklin 06/13/2013
Cabo Seafood Grill and Cantina
1041 S. Oxnard Blvd.
A few minutes after we ordered guacamole to start our first meal at Cabo Seafood Grill and Cantina, a man presented a tray carrying a large molcajete loaded with the flesh of two Hass avocados, plus other bowls containing onion, jalapeño, tomato, cilantro and seasonings. “How would you like it?” he asked. “A little spicy, or very spicy?” He then set to work deftly mashing and patting the mixture with two forks, adding lemon juice at times, until it was a perfect middle between smooth and chunky.
Maybe the show distorts your perspective favorably, but after spooning that fresh creation into a housemade tortilla, I enjoyed what struck me as the best guacamole I can remember having.
Show is a big aspect of what sets Cabo apart from any other Mexican restaurant in Ventura County. As soon as you walk in, you’re greeted with the spectacle of someone compressing balls of white corn masa into discs that puff and collapse on a spinning comal to make supple tortillas. There’s a constant sense of activity, as servers pass in every direction carrying massive mixed drinks and giant goblets of seafood, and they stop to shake Cabo margaritas tableside, pouring them up into half-salted glasses.
Let it be said that when you’re going to Cabo, you’re best off when you’re up for an interactive experience. While weekday lunches are mellow, if you go on a weekend night you should be open-minded toward the possibility of mariachis playing tunes four feet from your face. One night I wasn’t up for it and, with a touch of shame, declined their polite offer to serenade us. The festivities carry on without you, though, as the table two away from ours was all smiles during a spirited tableside rendition of “La Cucaracha.”
Along with the noisy energy, you should also be open-minded toward the brilliantly colored and busy environment, which would probably make Jimmy Buffett fans feel right in their element. Some might describe the hanging netting, stuffed fish and roughly painted purple and neon colors as overwhelming, but it’s all part and parcel of the sensory-rich environment that lends a fun and family-friendly charm to the place.
If you do show up here feeling uptight, get one of the margaritas (just $2 extra for a double). The Cabo is good and vibrant with lime, but my intrigue with the Cantarito Margarita rewarded me with a delicious mixture of Cazadores reposado tequila with fresh citrus juices and a mezcal floater, which brings a musky finish to a well-rounded and refreshing drink.
With seafood being an explicit focus here, it seemed an appropriate place to start out. The ostiones preparados got our attention first. Eastpoint oysters were topped with a mouthful of a mound of shrimp ceviche and a slice of avocado, making for a striking presentation of fresh, cooling flavors over the mild Florida oysters.
During lunch hour, big goblets of seafood cocktails come out of the kitchen every few minutes, catching your eye with their scarlet hue and all the tasty debris crowded against the glass. The coctel campechana is loaded with a mix of shrimp and octopus in a cucumber- and lemon-infused shrimp broth. Washing down a bite of this refreshing appetizer with the house clamato and lemon michelada was like swallowing summer.
While the cold seafood at Cabo is delicious, the hot preparations we tried fell short. The fish tacos were dressed with a sauce that — in spite of being bright and herbal — coats your mouth with a thick creaminess that drowns out any taste of fish.
Shrimp has its own section on the menu, and the 2-2-2 plate provides the opportunity to taste three of the preparations. The camarones a la plancha were worth coming back for — grilled in-shell and rubbed with smoky spices, the flavors were strong and unified. The Cabo and verde preparations, however, had too much going on to come together in any memorable way.
Traditional Mexican beef and pork dishes are as much a strength of Cabo’s as the cold seafood. The carne asada, carnitas and pastor here could stand for comparison against any in the county. Asada is well-seasoned, sliced thin and yet still medium-rare with a crispy, charred bark. Carnitas has a uniquely grease-free tenderness to it. And pastor, labeled “hot,” was very spicy and deeply smoky — the best meat for standing up to the delicious (but slightly thick) sopes.
Lastly—since you can’t talk Mexican food without talking salsa — if you want a thick, pureed salsa loaded with flavor, ask for the “spicy salsa.” The others are underwhelming.
After an hour spent at Cabo Seafood Grill and Cantina, you’ll feel both sated from great food and stimulated from all the excitement. It’s an entertaining, engaging atmosphere that straddles a fine line between family-friendly fun and boozy revelry. Groups of friends talk loudly and hoist heavy micheladas. Meanwhile, kids nearby gaze up at plastic animals suspended in fish netting and drink arroz con leche until the straw slurps. And the whole time, the comal spins by the door like a quiet metronome, until the show is over for the day.