There is no mistaking how El Matador Restaurant in San Jose del Cabo got its name.
When you enter El Matador Restaurant, you can’t help but notice the owner, Pablo Velez. At about 6-foot 3, he appears to be almost a head taller than most of the servers. He moves about the room with unusual grace for a man on the other side of 40; his demeanor seems more like that of a dancer than a restaurateur.
Around the room you’ll see images of Velez on posters, news clippings and paintings sprawled all over the walls. In all of these pictures, he’s dressed as a matador.
After a gracious welcome, he invites us to take a peek at the glass-enclosed case beside the bar that displays one of the jeweled costumes he has worn to various fights. He began fighting bulls at the age of 14, he tells us.
Still an active matador, Velez has achieved some notoriety as a headliner in the plazas de toros (bull rings) in Mexico City, Leon, Guadalajara and Aquascalientes. He says he continues to do three or four matches a year “for his soul.”
Velez moved to Los Cabos about a decade ago and created from scratch the building that holds this one-of-a-kind restaurant. With multiple rooms, a tile roof, and stucco walls, it looks like a cross between a family home and a museum. Every surface is covered with memorabilia from his past.
“The walls are the story of my life,” he says.
He explains his progression from the bullring to the kitchen as if it were natural. His mother was a chef and his uncle was a matador. “The kitchen is the soul of the house,” he says and he fell as passionately in love with food and wine as he did with bullfighting.
When we visited last year, we sat in the front room with its open kitchen and handful of tables. Decorated with Spanish furniture and low lighting, it was warm and intimate. This past May, Velez opened a romantic bi-level courtyard outdoors with a stone fountain and palm trees at its center. Now the restaurant can accommodate about 60 people in total.
Seated al fresco under the star-lit sky, we feel as if we were on the set of an old cowboy movie. Attractive, bi-lingual waitresses walk around in mid-calf-length, ruffled pastel dresses. The table linens are beautifully embroidered, suggestive of a time past. A stuffed head of a bull is mounted at one end of the patio and we are surrounded by paintings that portray the art of bullfighting.
The engaging owner stops at our table. “You’ll love the voice of my friend, Carlos Vidal,” he says. We aren’t sure what he means.
But almost on cue, a handsome singer with dark black hair, dressed as a matador, begins crooning tunes in Spanish from an upper balcony and wends his way down the stairs, stopping at each of the tables.
We learn that Vidal is a matador, too, and that the two men (restaurant owner and singer) will be sparring in the ring next March in San Jose. Velez proudly shows us a poster announcing the fight.
The menu at El Matador (which also has a matador and bull emblazoned on it) reflects a fusion of Mediterranean and Mexican cuisine. After appetizers, our group orders main courses that include rack of lamb, chile relleno, veal scallopine, sea bass and chateaubriand. Each dish is fresh, uncomplicated, flavorful and cooked to perfection.
When asked, Velez describes his style of cooking: “I personalize, I don’t invent.”
The bar offers an exhaustive list of tequilas as well as wines from Mexico and California. Located on a residential street several blocks off the Transpeninsular Highway, passersby aren’t likely to drop-in. Rather El Matador is a destination restaurant that draws diners with its artful blend of ambiance, good food and service, and the legend of its unique proprietor.
The motto on El Matador’s business card sums it up: Impossible to ignore and futile to resist.
IF YOU GO
- Located on Paseo Los Marinos at the corner of Balandra and Portaviones Col. El Chamizal, San Jose del Cabo, Mexico (Baja California)
- Open for dinner only from 6PM-11PM, Monday through Sunday.
- Reservations suggested. Phone 624-142 2741.
[An earlier version of this story was published in the Chicago Tribune Travel Section on April 8, 2014.]
Watch Chef Velez on You Tube: How To Be A Matador
Category: FOOD & WINE