Cafe Reviews

For Beta or Worse

I really should apologize to Cabo owner Chris Harter right now. I should be sharing with the dining public what a great restaurant he's created (because he has given us a fun, creative, top-notch salute to Mexican seafood).

But I can't stop laughing.

Because while Harter has successfully navigated the red tape that is Scottsdale's construction code, hired and trained more than 150 staff members, split chef Farn Boggie's duties between Harter's other restaurant (Coyote Grill, across the street), and implemented an elaborate menu reliant on ocean-fresh fish, his biggest headache right now is a group of 6-year-olds threatening to picket his restaurant.

Seriously. The little kids have been put up to it by their teacher, someone with way too much free time at Shadow Mountain Elementary School in Phoenix. This teacher called Harter last week to warn him that she was organizing a petition to force him to remove one of his restaurant's distinctive decor features. Impressive action for a bunch of ankle biters who likely would be hard-pressed to spell their own names correctly.

The uproar all stems from Harter's decision to put live beta fish on his tables. Each setting includes — included — a chunky glass bowl lined with tinted marbles and containing a single spectacular fish, identified with a name tag stickered to his watery home.

For those who don't know beta, the spectacular little swimmers are art in the water, boasting immense, tissue-paper fins delicately trailing in gorgeous hues like deep cobalt. Their beauty is sturdy, though; while they ripple and flutter with the slightest movement, they prefer to live in tiny quarters without filtration or aeration. Betas are the only fish I've ever known to actually sleep, flat-out immobile on the bottom of their tiny bowls. (I have a snoozer at home myself, a beautiful blue guy named Santana, happily approaching his second healthy year under my roof.) Goldfish, in fact, need more room to roam than do these narcoleptic ballet dancers.

Yet local animal lovers and those wacky folks at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) were outraged by what they saw as aquatic abuse. Since Cabo opened a month ago, Harter has received at least 20 phone calls from people claiming to be from PETA. All of them threatened to make trouble for the restaurant. (They were vague, says Harter, but he assumed their efforts would involve picketing or something along those lines).

Last week, four different people walked up to him and stuffed letters in his pocket expounding on the "cruelty" that he was putting on those animals. They also accused him of torturing veal (though neither of his restaurants serves the baby cow meat).

Harter, a former vegetarian because of his beliefs in animal rights, finally had enough when threatened by the kindergarten activists. The fish were removed from the tables, and the bowls now float votive candles. I was lucky enough to adopt one fish, a lovely guy named Chico, after asking my server where my tablemate had gone. I had enjoyed dinner on a Saturday and then returned on a Sunday to find a fishless fresco.

What's really amusing is that, upon entering Cabo, the first thing we see is a large tank holding live Maine lobsters and Dungeness crabs. Servers return time and time again to dip in nets and pull out yet another squirming entree. Where's PETA now?

Probably still waiting for a table, as we did since we didn't have reservations. The restaurant is a sudden hot spot — a spiffy, elegant composition of warm yam-colored walls, exposed duct and plywood ceilings, lots of rock accents, and a cheesy yet captivating mural of couples and horses frolicking on a Mexican beach.

Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if a PETA rep was taking time out from spreading damnation to sit at a table next to me, sneaking in one of the best specimens of fish I've found — baked red river trout. I, proud pet lover and owner of my own mini zoo, feel no shame in tearing into the spectacular slab of butterflied trout. (I even used to have a pet bass named Bernie, whom I taught to leap from his tank to catch crickets. We were great friends, so I didn't cook him up after he passed on.) The trout is exquisite, fulfilling its destiny of being edible in royal form. Every last tender bit goes down my gullet, interspersed with bites of rough cut (read, virtually whole) carrot, red potato and zucchini served in a cute net bag, plus shell pasta baked with lots of white cheese, hot pepper and celery.

Besides his ill-fated beta experiment, Harter's other gimmick is salsa. Fresh fish — a seasonal assortment of red snapper, Guaymas shrimp, sea scallops, striped bass, tuna, mackerel, barracuda, swordfish, flounder, trout, halibut and sometimes shark — come grilled, sautéed, broiled or baked. The finishing flair is that we get to decorate our catch with our choice of five sauces.

Even though I convinced the server to let me take home Chico, I couldn't get the salsas to go (the restaurant is simply too busy right now to pack up takeout, he said). I'd lap these up by the gallon. Chipotle crema is described simply as smoked chile cream, but it's amazing nectar, almost peanuty in its depth. Cacahuate is peanut outright, roasted and blended with tomato, and it's superb. (I've got some in my refrigerator right now, smuggled out in a leftovers box, and I keep sneaking back in to sample another spoonful.) Tomatillo verde (hot green tomato) and ranchera (red enchilada salsa) aren't as dramatic but are mighty fine, bright and metallic and smelling of crystal freshness.

My dinner companion one evening might as well be a PETA person; he's been on his soapbox with me over freeing beta fish. (What, he thinks there's some sort of sanctuary out there? But he's the type who will start an argument over my mistreatment of dust bunnies.) Yet he's ordered the lobster. It arrives flame-red, black eyes staring flatly into space, its little antennae reaching through the net of vegetables to its sides like it's clinging to a life raft. Sure enough, once my companion digs in, he shuts up. The crustacean is so tasty that my PETA partner eats it without the accompanying drawn butter, though I find myself dipping my bare fork into a side of another salsa, chile limone (rich, savory lemon-chile butter).

Given the 6-year-olds' hysterics, it's difficult not to return to images of fishy torture, especially as I study the Guaymas shrimp sticks. The plate is pure theater, skewering a half-dozen midsize shrimp that somehow manage to be fiery but not spicy, stuck in a pineapple shell lined with red cabbage in citrus-pepper oil. Suck it up, kids, this is good food, the shrimp firm and classy even with that silly '80s bit of a sprig of rosemary planted like a flag.

And while I've had my fill of ho-hum halibut, there's nothing better than Harter's thick fillet of milky white meat, ladled in red sesame cream with ancho mashed potatoes. It's a dream meal, starting with a basket of chips and a few tiny corn muffins, plus an interesting appetizer of baked clams empanada; it's not an empanada at all, actually, but a broth of whole-shell clams swimming in garlic broth under buttery puff pastry.

Cabo does more than fish — a top sirloin is first class, served open-faced over a tortilla in enchilada sauce with a poblano chile and Oaxaca cheese. And I'm quite pleased with pork tenderloin, a handsome cut flame-broiled and served atop a spicy chorizo potato cake with green-tomato sauce.

Harter didn't shortchange his betas — a reverse osmosis system was installed to purify their water, which was changed daily, to boot. He isn't skipping details on his menu, either. All juices — including the tomato for bloody marys, the cranberries for cosmopolitans and the fruit for margaritas — are hand-squeezed.

So go to Cabo. It's a great dining experience. Really. You'll be much beta off for it.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet