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Fish Schooled


Baja meets the Low Country in NoDa grill

During an interview, the three American snowboarders who swept the medals in the Olympic Snowboard Halfpipe competition were asked when snowboarding would become mainstream. One of the snowboarders quickly noted that being an Olympic event was about as mainstream as it gets. Snowboarding is so mainstream, in fact, that people watch it on television in restaurants and bars.

What foods go with watching snowboarding? Eating fish tacos and throwing back a Baja Gold Coast margarita, no doubt, since snowboarding and its older sibling, surfing, are what's on the televisions at Cabo Fish Taco Baja Seagrill.

Co-owners Rob Crenshaw and Gary Walker teamed up to open this venture last October. The idea of a fish taco place came to Walker while on an extended surfing trip to southern California. He became intrigued with the proliferation of these shops out there. Friend and general manager Jesse Pattas explains that Crenshaw and Walker had already moved to Charleston last spring with the intent of opening a restaurant there, when friends Greg and Jeff Ames, owners of NoDa's Boudreaux's Louisiana Kitchen, called about an opportunity in Charlotte. All these folks had become friends while in college at Virginia Tech. Some in the Cabo crowd worked at the Ames' restaurant in Blacksburg, VA. Pattas says, "With Charlotte full of young people, Walker knew the concept would work here."

The 55-seat Cabo Fish Taco is located in the Hands Pharmacy building, a designated historic property, with a glass storefront, its original pressed tin, 15-foot ceilings, and a refinished pine floor. And the place is jumping on a Friday night, cranked up with the sounds of jazz and reggae. An old surfboard hangs on one wall and lit candles hang along others. The crowd is a mix of singles and families, suburban visitors and neighborhood residents. Space is a consideration, especially on the weekends. The owners, however, plan to open a 25 to 30 seat deck this summer.

Crenshaw, who grew up in Virginia Beach, is the executive chef, although along with Walker and Pattas he is a trained engineer. His kitchen focuses on the freshness of ingredients.

Cabo Fish Taco is about fun in a kind of Low Country meets Baja way. One of the Margaritas, the El Cheapo, proclaims on the menu, "Low on funds? Not to worry...drink 'em like the Baja locals do: fresh, tasty, and super easy on the pockets. $3.75" While you sip on a margarita or a beer, take time to find the other gems on a menu studded with crab, shrimp, yellowfin tuna, scallops, steak, and chicken.

Appetizers provide a seductive hook: cerviche with a cilantro jalapeno salsa, savory slices of steak buoyed by marsala aioli. Of particular note is the first rate Cabo roll starter with its delicate balance of sweet fresh crab, shrimp, and tequila lime aioli adding flavorful notes to the nopalito. With each inviting bite, this dish draws you in until you find yourself willing to fight the table over the last morsel.

The obvious desire at Cabo is to make food that will not wow you or intimidate you, but will bring you back for regular feeding forays. Flour tortilla taco shells arrive filled to overflowing with nicely turned out beer battered shrimp or the pristine freshness of the grilled yellowfin tuna, cut into cubes and laced with hearty red tomatoes, cabbage, and a creamy sauce hinting of cilantro. The only quibble is with the side of lifeless rice, which needs more than a smidgen of tropical fruits to jazz it up. But this is a minor issue.

The satisfying touches carry over into the numbingly generous entree portions. The shrimp Rosarito Fajita delivers a faintly layered kiwi sauce, and a platter full of grilled shrimp, peppers, and onions. Desserts, in this case a Mississippi Mud Pie, are made by the chef at nearby Kelly's Cafe and provide a satiating end to the meal.

For those with a distaste for sea creatures or creatures in general, Cabo has vegetarian, chicken, and steak selections. And even as Greenspan sees recession recovery ahead, prices at Cabo are easy on the battered wallet. Tacos and burritos run $5.95 to $8.95 and entrees from $7.95 to $13.95.

NoDa has an exuberance and perceptible "joy of life" unlike any other neighborhood in Charlotte. Thus, and not surprisingly, the diner will happily find a deftness and unexpectedly appealing food combinations in a humble, but charming, setting.

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