View from Sabor Photo by Dan Petersen © 2015
Highway 1 @ km 117
Web site: saborloreto.com
Owners: Mari and Chris
As you drive along Highway 1 just south of town, you may flash past a small billboard on the east side displaying the word Sabor (the Spanish word for Flavor). If you keep going, you’ll miss another of Loreto’s gems. But if you turn in on the dirt road and navigate the curve, which may or may not be hosting five or six grazing cows, you will soon come upon the recently built walled compound that encloses the comfortable home of Chris and Mari and doubles as their restaurant.
Chris comes out to welcome you, gesturing toward the two-story stucco tower and the tables lining the palapa-shaded deck beside the spotless pool. From the tables on the tower’s second floor, you discover 360-degree views of the mountains, the town, the islands and the sea. It’s a wonderful spot to feast on a Loreto sunset!
Chris was not destined for life as a restaurateur. Born in San Diego and raised as a city boy in Orange County, he loved hunting and fishing. He had learned to play golf at age fourteen, so when he was sixteen, he set out on his nomadic life by working at a golf course. By age twenty-four, he had opened his own contracting firm. For the next twenty-five years, he built golf courses in nineteen states, Costa Rica, and Mexico. There he met Mari.
She is one of five children of a ranch owner in Jalisco, who grows mangoes, limes, coconuts and bananas. At the ranch she learned to savor lively, healthy, fresh food like the flesh of a coconut picked from one of her father’s trees and sprinkled with lime, salt and hot sauce. In her youth she moved to Tijuana, where she mastered English, learned American habits and Southwestern cuisine, and graduated with a university degree in tourism.
She was working at El Tamarindo in Barra de Navidad south of Puerto Vallarta when she first saw Chris. Land that had been beach and jungle navigable only on horseback was morphing into a luxury resort of hotels and villas. She was selling lots; Chris was building the golf course. Intimidated by tales of Montezuma’s revenge, he had been eating hotel food for ninety days straight. Mari changed all that. She guided him around town, introducing him to restaurants and taco carts patronized by locals.
Not only did he not get sick, he fell in love with good Mexican food and with his tour guide. He learned to put lime and salt in beer. He learned to relish the blend of flavors—sour, sweet, salty and spicy—in a perfect taco. And he came to appreciate why Mexicans prefer the sourness of limes to the blandness of lemons and why they choose white corn over yellow for their tortillas.
After their marriage, Chris and Mari raised two daughters in California ten years apart. But Chris’s job kept him frequently on the move, and by 2005 he wanted out of the ups and downs of the construction business. He was thinking of going into housing development when a Cabo friend prodded him further in that direction with the news that “Baja’s on fire!” But where in Baja? Like Goldilocks with the three bears’ chairs, Chris and Mari explored options: La Paz was too big. Mulege was too small. Loreto was just right! They loved the calm water framed by the islands and the mountains bending down to meet the sea.
They arrived Christmas week, 2006, but they didn’t plan to stay—just to build homes and move on. Chris bought land for development around the lot on which he built his own home in 2007. But when the recession hit Baja in 2009, he and Mari had to shift gears. He built cabinets for kitchens and bathrooms and Mari sold food to make ends meet. Everything was on hold, indefinitely. So they considered a new venture—a restaurant of some sort. It would give them more family time, and it would combine what they both love: “to eat, to cook, to make other people happy, and to feel personal satisfaction at the end of the day.”
That was the why. Now it was time for the other decisions: Who? What? When? Where? How? They first considered where: opening a food truck or renting a space in town? As Chris tells it, he was in his swimming pool one day when he looked around and thought, “Gosh! Maybe we could do it right here.”
How? Some hurdles were low. Because Loreto is home to many family businesses, the inspections, licenses and permits went smoothly. In exchange for their business, Corona contributed plastic tables and chairs and Coca Cola provided a refrigerator. The biggest challenge was invisibility, but Loreto and Loreto Bay grapevines along with a rating of #1 in Loreto on Trip Advisor have kept the parking lot full of taxis, rental cars, and vehicles with U.S. and Canadian plates along with some local ones.
The next decision: who would do what? That was easy. Mari would cook and Chris would grill, as was their custom at home. And their daughter Ashley would wait tables when she wasn’t working as a web master for her own online business.
What should be on the menu? That was more challenging. “We had one four-burner stove,” Chris says, “and zero restaurant experience.” Combining Mari’s knowledge of food and his experience in business, they set some criteria:
1. Offer a combination of the Southwestern and Mexican foods they both love.
2. Tailor the menu to ingredients reliably available at El Pescador, Leys and the farmers market.
3. Give their predominantly Anglo customers “finished dishes.” Chris had noticed that many of them didn’t know what to do when they ordered a taco and got a corn tortilla with a small piece of beef inside next to a tray of condiments. “Let’s present the food the way we eat it,” he and Mari decided. So they assemble the ingredients for their Anglo customers.
4. Set high standards for cleanliness and for the quality of the food, and be creative in meeting them. Mari says she tastes every dish to be sure it meets her standards. She designed her own recipe for chili rellenos, Sabor’s best seller. When Chris suggested more zest for the enchiladas, she invented a poblano cream sauce. When he sought a more intensely flavored arrechera, she created a special rub for the beef. And it worked. They were thrilled when a cattle rancher from Alberta announced, “Best piece-a-meat I ever had!”
The last question was when. What should the hours be? This one was trickier. They have four employees who work together as a team—a sous chef, a busboy/bartender, a cook/cleaner, and Ashley. In the first year after they launched the business in October 2013, Sabor was open for both lunch and dinner, but the strain of having employees and customers in their home from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. was too much. No wall separates their living room from their modest kitchen, so they found themselves craving more privacy. In their second year, they decided to open just for dinner five nights a week.
This schedule gives them privacy as well as the time and space they need to refresh themselves. For Chris it means having the chance to indulge his passion for photography. Along a wall of the restaurant, his vibrant photos celebrate the wildlife, landscape, skyscape and seascape of Loreto. And the more open schedule allows them to be fresh for their customers. “I’m not really the owner,” Chris says. “My customers are. They instruct me. We are really grateful to them. We want them to come, and come again.”
Mari adds, “We feel really bad when we have to turn customers away or when a dish isn’t right.”
They want to keep pleasing their customers, refining their menu offerings, and living life by their own values. Chris explains the most important one: “In the construction mindset, you always have to do more, but here you can consider the health of your family. You can live in peace and harmony.”
P.S. As of 2018 Sabor has displayed a Se Vende (For Sale) sign. Chris and Mari are ready for a new phase in their life. They would like to live on the mainland, closer to her family in Jalisco. Ashley, in her mid-twenties, is exploring opportunities in the U.S. But they aren't in a rush. For now Chris fires up the grill, and Mari manages the kitchen. Sabor is open for business.