From across the parking lot the patio beckons, a lagoon of aquamarine blue and lime green umbrellas ringed with potted palms and flowering hibiscus. You can almost feel the tropical breeze, even though it’s fall in North Raleigh and it’s a sea of SUVs in a strip mall parking lot you’re looking across.
Inside, the illusion is maintained by more tropical plants and earthenware pottery in an airy dining room whose walls are painted the color of beach sand. A constellation of paper star pendant lights overhead adds a touch of casual romance.
It doesn’t take a marketing degree to see that Salt & Lime Cabo Grill was created by someone with an eye for creating an inviting mood.
That someone is actually two people: Ken and Katie Smith, who opened the restaurant in February in North Ridge Shopping Center. And they come by their skills at creating a broadly appealing look – one that’s equally suitable for a first date or a family dinner – honestly. Between them, the husband-and-wife team have logged more than 20 years working for California Pizza Kitchen, The Cheesecake Factory and other national restaurant chains.
As independent owners, the Smiths have been able to give their first restaurant a personal touch that the chains can’t match. On one wall, a collection of enlarged scenic photographs is taken from the couple’s honeymoon and vacation trips (with a few contributions from friends) to Cancun, Costa Rica and other exotic locales.
The couple chose the Baja peninsula as the focal point of their menu, an edible travelogue of their journeys that explores the southern latitudes from fish tacos to jerk shrimp. Built around a core collection of personal favorite recipes that the Smiths have assembled over the years, the itinerary includes frequent side excursions into contemporary creations such as pasta with house-made chorizo and chicken tinga in an orange-chipotle cream sauce.
Grilled mahi Napoleon, a layered tower of blue corn tostadas, moist morsels of fish and roasted corn guacamole capped with crispy onion threads, is a worthy point of departure. So is chile-spiced flash-fried calamari, served with a honey-chipotle dipping sauce. And the coming cooler weather will only add to the appeal of a chowder thick with chicken, roasted corn and poblanos.
A skimpy caramelized mango salad isn’t worth the $9.95 asking price, but a grilled Caesar salad lavished with tomatoes, roasted red peppers, tortilla strips and crumbles of queso fresco will leave you feeling that you got your money’s worth.
Fish tacos, featuring ample Dos Equis-battered haddock filets in flour tortillas garnished with Napa-romaine slaw and a drizzle of lime cream sauce, give a respectable accounting of the signature dish of the restaurant’s namesake city. I’d be hard-pressed to choose between them and the succulent braised short rib tacos. You’ll find both under the “taco stand” heading, along with the likes of chicken tinga, veggie delight and carne asada.
If you’re like me, and you like salmon but cringe when you see the name of the fish preceded by the word “barbecue” (or, even more ominously, “BBQ”) on a menu, you’ll be gratified to know that Cabo Grill’s Southwest BBQ Salmon avoids the usual crime of smothering the fish in a cloying sauce. You can actually taste the fish here.
Which makes it all the more surprising when an otherwise well-executed chile-braised pork shoulder is marred by a too-sweet “adobo sauce.” On the bright side, the addictive black bean and roasted corn succotash that accompanies the pork is available as an à la carte side.
For dessert, skip the Kahlua flan, which delivers the sweet-and-creamy goods but comes up short on Kahlua flavor. Instead, go for the excellent tres leches cake with cinnamon ice cream.
Alternatively, you could drink your dessert.
It’s in keeping with the tropical vacation spirit of the place, and the bar more than lives up to the “Salt & Lime” part of the restaurant’s name with a selection of some 45 tequilas. There’s an enticing list of margaritas, too, made with house infusions and fresh-squeezed juices. A few sips into, say, the Grilled Grapefruit (silver tequila, caramelized grapefruit, house cinnamon agave syrup and fresh lime), and you should be able to feel those tropical breezes even in the dead of winter.