I trot along on a horse named Kuko ahead of my wife and three-year-old daughter on a lengthy stretch of beach in San Jose del Cabo, on the southern tip of the Baja peninsula in Mexico. The horses enjoy the waves and weave in and out of the surf until three glassy grey forms suddenly emerge from the water next to us like science-fiction submersibles, accompanied by a puff of vapour. A female humpback whale, swimming with her two calves, can’t be more than fifty feet from where we ride parallel on horseback, the ocean surrounding them burnished a rich gold by the evening sun. “Snacks!” my daughter screams at us from the pommel of my wife’s steed, her brow furrowed into an aggressive death stare. “I want snacks!”

The fact that she’s more concerned with what she’s eating next than the majesty of marine mammals is a testament to how compelling southern Baja's flavours are. Los Cabos is known for being one of the most luxurious destinations in Mexico and has a dining scene to match. Underpinned by a local culture with a longstanding affinity for the daily catch and the ability to alchemise homegrown ingredients into edible works of art – this is the birthplace of the fish taco, after all – it’s now attracting some of the best chefs on the planet. But, before we get into that, let’s talk about those tacos.

This is the birthplace of the fish taco, after all

I sit in the front seat of a grey Chevy Suburban, dusting down my broken Spanish with Luis, who drives us north through desert shrubland stippled with saguaros that loom like giants above the horizon line. We motor across the Tropic of Cancer through a one-horse town named Santiago, then turn left and bear westwards on a silty strip of unpaved road toward the Sierra de La Laguna mountain range, the spine of the peninsula. Thirty minutes later, we wind into The Canyon of San Dionisio, where steep valley slopes are strewn with white sarsens of granite, and arrive at Rancho Ecológico El Refugio. Chickens cluck, ponies canter and cowhides cure on the low-hanging branches of stream oaks.

Here, I meet Rogelio Rosas, a 45-year-old mountain guide, educator, farmer and mural-maker who is almost entirely self-sufficient, and learn about the Los Cabos larder. After we jog through the canyon and jump from its cliffs into the agave-hued river, Rogelio introduces me to his abuelo, or grandfather, a 500-year-old fig tree, and then shows me his land. He raises fowl, cattle, sheep and goats (two of which were eaten by a puma the night before) and in the gravelly canyon soil grows a veritable cornucopia of crops, ranging from staples such as corn, wheat, beans and sorghum to citrus, avocados and mangoes to coffee and, er, coca leaf, which he touts as a good tonic for run recovery.

Agua at One&Only Palmilla

I’m then introduced to a less arboreal family member, Rogelio’s mother, who presides over a kitchen open to the elements and busy with fire-blackened pans. I sit in front of a weighty molcajete, or mortar, brimming with a salsa of serrano chillies, tomato, garlic, and lime, all grown within eyeshot. Luis tells me that in Baja, it’s traditional for a new bride to learn her mother-in-law’s recipe for flour tortillas, and Rogelio’s mother has been perfecting hers for four decades. The filling is queso fresco, which Rogelio drew from his cows earlier that day, as well as machaca – marinated and dehydrated beef fried in onions, chilli, garlic and oil. It’s wrapped together with fat slices of avocado and the serrano salsa. Excuse my Spanish, but it’s the best pinche taco I’ve ever had. The flour tortilla is pillowy, spun gold. Each ingredient sings with Sierra de la Laguna flavour, melding into something as beautiful as the mountains. I moan unwittingly in pleasure. Señora Rosas snickers at the gross display.

Two hours south, perched on a clifftop overlooking Cabo San Lucas at the Thompson Hotel, I eat a very different meal, but one in which ingredients are equally prized. Olvera is known for running some of the best Mexican restaurants in the world. Pujol in Mexico City consistently places in the upper echelon of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Cosme wooed Michelin in New York, and Damian is one of the hottest tickets in Los Angeles. However, our waiter informs us that Manta is the best Olvera restaurant of them all. He is similarly proud of the catch that has come in today. There are fresh chocolate clams and totoaba (a local whitefish with a buttery flavour) from La Paz, a city a few hours north on the Sea of Cortez, as well as dayboat tuna from Ensenada on the northwest coast of Baja, near the American border.

The flour tortilla is pillowy, spun gold; each ingredient sings with Sierra de la Laguna flavour, melding into something as beautiful as the mountains

The restaurant is one of the darkest I’ve ever eaten in, lacquered a uniform black, with top-lit and ethereal squares of canvas suspended from the ceiling. Manta translates from Spanish as ‘canvas’ but also borrows its name from the giant ray – an homage to the oceans that hem in this part of the world, and also feed it. However, the outlook here is cosmopolitan, and the menu cherry-picks from various cuisines, with a dash of Nikkei from Peru, a soupçon of Korean fermentation and a touch of Japanese technique. Tuna sashimi arrives drizzled in ají amarillo, sesame and wasabi. Those chocolate clams come spiked with ginger oil and leche de tigre. A main of ssam-style lettuce tacos with langoustine-length local shrimp, grilled aubergine and kimchi solders itself into the flavour hippocampus. Manta demonstrates how well contemporary fusion works when complemented by a Mexican terroir.

In the same vein, Nicksan has become one of the most popular restaurants in the area, blazing a trail for Japanese-Mexican cooking. Its original site in Cabo San Lucas opened in 1994. It traded so well that it opened a follow-up in the swanky Las Tiendas de Palmilla shopping plaza, where we find ourselves devouring rice cracker tostadas freighted with hefty portions of yellowfin tuna belly, sliced avocado, and habanero that’s not shy with its Scoville units. Jewel-like sashimi is lashed with unconventional dressings, such as serrano chilli pepper sauce or a cilantro salsa spiked with green tea salt. This type of eatery has recently popped up on London’s radar, with spots like Los Mochis and Juno in Notting Hill gaining notoriety. It’s nice to experience it at the source.

Mexican / Japanese cuisine at NickSan

At our hotel, One&Only Palmilla, we dine outside at an amphitheatrical white-clothed table under towering palms, gazing over a cliff at the glimmering Sea of Cortez. Named Agua, the restaurant specialises in local Baja cuisine elevated to fine dining. Accompanied by wines from Valle de Guadalupe – the Mexican wine country on the northern part of the peninsula – we tuck into tarasca soup charged with pasilla chilli, studded with crisp fried tortilla and chicharrons, and tamed with cotija cheese foam, then continue on to a main of crunchy pork belly and fried octopus slathered in mole Oaxaqueño Coloradito. When the hotel’s executive chef, Vincent Wallez, arrives at the table to say hello, we’re all a little woozy from the intensity and richness of the dishes.

The hotel is perhaps better known for another chef. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who runs a restaurant at The Connaught and boasts two Michelin stars at his eponymous restaurant in Manhattan, has set up a steakhouse and grill named Seared at the One&Only. Alongside an excellent bottle of Duckhorn merlot from Napa, we enjoy a well-marbled bone-in ribeye that coats the palate with deliquescent fat. However, it’s the pudding that steals the show. Being from Alsace, Vongerichten might have felt that a soufflé was an obligatory menu item. Here, it’s made from corn and arrives with smoky chipotle ice cream sprinkled over with caramelised popcorn. It’s the perfect synthesis of France and Mexico. After a few days in Los Cabos, it’s becoming clear that this is one of the best places in the country for fine dining.

A street scene in San Jose del Cabo

Feeling overloaded with maize and mole, I’m keen to get some fibre in. Luckily, Los Cabos’ primary clientele is from California, and the state’s famous farm-to-table goodness has sprouted up at the end of the Baja Peninsula. The excellent Acre Resort is case in point. We’re shepherded into a buggy and given the tour, beyond Faustos Diner, named for the late peacock, who would climb a tree and spread his plumage every morning, underneath the fifteen treehouses rented out by guests, through the mango orchards that predate the hotel (it was bought in 2012 and has been open for nine years), past a desert event reception area and rammed-earth structures, and finally, through the extensive farm and gardens to the restaurant. Here we enjoy an incredible array of vegetables plucked straight from the soil. The signature salad deploys a hibiscus-mint-infused watermelon with peas, broccoli and a Thai vinaigrette.

On one of the final days of our stay, having put on a couple kilos of guacamole weight, we waddle into another Chevy Suburban to drive into a less-frequented backstreet of Cabo San Jose, where even our driver asks for directions. In an ochre-washed lot overhung with corrugated metal roofing, Antonio Cesaño Montaña toils over a fragrant quartet of cauldrons, which burble and steam over smoking mesquite and palo blanco cordwood. He beckons me to stand next to the vats containing pozole, birria and menudo – three different types of meat stew — then tongs a pig’s skull from the collagen-beaded liquid of the pozole. A tooth pops out and skitters across the floor as he sloughs the meat from the bone.

Antonio Cesaño Montaña toils over a fragrant quartet of cauldrons, which burble and steam over smoking mesquite and palo blanco cordwood

A plate of beef barbacoa arrives on the table inky red, served with sopa fresca, corn tortillas, refried beans, coriander, lime and leafy Mexican oregano. Its rich and balanced flavours veer into the emotional. This is food explicitly meant to be shared.Montaña is there with his puppy Gallito, a pug-chihuahua mix he introduces as his best friend, who snuffles about bothering cats and chickens. It’s a nice counterpoint to our whale encounter earlier; the smaller animal does a better job of holding my child’s attention. They’re crouching shoulder to shoulder wide-eyed as if witnessing magic when Montaña shovels grey dirt off of sheet metal and peels it back to reveal his trapdoor barbacoa pit, where he smokes the beef for 15 hours. No mention of snacks – the kid is content.

What I like about this place is that it’s both whale and dog. While I love a fancy meal as much as the next guy – those saving-up-for-months, once-in-a-lifetime experiences that adults search out, akin to spotting a humpback from horseback – sometimes you’re happiest with more universal pleasures: chasing a puppy around a dusty yard; eating a breakfast of barbacoa that’s taken a lifetime to perfect. Either way, you don’t have to choose here. Los Cabos does them both. f