Mexico City is a pescavore’s paradise. This sprawling capital, set atop a central plateau — nowhere near any large body of water — is nonetheless within five or six hours from either coast. The Nuevo Mercado de la Viga, the huge central fish market, provides the populous with a cornucopia of creatures that swim. Mexican cooks work magic with their oceanic bounty in myriad ways: Spanish-style rice dishes, spicy soups and stews, lemony cocteles, and seafood quesadillas.
But it is ceviche, the quintessentially Latin tradition of marinating raw fish in an acidic bath, that is the pride and joy of Mexican chefs. It’s found at marisquerías — seafood restaurants ranging from street stalls to elegant venues, all over the country. Perhaps first imagined in Peru or Ecuador, ceviche usually contains lime juice to macerate the fish, and some combination of tomato, onion, chili, cilantro, and, in the “Acapulco” variety, even ketchup. Marinating time, which can vary from 15 minutes to overnight, is the most disputed element in its preparation.
The search for ceviche
So this landlocked food writer set out to find the best ceviche Mexico City has to offer, a daunting task in a metropolis of over 40,000 eating establishments. Here are the highlights:
– El Caguamo (slang for a liter-size beer bottle) is a humble street stall always packed with hipsters and old-timers chowing down on fried fillets, shrimp cocktails, tostadas and, of course, ceviches, which are served in a parfait glass or on a tostada. They can be made of pescado, jaiba, calamar or pulpo, (fish, crab, squid or octopus), with the addition of chopped tomato, chili, onion and cilantro. Ceviche here is marinated in lime juice and white herbal vinegar, then finished off with a little olive oil and a few slices of avocado — a perfect balance of salty, sour and fishy umami.
– Colonia Escandón is a solid middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes and small apartment buildings, built in the ’40s and ’50s. Its market has one big attraction, Marisquería Playa Escondida, where foodies make the pilgrimage for a sophisticated array of classic seafood. The young chef concocts a simple ceviche de pescado with strips of fresh snapper artfully seasoned in a strong, lemony vinaigrette. Its closer to the way they do it in Lima, more Peruvian than Mexican. Acerbic and briny, biting and vibrant, it was made muy Mexicanoby the lashings of green chilies that gave it heat.
– Tucked into a corner of an old house in trendy Colonia Roma, La Veracruzana, Fonda de Mariscos has a charming retro décor and sunny patio. It offers a bit of Veracruz, the city on the Caribbean Gulf Coast known for seafood influenced by the Spanish settlers and the African slaves they brought with them. (Huachinango a la Veracruzana, red snapper in tomato/caper sauce, is well known all over Mexico.) This pleasant lunch spot frequented by local artists serves an exemplary, if generic, ceviche de pescado. Sergio, the chef, explains that sea bass is marinated overnight in a light solution of white vinegar, onions and herbs such as oregano and bay leaf. Chopped tomato and chili are added later. Despite the long maceration, the fish tastes fresh and the texture holds its own. The dressing is light and zesty — a winner.
– In the fashionable art deco neighborhood, La Condesa, Mero Toro’s kitchen is in the capable hands of master chef Jair Téllez, formerly of Ensenada on the Pacific Coast. The California-influenced menu is small, unpretentious and creative. Ingredients are chosen strategically, with an eye to freshness, smart combinations and the occasional salute to cultural tradition. Chef Téllez offers a ceviche de jurel con pepino, limón y salicornia: Chunks of rosy yellowtail repose on a pool of tart aromatic dressing. The salicornia, a salt-water loving plant, is strewn about, imparting its briny bite. But the fish is barely macerated, if at all, and the result is more like a sauced sashimi. This preparation strayed far from the ceviche tradition — interesting, but in my mind a bit off the mark.
– Not far away, in the even trendier Colonia Roma, is Máximo Bistrot Local, a newcomer on everyone’s list. Chef Eduardo García worked at Le Bernardin in New York, and at Mexico City’s chichi food temple, Pujol, so he knows something about fish. A Mexican, he loves a traditional ceviche. His version, made with octopus and sea urchin, hits all the marks. The understated salsa tatemada, made with charred chilies, sets off the two distinctive ocean creatures in a thought-provoking whirl of heady aromas, like a Bach fugue. This is a ceviche for the 21st century — thumbs up.
– All of these ceviches, which range from the humbly noble to the gloriously creative, satisfied different parts of the gastronomic brain. There was no best. So I offer my own version, a compromise between the beach and Le Cordon Bleu. Perhaps, as Dorothy of “The Wizard of Oz” discovered, the answer was at home all along.
Ceviche de Pescado, Pacific Style
½ cup fresh orange juice
½ cup lime juice
½ cup tomato, seeds and pulp removed, in a ¼-inch dicer
¼ cup finely chopped sweet onion (such as Vidalia), or shallot
2 tablespoons good olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 jalapeño (or to taste) finely chopped
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
a pinch each of sea salt, pepper and oregano
½ to ¾ pound fish (sea bass, snapper, or another firm white fish), cut in ½-inch cubes
1. Combine all ingredients except fish, in a glass or ceramic bowl; leave for at least 15 minutes for flavors to blend.
2. Add fish and let macerate for one hour. Serve in small bowls or on tostadas, preferably freshly fried (from yesterday’s tortillas). Top with thin slices of avocado.
Top photo: Octopus and sea urchin ceviche at Máximo Bistro. Credit: Nicholas Gilman