Mexico, mi amor, te amo, I swear. But I need to come clean. I’ve been cheating on you. I ate some ceviche mixto from Peru and fell in love. The pristine white sea bass, the acidic bomb of the leche de tigre, the giant dried corn kernels on the side — I couldn’t help it, it just happened.
It’s summer now and so we’re running away together. There isn’t much you can do. They also have yams.
Mariscos lovers, save your scorn. I mean no disrespect to the wildly diverse world of traditionally prepared raw seafood from Mexico’s coastal states, a cuisine that has long had a home in L.A.; the citrusy ceviches and aguachiles are so widely available here that they can even be bought from food trucks.
But Mexico’s traditional chopped-shrimp-and-avocado tostadita has had a monopoly on L.A.’s ceviche game for too long. Peru’s ceviche is just as colorful, and its circus of flavors and delicate approach to seafood sheds light on not only the origins of the North American form (historians say the dish originated there) but also the diverse country’s 100-plus years of Japanese influence.
The first time I ate Peruvian ceviche was decades after I first tried its Mexican descendant. I was sitting in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken in North Long Beach. After Colonel Sanders went out of business on the sketchy stretch of Atlantic Boulevard, El Pollo Imperial moved in, bringing with it Peruvian classics such as lomo saltado, chaufa de pollo (fried rice) and tallarin verde (aka spinach fettuccine).
Ceviche mixto was on the menu and I ordered the $12 dish, expecting it to be the usual bowl of tossed prawns and diced tomatoes served with a side of chips. I quickly learned that Peruvians don’t do chips (meals start with a basket of bolillos), and so the ceviche that arrived instead looked utterly foreign to my raised-in-L.A. ignorance.
There it was, a pile of white fish, prawns and squid rings all saturated in a spicy aji-chile-lime sauce that stung the tongue with a citric punch (this is the leche de tigre — “tiger’s milk”). Surrounding the mound of seafood were Peruvian accoutrements — kernels of toasted corn, oversized puffs of boiled corn and a chunk of fluorescent baked yam — and atop it sat a tuft of red onion slivers. My eyes were as entranced as my mouth.
Like digging into Korean banchan, eating Peruvian ceviche is a workout for your tastebuds. Taking bites from all corners of the plate, you dance back and forth between a range of flavors (tangy to sweet) and spice levels (brutal to brutal-er).
If the chile-spiked leche de tigre gets too intense, take a soothing bite of soft yam or a mealy, bloated piece of Cuzco corn. Get some crunch after slurping a few bites of slippery, lime-drenched lemon sole (or sea bass or mahi mahi or snapper) by popping a few of the maiz tostados into your mouth. Like popcorn that’s popped on the inside, it’s something that the ancient Incas perfected (and Corn Nuts have been attempting to replicate since).
After being converted at El Pollo Imperial, I have been on a hunt for more Peruvian ceviche. But Peruvian seafood has had a tumultuous run in L.A. lately.
L.A.’s most notable Peruvian chef, Japanese-trained Ricardo Zarate, was booted out of his own hospitality group last October, which was followed by the closing of two of his monuments to his homeland’s cuisine: Mo-Chica and Peruvian izakaya restaurant Paiche. His third L.A. restaurant, Picca, remains open without Zarate in the kitchen, but its ceviche menu is more experimental these days and lacks the vinegary fish ceviche for which Zarate is well known.
In the last few years, promising, more centralized Peruvian restaurants have closed just as quickly as they opened (some — i.e. Chimú at Grand Central Market and Osaka in Hollywood — in a matter of months), leaving central L.A. with stalwarts like Mario’s on Melrose, La Cevicheria in Arlington Heights and Los Balcones and Natalie in Hollywood.
Great Peruvian ceviches also are coming from family-owned spots hidden in far-flung neighborhoods — Pollos a la Brasa in Downey, Misky Misky in Covina and El Rocoto in Gardena.
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Kotosh, a Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant in Torrance, is a strip-mall sushi bar that dishes out one of the best examples of ceviche mixto, made with sushi-grade seafood and the precision plating of a Japanese chef. You can also try the other side of Peruvian-Japanese seafood at Kotosh: tiraditos, cuts of fish sitting in a spicy, soy-based marinade, like a sashimi or crudo built for Latin American palates.
I will never forget you, Mexico, for introducing me to the concept of refreshing lime-cured seafood in the first place. But it’s hot outside and the choclo is calling.