View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, “Ceviche to Die For at La Cevicheria.”
Have you tasted bloody clams? Because they really are worth eating — chewy, plump things about the size of a half-dollar, oozing dark juices from inside their rough, crenellated shells, tasting something like shellfish fortified with strong beef bouillon. Bloody clams are delicious on the half-shell, slicked with a few drops of lemon juice and a dash or two of hot sauce. They're great when you get them suspended in lime and chile from a vendor in Ensenada — they're called patas de mula, mule's feet — because you have to eat something between fish tacos. Something tells me that patas de mula would even be good mixed into a mezcal shot, as a Bloody Bull of the sea, although I don't expect to see it on the drink menu at Las Perlas anytime soon.
Bloody clams may be at their very best as part of a ceviche, chopped into manageable bits, moistened with chile and citrus and some umami-enhancing ingredient that will probably turn out to be Worcestershire sauce, which is a tonic that could wake the dead. The ceviche is kind of a goth-looking thing, all shades of black and red, and the color of clotted blood, the hue of a horribly mangled corpse out of Tom Savini's effects department, speckled with onions as white as a dead man's teeth, but the essence is all animal vitality, sweet ocean and life. A lot of places in town serve bloody clams — I recently had a plateful from a seafood vendor at the Alameda Swap Meet, of all places — but nothing comes close to the version served at La Cevicheria, a narrow dining room in the Latino-Byzantine district, a bloody-clam ceviche pungent enough to curl your eyebrows, a powerful slap from the sea.
La Cevicheria is a cheerful, sleepy place in the late afternoon, a half-dozen tables, the walls dotted with marine artifacts and painted a smart, nautical blue. Neighborhood guys wander in, some in workmen's jumpsuits, some with loosened ties, and absorb themselves in the television flickering Latin music videos high in a corner. Half-read newspapers are ruffled, after-work cans of beer slid from brown-paper bags, chips dragged through ruddy salsa. Every so often a scruffy art dude from the storefront lofts in the area peeks through the door, hoping to find somebody groovy; they always come in anyway. Nobody in the neighborhood, not the auto-body guys, not the families, not the indigent club DJs, can resist the pull of La Cevicheria's chopped and channeled clams.
What you get at La Cevicheria, of course, is ceviche, a simple shrimp ceviche, a fish or octopus ceviche, or the restaurant's take on a Peruvian ceviche, laced with the mild heat of aji and served with boiled potatoes. You can find most of the classic Mexican cocktails, the mixed-seafood vuelve a la vida that stars at most of the Eastside trucks; a serviceable campechana; and even a Veracruz-style cocktail that was new to me, emphasizing the sweetness of the shrimp more than the spiciness of the tomato-laced brew.
The proprietor-chef couple who own the place come from Guatemala, a country not especially known for its ceviches, but the Guatemalan version may be the best single seafood dish in midtown, a mass of chopped seafood in an enormous goblet, layered with citrus and spice, plumped out with diced tomato, onion and avocado — a fresh, enormously complex creation dominated by the taste of fresh mint. You can spoon the ceviche onto crisp tostadas or crumble crackers into the mix, squeeze on a bit of lime or douse it with the sizzling-hot habañero sauce the restaurant keeps behind the counter in squeeze bottles. I have seen customers hide bottles of Guatemalan rum under the table to mix surreptitiously into the limeade, although I'm pretty sure the house disapproves of the notion, and I suspect the fortified drink goes splendidly with the ceviche, the multiseafood mariscada cooked with spicy Caribbean sauce, or even the fried tilapia that shows up on the menu if not on many people's plates. Is there a shrimp quesadilla on the menu? There is.
But you'll want the bloody clams, and then you'll want some more. The last time I was in, I actually saw the bloody-clam purveyor herself, a squat Guatemalan woman whose stack of boxes was almost as big as she was. The stack's dark energy was overwhelming. Despite myself, I laid my palms on the weathered cardboard, as the ape drawn to the black monolith in 2001, and felt the power of the ocean rush up my arms in a cool, salty wave.
LA CEVICHERIA: 3809 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (323) 732-1253. Open Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Cash only. BYOB. Street parking only. Appetizers, $4.99-$12.99; ceviches and cocktails, $9.99-$14.99; dinners, $8.99-$10.99. Recommended dishes: Guatemalan mixed ceviche; bloody clam ceviche; Caribbean mariscada.