Sometimes good food happens for bad reasons. People with bigger boats, stronger immune systems, and better weapons show up. They pillage, they conquer, they bring ingredients with them, and they take others back home. Slave ships brought rice and okra, among many other things, to the South. A desire to appease homesick British colonials in India lead to the creation of IPAs. The Spanish were responsible for two of the most delicious additions to the Americas: pork and citrus. So we can thank Spaniards for lechón and South Carolina BBQ, but also for the modern iterations of ceviche: raw fish cooked by citrus, and preserved with spice.
Some of the best and most satisfying ceviche comes from Peru, and we Angelenos are fortunate enough to have it available to us throughout our city. For today's food fight, we sought out two well regarded versions in the San Fernando Valley, where current temperatures make it difficult to crave much else.
We began at Las Quenas, a casual, sleepy restaurant in a strip mall in Van Nuys, oddly blasting Yogi Bear cartoons from the television mounted in the corner. Their simple fish ceviche, available as a full or half order, is made from sea bass, and arrived with the usual accompaniment of corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes and corn nuts. The fish was very tender, and served at close to room temperature so the subtle, light and refreshing flavors could come through. If more powerful accents are required, the thin red salsa served on the side gives it a very enjoyable punch, all of it mixing well with the crunch of the corn nuts. The potato and sweet potato are also cooked very well — fresh, warm and tender.
Puro Sabor is probably the more well known of the two restaurants, appreciated often times more for their cooked dishes than ceviche — fixtures on most other tables included a foot-tall pile of assorted fried seafood. Their ceviche is made with red snapper, which remains tender even though cut into larger chunks, but we occasionally came across some connective tissue which made chewing slightly more difficult. Puro Sabor's had a stronger presence of fresh herbs, and many more sliced onions, along with a more pungent, citric flavor. The potato and sweet potato also seem to have been cooked in advance, which left them a bit dry and starchy.
Ceviche comes down to the little things, and while Puro Sabor produces a very solid version, the detail and precision at Las Quenas makes all the difference.
Las Quenas: 12708 Sherman Way, North Hollywood; (818) 764-3962. Puro Sabor: 6366 Van Nuys Boulevard, Van Nuys; (818) 908-0818.
Noah Galuten can be followed on Twitter via @ManBitesWorld.