From Sea to Ceviche at South LA’s Holbox
The raw food trend has seen our appetite for dishes such as carpaccio, sushi, and poke escalate over recent years. But in California, interest in quality ceviche has gained momentum, with chefs and subsequently diners recognizing the opportunity to take advantage of the state’s access to an abundance of fresh seafood, suitably paired with an afternoon glass of wine in the glorious summer sunshine.
It’s a dish that optimizes all that’s great about California — sun and surf. Ceviche takes full advantage of our glorious coastal lifestyle and is a truly refreshing summer treat. It conjures up images of reclining beachside, with the scent of the salty ocean and cool seaside breeze caressing your back. But it’s a food that relies heavily on the highest quality ingredients and the utmost respect to them in its preparation, which in turn, makes anything less than perfection result in noticeable disappointment. Los Angeles is, however, unique in its ability to harness the wide variety of produce from the ocean, which has allowed the city’s chefs to create a new wave of tantalizing menus.
“I don’t think we realize how good we have it here,” says chef Gilberto Cetina Jr. of Chichen Itza in South LA, and more recently, Holbox — an adjoining corner stall serving up small seafood plates, such as unassuming tostadas of ceviches, raw shellfish, clams, and scallops, and colorful cocteles derived from Cetina’s Yucatán background. I’m seated in front of the knife-wielding chef with about 30 other guests, as he demonstrates the filleting of a yellowtail which iwas soon turned into a zesty and buttery ceviche, each bite light and refreshing but also intensely flavorful.
His ceviche demonstration, “From Sea to Ceviche” is part of the LA Times Food Bowl, the city’s largest food festival, spanning the month of May. Eager foodies and home cooks sit in front of Cetina, taking notes and photos, while also tasting several more of his seafood dishes — “Pata da Mula,” beautifully sharp and salty Mexican blood clams, presented perfectly styled in their shells; a cocteles with shrimp, octopus, and oyster, married together in a rich red house-made sauce with onion, cilantro, and lime; and chiles rellenos de pescado, fried spicy yellow chiles stuffed with fish. It was an insightful exploration into the complexities of raw seafood and the accompanying spectrum of flavors, even if an army of invasive camera crews and overeager Facebook broadcasters did detract from the innocence of the evening. Logistically, the workshop needs fine tuning to allow the eager guests to immerse themselves into the teachings of the evening — while the knowledge, enthusiasm, and impeccable food are there, the focus and priority in the event’s execution is not.
Cetina works his way through the Yellowtail with his knife like an experienced surgeon, while talking about the range of seafood available to chefs from areas like the Santa Barbara Channel Islands and the whole South Coast in general. “The region produces such a wealth of sea products. Everybody should be eating local black cod. It’s available nine to ten months out of the year, and it’s delicious. Local white sea bass is another lean, firm, flakey white fish that is available most of the year.” He picks up a sea scallop, dissecting each part of it, until he’s left with a beautifully white, glistening disc of mouthwatering flesh which he’ll use in one of his perfectly Instagrammable crudos. “And everybody should eat Santa Barbara uni at least once a week,” he laughs. “There’s a lot of really high quality, really fresh seafood available to us here.”
So what are the first steps in attempting to create ceviche at home? The source of the seafood must be reputable, for one. But once you’re at an established fishmonger, smell the fish, Cetina says. “It’s got to smell like the ocean. It shouldn’t have that typical “fishy” smell that people associate with unclean fish markets.” When it comes to physically examining the fish itself, look at the eyes, which should be clear. “They don’t have to be crystal clear, but they should not be cloudy. They should be plump and protruding. A shriveled eye is an old fish.” Ensuring the fish’s flesh is firm is also very important, he explains. “You want to gently press down on the flesh on the skin, and when you lift your thumb up, the imprint of your thumb shouldn’t stay on the fish. The flesh should bounce back.”
His love of seafood is a passion that’s strikingly similar to his food: genuine, raw, and respectful. It was triggered by a love of fishing as a young child, growing up in Yucatán, diving and spearfishing with his cousin, hauling octopus, conch, and fish. “As we’re going back to shore, we’re paddling — there’s no motor on this thing — he would start cutting up this fish, and he would make a quick ceviche. That’s when I started to be interested in seafood. I think the fact that I was diving down there, and pulling octopus out and then eating it — it just became very special for me.”
A true respect for quality ingredients is essential to great ceviche. And Cetina’s commitment to this authenticity that stems from his childhood continues to result in quality food. “That flavor memory of that ceviche, quickly cured, made in the boat, rinsed in sea water — that’s where I try to go to on my ceviches and raw seafood items. Keep them really simple, try to get the freshest product we can get, and just quick-cure and off it goes. It doesn’t need much more.”