One of the keenest thrills on today’s Houston dining scene is ordering the Third Coast Ceviche at Concepcion. The anticipation alone is part of the fun: You never know quite what magic chef Jonathan Jones will work with the day’s best Gulf fish.
In spring it might be scarlet grouper cut into pearlescent slices and ranged across the plate with whisper-thin radish and juicy spangles of the last of the Texas citrus. A swoosh of hibiscus-tinted leche de tigre (“tiger’s milk”) marinade pools around the fish in subtropical splendor. Unexpected twinges of mint and Mexican oregano pick up the flavors, while the sunny warmth of habanero chile generates a current of electricity.
Deeper into summer, the ceviche might be made with meatier wedges of cobia, its clear oceanic flavor contrasted with curls of fresh peach, the fruit adding color and flavor to the leche de tigre without overwhelming the fish. That’s the essential beauty of Jones’ contemporary Peruvian-inspired takes on ceviche: they are first and foremost about the fish. These carefully composed ceviches are as expressive of Houston and its dining culture as a platter of fajitas at Ninfa’s, or a chicken-fried steak at the Barbecue Inn.
In its traditional Mexican coastal form, in which small chunks of raw fish are doused in lime juice that “cooks” it — the acid tightening up the texture and turning the fish opaque — ceviche has been on the local scene for decades, finding its way onto menus in Mexican restaurants high and low. Operators from Tampico to Doneraki to Mambo Seafood feature the dish in cocktail form or strewn on tostadas, sometimes billing it with the unsettling tout, “made fresh daily.”
Such traditional versions — based on a formula that includes cilantro and sometimes onion along with the regulation hot green chile — can be good, racy stuff, with a tart snap and a welcome cooling effect in our hot climate. But basic ceviche can just as easily be nightmarish: overmarinated to mush or to rubber; unrelentingly tart unto outright sourness with unbalanced lime; sloppily cut or made with cheap, flavorless “placeholder” fish such as spurious snapper or farmed tilapia.
It wasn’t until the past five years or so, with the birth of the Gulf bycatch movement and a burst of local enthusiasm for contemporary Peruvian seafood styles, that ceviche prospects began looking up in Houston. (A 21st-century influx of affluent Mexican and South American immigrants has improved the market for serious ceviche, too.)
Right now, ceviche seems well on its way to establishing itself as one of our great civic dishes. It’s flourishing at our growing number of Peruvian restaurants. It’s sparkling on the menus of young chefs who are busy inventing a new Gulf Coast cuisine. It’s colonizing brunch buffets at Latin Bites, Hugo's and Americas. At Hugo’s, the high-profile interior Mexican restaurant, mini ceviches are a Happy Hour staple, and a $6 glassful from the bar menu mixes tuna cubes with avocado and mango in a surprisingly smoky Mezcal marinade (the best ceviche bargain in town).
It’s also invading modern American spots such as Robert del Grande’s RDG and Branch Water Tavern, where chef David Grossman stacks his seasonal ceviches up between tilty wonton crisps. Ceviche is even showing up on French menus like L’Olivier’s, where a chaste gobletful bathed in pineapple and yuzu juices occupies a place of honor on the raw bar.
Uchi Houston, the new Austin import wowing us with chef Tyson Cole’s version of contemporary Japanese cuisine, gets in on the ceviche game with its so-called Uchiviche, a menu staple that presents pristine rectangles of salmon and striped bass glossed with orange oil and ponzu, all dotted with the tiniest wheels of Thai chile and whole cilantro leaves. You eat the dish with chopsticks, grabbing a baton of crisp yellow pepper here, a stealth golden raisin there, a golden cherry tomato over yonder. Salt — just enough of it — is the crucial element balancing tart, sweet, hot and oceanic umami.
At the beachy new La Fisheria , where Mexican TV chef Aquiles Chavez caters to a well-heeled clientele of Mexican expatriates, ceviche in various forms occupies its own chunk of menu real estate. It’s all made with fresh Gulf fish, mostly red snapper, and it arrives stacked on cucumber boats with shaved red onion curlicues rampant; or in an unusual ceviche verde form, housed in a bowl glinting with a grass-green marinade that hums with green chile, lime and a deeper, vegetal note that comes from quelites, a Mexican green with serrated, spade-shaped leaves. It’s unlike any other Mexican ceviche in town, earth meeting sea to the last exhilarating bite.
Over at Reef, where chef Bryan Caswell helped nudge the bycatch movement into being by putting unusual Gulf species supplied by indie fish guru PJ Stoops on his menu, a Filipino-style ceviche called Kinilaw is a staple on the “Raw” section of the mostly seafood menu. Caswell developed the recipe with a Filipino intern from Houston Community College’s culinary program, a perfect example of how the ceviche form evolves in this wildly multicultural city. Coconut water and perfumed Kaffir lime leaves go into a blood-orange or lime marinade that tightens up the crabmeat while leaving it dewy. Daikon and radish and add texture; blood orange adds subtle bite; and a lotus-root crisp perches on top of the stack like a lacy party hat.
Once upon a time, Caswell did the kinilaw with bluefin tuna from the Gulf in addition to crab, and he still tinkers on off-the-menu ceviche variants that can be had by talking to the right waiter. Recently, he served a thoroughly modern composed ceviche of glistening slices of wahoo set against East Texas pickled mayhaws, each tiny magenta orb a controlled burst of sweet, tart and apple-spicy. As in the best examples of the genre, fish and fruit did each other honor.
Ceviches that range down a plate in precise slices or wedges owe a debt to the Peruvian tiradito style of ceviche, spawned by the sushi and sashimi chefs of that country’s significant Japanese population. Tiradito is carefully sliced in sashimi fashion to bring out the best qualities of the raw fish, in contrast to the rougher chop that characterizes the traditional Mexican Coastal style; and the marination is brief, sometimes no more than a kiss of an acid element or a little salt to add flavor and tighten up the texture.
In Houston, the tiradito-style ceviche arrived in 2004 at Honduran chef Rafael Galindo’s Red Onion Seafood y Mas, which featured upwards of 10 ceviche varieties, many of them with the Asian touches that often characterize the form: sesame, lychee fruit, coconut milk. The restaurant’s brief golden age under Humberto Molina-Segura, a former Artista chef who prepped in Lima, Peru, lasted less than a year, and the place is now closed.
The modern Peruvian ceviche style really took off here only after Michael Cordúa, the chef-owner of Américas and Churrascos, took a group of chefs to Lima in late 2007 for gastronomic research. Among them was Randy Rucker, then head of the Cordúa group’s test kitchen in the run-up to the Américas The Woodlands opening. Rucker was galvanized by the experience of the pristine Peruvian seafoods and the creative but disciplined ways in which the chefs there handled them.
Back in Houston, during a weeklong Peruvian fest hosted by the Cordúas at Artista in January 2008, chef Jonathan Jones caught the ceviche bug, too. Rucker had recruited Jones to join the Cordúa team, and he recalls the week cooking with and learning from such masters as Carlos Testino and Hajime Kasuga as one of the most exhilarating of his life.
“Watchin’ this man disassemble a fish is a true pleasure,” wrote Rucker of Kasuga, while Jones wrote that the Japanese/Peruvian chef’s knife skills “blew me out of the water. ... Everything from where to start your cuts, depending on the fish species, to using long, controlled strokes to preserve the shape of the fillet left a lasting impression.”
Neither Rucker nor Jones stayed with the Cordúa group long, but they spread their excitement with Peruvian ceviche forms through the Houston dining landscape: at Rucker’s Tenacity supper club dinners and later at Rainbow Lodge; and at Beaver's Ice House, where Jones ended up. The young Houston chefs in their circle took the cue, too, and soon tiraditos and cevichelike crudos were popping up on menus around town, even a nominally Italian venue like Stella Sola, where chefs Justin Basye and then Adam Dorris adopted the form with enthusiasm.
Now Jones plies the ceviche arts with the skills of a jazz musician at Concepción, where his Peruvian-inspired leches de tigre marinades have a resonant base of simmered celery, onion and aromatics, and his Gulf fish are cut to display their best qualities in as pure a form as possible, whether they be butter-soft scarlet grouper slices or blockier cuts of blackfin tuna.
Jones speaks with appreciation of the lessons he picked up working with Lima chef Testino during his Houston visit. Jones acquired the skills to make a round, full leche de tigre marinade by starting with a vegetable mirepoix plus lime and chiles, with seafood stocks and dashi sometimes added to temper the basic ceviche acidity. He absorbed little tricks, like adding a bit of xanthan gum to get the leche de tigre to grab the fish and the human palate.
“Testino demonstrated to me how ceviche can be contemporary in Peru,” says Jones. “How it is OK to break the rules by using cream or yogurt or coconut milk in leche de tigre, for example.”
I remember being startled the first time I tasted a creamy leche de tigre a couple of years ago when Latin Bites Cafe first opened in its original Warehouse District incarnation. Chef Roberto Castre was sending out platters of tiradito-style grouper or flounder blanketed by creamy sauces in pastel shades of yellow, pinky-orange and green. Each lush-looking sauce was flavored by its own distinctive Peruvian chile: aji amarillo, rocoto and limo.
“Too much sauce,” I thought with an involuntary shudder.
But then I fell under the spell of Castre’s subtleties and the well-delineated charms of those chiles. The cream gentled the flavors without muting them. I’m still a big fan of the Sashimi Tiradito Tres Sabores he serves at his flossy new location on Woodway, the city’s current Ceviche Central, where you can peer over the dedicated ceviche bar to watch any of a dozen different versions under assembly. Punctuated by the classic Peruvian ceviche accessories of choclo (soft white corn kernels) and wedges of sweet potato, this tiradito remains a local landmark.
So does Castre’s vivid ceviche Pescador, with its macho trio of Peruvian chiles and marvelous textures of flounder that’s soft with a slip-slidey hint of crunch, pearly shrimp, resilient octopus and satin-firm calamari. It’s almost as bold and as suited to the Houston palate as the chef’s shot-glass service of three different leches de tigre, a head-spinning ride of heat and tartness — suitable for toasting how far the art of Houston ceviche has come in five short years, and what promise the future now holds.