[Hole in the Wall] An Acid Trip Through the Ocean of OC Ceviche
While Edwin obsesses over barbecue, let’s talk ceviche: the Latin American seafood standard that involves chilled fish or crustaceans marinated in lime juice to varying degrees of sourness and spiciness—the best culinary remedy for the summer heat. Barbecue is great, but who wants to feel like a bowling ball in the middle of July? Ceviche, on the other hand, zaps energy into you, cools the sweatiest being and counts as one of the best marine meals when done right.
Problem is, it’s rarely done right. You can find ceviche at most Mexican restaurants and Nuevo Latino palaces, and each genre usually commits a crucial, specific sin in its preparation; the wab dives use bad-quality mariscos, while the higher-end places try to impress by introducing unnecessary ingredients such as mango or flavored marinades. But a good ceviche is deceptively simple; really, all one needs is chiles to taste and enough lime juice to make bones dissolve.
The one great exception is the original ceviche meal, a product of Peru that showcases the many folds of the South American nation. Although Peruvian restaurants dot Orange County, the Nory’s chain offers the best: an Andean heap of whitefish, shrimp, a prawn or two, baby octopus, and squid partnered with a sweet potato and corn on the cob. It’s a much-gentler version than what Southern Californian palates are accustomed to—sour but in a slight way, served at room temperature. Sweet potatoes might seem antithetical to the concept of the dish, but they actually balance the citrus tones of the broth. The corn on the cob doesn’t make sense to me. It’s good, but it’s not one of Peru’s special maize like the giant-kernel choclo variety or even purple—so slather it with butter or the sneaky ají salsa. Nory’s three spots sell ceviche, but order it at the Anaheim location, which specializes in seafood. The Stanton spot boasts of its pollo a la brasa, while the Lake Forest location combines the best of both worlds.
Most people know of ceviche as a topping on a tostada. The OstioneriaBahía chain is unique in sprinkling slivers of serrano chiles across fish or jaiba, judiciously dispersed so that one bite offers a cool flavor, another scalds. And El Calamar in Santa Ana sell tostadas de ceviche large enough to feed two. But, honestly, the only destination for Mexican-style ceviche tostadas is Mariscos Licenciado #2 in Anaheim, the type of joint that blasts corridos on the jukebox and sells CDs and candies next to the cash register. Their tostadas de ceviche are as epic as El Calamar’s but cost two bucks instead of four. Even better, baskets of extra tostadas and saltine crackers sit at each table (which is good because the ceviche is so packed in it will fall from the tostada), along with mayonnaise, more limes and at least seven hot sauces, from the standard Tapatío to the more-esoteric Salsa Huichol (grittier, denser, with a consistency that will stick to your tongue) and the infamous El Yucateco, a brand derived from habaneros whose only real difference from the pepper is that instead of being a bright-orange color, their tint is neon green and red.
Mariscos Licenciado #2 is also the place where you can order ceviche’s tastiest manifestation: aguachile (“fire water”), a specialty of the Pacific coastal state of Sinaloa that you can only find at three Orange County restaurants. Here, it’s presented in a molcajete (the mortar and pestle used by Mexican women to grind down salsas since time immemorial) in one style—cucumbers ringing a mass of shrimp and red onions underneath a broth of cold lime juice. The chilled hell hinted at in other ceviches is magnified to unimaginable levels. Sipping the broth will hurt your teeth; chewing the shrimp unleashes a spice that, though bracing, will be accepted by your palate as a welcome respite.
The aguachile at Mariscos La Sirena and Ostioneria Playas de Sinaloa seem at first to be less elaborate than at their Anaheim rival, with shrimp splayed across a flat plate and mixed in with cucumber. But both also include a green sauce that is even spicier than El Yucateco. Better yet? They are are true Mexican seafood places: neon beer signs, cheesy jungle décor, and waitresses with plunging necklines and high-rise skirts. Forget Surf City and enjoy the scenery here.
Nory’s Restaurant, 933 1/2 S. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 774-9115; 6959 Cerritos Ave., Stanton, (714) 761-3332; 23798 Mercury Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 458-0318.
Ostioneria Bahia, 144 S. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 997-2010; 4429 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 538-8271.
El Calamar, 315 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 664-8815.
Mariscos Licenciado #2, 1052 N. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 776-3415.
Mariscos La Sirena, 515 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 541-0350.
Ostioneria Playas De Sinaloa, 1320 Edinger Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 953-0455.
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