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By Juliet Wittman
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Ceviche is a nearly perfect dish — simple and organic and beautifully balanced, using the strengths of every single ingredient to subtly alter every other; a dish virtually unchanged through generations of cooks, both amateur and professional.
No one knows for sure where ceviche was invented, only that it most likely came out of the coastal regions of Central and South America so long ago that dates no longer matter. Most people think the citrus juice is used to cook the seafood, but that's wrong: It actually pickles the fish, a process that puts ceviche up there among the oldest, most elemental prepared foods. Man learned how to pickle before he learned to do almost anything else with his food; pickling is one of the things that makes us human.
Street food, peasant food, party food — ceviche crosses all kinds of boundaries. In Peru, you get shark ceviche with corn on the cob. In Ecuador, ceviche is made with shrimp and lemon juice, salt and corn nuts; in Chile, with sea bass and grapefruit juice and crushed red chiles. They put ketchup on the ceviche in Costa Rica — because Costa Ricans are weird and do many unusual things to their food. Mexican cooks offer ceviche as an appetizer, a tease — a little bite of something to get the juices flowing, to nibble at before the main courses begin arriving. You can buy it on the street — held on ice, offered in little plastic cups alongside the cocteles de camarones — and eat it with toothpicks or just suck it down like a shot of fish and lime juice and chiles and salt and tomato.
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Ceviche is a nearly perfect dish — when done properly. But in the United States, we fuck up ceviche out of all proportion because, to so many cooks here, it's just a throw-away dish — a way to use fish that can't star at the center of the plate, a preparation to which little care and less thought is given. On a recent episode of Top Chef, when presented with some difficult cooking conditions (open-pit fires and campfire cooking utensils), two of the ten or so remaining chef-testants settled on ceviche. Their decision was very indicative of the regard in which ceviche is held here: It was the dish they chose to make simply because making anything else would've been too difficult or time-consuming. Not because they thought ceviche would taste good — just because they thought it was easy.
Ceviche isn't easy. It's simple, and that's a completely different thing. Tekka maki is simple, too, and that's what makes tekka maki dangerous — a cook has nowhere to hide when he has three ingredients to work with and a customer's entire attention is focused on a single mouthful. With ceviche, simple means spare, pure and balanced. It means uncluttered and bold. Ceviche should be as moving, as powerful and as direct as a single kiss or a punch in the mouth. And all too often, that's precisely what it isn't.
The first dish I tried at Chili Verde was the fish ceviche. It arrived in a plain white bowl set on a saucer, with an honor guard of Saltine crackers in their little plastic envelopes — the traditional Mexican accompaniment. It was a beautiful brunoise of raw chiles and onion and tomato — each tiny piece cut to a millimeter on a side, carefully and lovingly — topped with a fan of sliced avocado. The lime juice had gone cloudy from its interaction with the flaked flesh of the fish, indicating that it had been left to marinate a bit: not too long, not too little. And one bite told me nearly everything I needed to know about the skilled hands in the kitchen, and the commitment of Hanzel and Eder Yáñez-Mota, the brothers who opened their own restaurant in June.
Ceviche is often thrown together on the fly, the pickling process accomplished between the cook's board and the diner's table in ten minutes, tops. More often, it's made and then forgotten — left to grow sour and mushy and funky in the corner of someone's lowboy until it turns into a nightmare fish porridge. The proper pickling time falls somewhere between these two extremes, at a point where the acid works its way into the meat but doesn't break it down completely, where the flavors of the chiles and onions and tomatoes meld together and properly wed. You know this point has been reached when the juice is no longer transparent but the meat is still firm, almost squeaky on the teeth. That's when it's perfect — like the ceviche at Chili Verde.
"My mother's recipe," I was told by my server, one of the two brothers. "How do you like it? Is it good?"
So good. Possibly the best in town, certainly the simplest, definitely authentic. I ate mine with a fork, leaving the Saltines in their individual wrappers. I ate it with the chips brought free to my table, digging up mounds of ceviche and shoveling them in, impressed at how no one bite differed from the next — not too heavy on the onion here, heavy on the chile there, but all equal because of the careful knifework done in the back, the deconstruction of every element down to infinitesimal size.
The chips — sweet and homemade, actually tasting of corn — were good on their own, and they came with three interesting sauces (sauces, not salsas, and in one case, not really even a sauce). Two of them — a thin green-chile sauce like the ones I remember from New Mexico and a vicious little bowl of pasty red chile and oil — were murderously, punishingly hot. The third was a bowl of chunky refritos topped with a sprinkle of melted cotija. It was all so good that before I'd finished either the ceviche or the chips, I had the menu open again on my lap, planning a week's worth of fantasy eating at Chili Verde, a broad sampling of a rather short board specializing in dishes "from Puebla," as Eder would later tell me, or "family recipe," or just "from my mother."
Monday: more ceviche; maybe an apple salad with pineapple, walnuts and raisins, and the caldo Tlalpeño — Mexican chicken soup with potatoes and smoky chipotle. Tuesday: more ceviche, then Ensenada fish tacos with black beans. Wednesday: more ceviche (shrimp this time, for a change), followed by shrimp in butter with Mexican spices, rice and beans, or maybe the enchilada de mole with queso fresco and a sprinkling of sesame seeds (another family recipe, another specialty of the house) or the chilaquiles with epazote, the eggs served over more of the kitchen's homemade, deep-fried corn tortilla chips. On weekends, the kitchen does shrimp soup with potatoes and epazote, as well as a real posole, shot through with poblano chiles and bulked up with hominy, topped with radish — a mark of authenticity so often forgotten once the border is crossed. In the United States, radishes are garnishes. But in Mexico, they're actual food.
I wanted the posole right then, except it was a Thursday. So instead, I ordered the poblano crepes, for a little French-Mexican fusion that isn't really fusion at all. There are creperies in Mexico City and Cancún, in San Miguel de Allende and in the Yucatán. Family recipes for crepes date back to the nineteenth century, to the last time the French fought wars in Mexico. And really, what is a crepe but a taco shell made of eggs? My order at Chili Verde brought a plate divided in half by a mound of shredded iceberg lettuce and chopped tomatoes, with oddly smoky and sweet rice studded with corn kernels on one side and two lovely folded crepes on the other, stuffed with a little chicken and rajas of roasted poblano, then topped with a poblano cream sauce unlike anything I'd ever tasted before.
"From Puebla," Eder said. Of course.
The sauce was creamy and sharp at the same time, deep with the smoky flavor of the roasted chiles and sweetened by the corn kernels scattered on top. The crepes were unmistakably French — lacy and delicate and light — and the filling so restrained it didn't get in the way of either the powerful smoky savor of the poblanos or the delicate sweetness of the crepes. The dish tasted lovely even if it looked ugly, all dull greens and browns, its artlessness a stark contrast to the spare, clean-lined dining room, decked out with white tablecloths and linen napkins and lots of blonde wood that exemplify the brothers' desire to have Chili Verde be more than another neighborhood taquería, more than just a place to pick up a burrito and some beer. But the crepes were so good, so different, so oddly, historically authentic in their cross-cultural mash-up that they could have been served in a bucket and I wouldn't have cared. If they'd been dropped straight onto the table, I would have licked that cloth clean.
On the weekend, I went back for the posole. I wanted a cold beer to go with it, but since Chili Verde was having some troubles getting its liquor license, the bar was bare. "What do you like, beer? Margarita? Tomorrow, maybe. Or the next day," one of the brothers promised. So I had a Pepsi, and the chili verde plate — the restaurant's namesake offering. "Hot," he'd warned me. "Do you like hot?"
I like hot. I love hot. And the creamy, pork-spiked green chile qualified. So, too, did the shrimp chipotle: eight tail-on crustaceans swimming in a deep tarn of brick-red chipotle sauce with a dusty, savory heat and a burn that lingered for long minutes. With the chile verde plate, I chased the bits of roasted pork around the green napalm sauce until I was sure I'd gotten every last one. With the shrimp, I gave up after eating only half of them. Of all the dishes I tried at Chili Verde, this was my least favorite — but only because it seemed so one-note, so basic, so undeveloped, as if the simple application of time might give it more depth.
I ordered flautas with Mexican crema to go. On my way out the door, one of the brothers told me he hoped I liked it. That if I wasn't happy, I should bring it back and he would cook something else for me. This didn't strike me as odd until I was halfway to my car, and then I thought, bring it back? Really?
I have no doubt that he meant it. I have no doubt that, had I expressed any little distaste, he would've whipped the kitchen into a frenzy, cooking me ten courses, off menu. I knew beyond any doubt that he wanted nothing more than to make sure every single customer got precisely what he wanted and left Chili Verde with nothing but good memories. A man who honestly cared about expressing his love of a culture and a place and his family through the perfect representation of its food.
I don't know if the flautas were good; Laura ate the entire order before I had a chance to taste one.
But when I returned to Chili Verde on Monday night — sitting in the dining room, alone among the white-clothed tables, amid the polished silver and fluffed napkins — I ordered what I knew would be beyond good. Ceviche, again, and another plate of the poblano crepes. The ceviche was brilliant, as illuminating as that first bite. And the crepes were amazing, with a depth of flavor and balance of savory and sweet that was just as moving and affecting as before, the plate just as ugly.
In the space between courses, in the moments between ordering and receiving, I wished that I was surrounded by fifty customers, all having the same dinner, all tasting for themselves what can come from such care in the kitchen and attention to authenticity. But in a way, I was also glad that I was alone — in a restaurant right on the verge of greatness, in its last moments of quiet, with the kitchen cooking only for me.
See more of Chili Verde at westword.com/slideshow.