Cafe Society

Chili Verde serves nearly perfect Pueblan food

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.

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?"