Ceviche has always sorta freaked me out. I've never been able to wrap my head around the fact that this tasty dish is straight up raw seafood cooked in lime juice. How is that even possible? Is the acid from the limes that intense? Well, thanks to a recent cooking workshop I took in Mexico, I now know the answer. Acid is indeed the key, and it only takes a few minutes for it to hammer down its powerful effect.
To backtrack a minute, before I left colder-than-cold Chicago for sunny Mexico, I tested out a new restaurant, a tiny, family-owned Mexican restaurant called Sabor Michoacan in my Rogers Park 'hood. It had just opened in the sea of North Clark eateries, and for less than a can of Red Bull, I partook in the juiciest ceviche I've come across outside of mainland Mexico. Bright pink bullets of fresh shrimp came tossed with tiny bits of emerald-green cilantro, dots of tangy onion and chunks of ruby-red tomato. But, I didn't stop there.
I treated the sour cream that came with my cheesy quesadillas and billowy veggie burrito as the main dish, and used all the real food as mere dipping units. I slipped a burst of cloud-white crema onto each little bit of food as I absorbed the colorful dining room. It was just me and the already formed team of regulars.
I also ordered a big, fat pile of chile rellenos smothered in Veracruz sauceópockets of poblano chiles stuffed with string cheese, drenched in a flour-and-egg mixture and then pan-fried with a little oil. A rich, blood-red tomato and onion sauce finishes off the dish. When topped with a smear of crema, this bounty is not only untouchable, it's everything a homegrown meal should be: filling, dramatic and jaw-gaping.
But let me get back to the ceviche. I just produced a pilates/cooking/volunteer retreat (PURE) on the beach in Mexico. We set up shop on a tiny island called Isla Mujeres, which is perched just off the coast of Cancun. For the cooking workshop portion of the retreat, I rounded up a beautiful local family to whip up some shrimp and octopus ceviche, as well as a cauldron of chocolate-tinged chicken mole. Of course, I was slinging out insanely potent Mai Tais to the retreaters as they helped dice ingredients: tomatoes, onions, chiles and cilantro.
I slurped a Mai Tai and watched the cook chop octopus, while the gazillion-ingredient mole was being blended up. Then, I witnessed the gorgeous 14-year-old daughter of the chef prepare perfect micheladas (beer, chile, salt and lime on ice). Sure, I'll take one. Hell, make it two! In my michelada-heavy haze, I was stunned to grasp that the recipe for ceviche was a piece of cake. Literally, here's how it shook down: The octopus was pre-boiled and the shrimp was deviened. Both were then sliced into bite-sized pieces. The raw shrimp was tossed into a giant bowl with loads of lime juice addedójust enough to cover the shrimp. While the shrimp cooked in the acidic lime, I watched the PURE crew prep ingredients and glory at the event of shrimp turning pink. Once the precise rose hue hit, everything else was thrown into the bowl: purple octopus, cilantro, specks of onion and tomato, and wee bits of chile. The chef slung the whole concoction in the fridge so the proper temperature could be achieved. A few hours later and BAMóceviche's up!
As I learned in Mexico, ideal ceviche is served cold, real cold. And it's topped with a sliver of avocado, a pinch of salt and then scooped up with a crisp tostada. Good to know that some things make their way back to the states. And they usually end up within walking distance of my Rogers Park home.
The Final Rave: Chips, two different salsas and queso-sprinkled frijoles are offered up as a free app at Sabor Michocan. You can't get much better than that.
Do it: Ole Ole
Everyone raves about the cocktails here, and the ceviche is allegedly top notch. The name is another thing altogether, though.
Eat it: Topolobampo
Expensive? Yes. Ceviche worth it? In spades.
Sample it: Nacional 27
Though I'd never put it on my top five list, the masses can't be wrong, can they? The ceviche sampler is enough to write home about. And, we haven't even touched on the margaritas.
Get crazy with it: Casa O's, Isla Mujeres
Easily one of the top three ceviches I've ever had the pleasure of tucking into. There's also a pier off the side of the restaurant where you can primo snorkel. Tell no one.
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.