Many moons ago, a fisherman was lost at sea somewhere off the coast of Peru or Ecuador. The man had nothing edible on hand, save the fish he caught and some citrus juice for warding off the itch of scurvy. Combining the fish and the juice, the fisherman found that the citrus gently pickled the fish, "cooking" it in its acidity. Not only was the fish safe to eat, it turned out to be tasty. Once back home, the fisherman added cilantro, onions and chilies, and the dish was an instant hit.
So goes the story of the popular South American appetizer and small plate dish, ceviche, according to Doug Rodriguez, executive chef of the newly opened De La Costa restaurant in River North. Rodriguez is regarded as the "inventor" of the Nuevo Latino movement, with acclaimed restaurants Ola Miami and Chicana and Patria in New York City. Both Peruvians and Ecuadorians lay claim to ceviche as theirs, Rodriguez says, but in truth, no one really knows from where the fisherman originated.
All ceviche is made with fish or shellfish (ie...tuna, salmon, scallop, lobster), citrus juice (lime or key lime, orange, grapefruit, passion fruit) and chilies for some heat (jalapeno, serrano, poblano, chipotle). From there, Rodriguez divides ceviche into two main types: tiradito ceviche, which downplays the added ingredients in order to make the fish "the star"; and mixto, or mixed ceviches, which plays up those added ingredients and others to create more of a sauce.
Ceviche is the new sushi--fresh, healthy and light. "People are a lot more educated about eating raw or marinated seafood than they were five or even 10 years ago," says Randy Zweiban, executive chef of Nacional 27. Refreshing during a hot Chicago summer, all sorts of ceviche are popping up on menus across the city. The question is, which one do you like best? Here are our picks:
De La Costa
465 E. Illinois, 312-321-8930
This newly opened, Nuevo Latino hotspot houses the first ceviche bar in Chicago, although ceviche bars are already a popular concept in New York. Here, the glass and marble bars are reminiscent of those popular in Ecuador and Peru and similar to sushi bars found in Japanese restaurants. The menu currently includes 16 ceviche variations, but Rodriguez hopes to build the selection to more than 20. Choose from tiradito ceviches like the delicate, "melt-in-your-mouth" Hamachi fish dressed with lime juice, jalapenos, lemon verbena and smoked sea salt. On the mixtos menu, opt for the lobster ceviche, a mixture of poached lobster and coconut water infused with lemongrass, ginger, Thai chilies and kaffir lime, a fragrant leaf from the fruit. Rodriguez also special orders the hard to get crillo limes--Peruvian limes similar to key limes. Crillo and key limes have an acidity level almost four times as high as regular limes so they pickle the fish more quickly and efficiently. Ceviche here runs roughly $11 to $17.
445 N. Clark, 312-661-1434
Chef Rick Bayless knows all about ceviche, having traveled extensively along the coast of Mexico, where locals feast on seafood. That includes ceviche, despite it not being native to Mexico. A step up in scale from its sister restaurant, the more casual Frontera Grill, Topolobampo offers a menu featuring authentic Mexican dishes with complex, fresh ingredients, set in a contemporary chic dining room. Bayless' ceviche is less on the "soupy" side, with mix-ins that highlight the freshness of the fish or shellfish. There are four ceviche to choose from, including the ceviche primaveral, lime- marinated halibut cheeks steeped in a salsa of poblano, grilled ramps, pickled fiddlehead ferns; ceviche fronterizo, lime-marinated Alaskan cod with sun-dried tomatoes, olives, cilantro and green chili and the ceviche yucateco, steamed shrimp and calamari with lime, orange, habanero chili, avocado and cilantro. Or try the trio to sample the fronterizo, yucateco and another seaside cocktail of organic shrimp and limey halibut. Each costs $11. The trio is $13.50.
1670 W. Division, 773-276-8700
Chef John Manion, who was born in the Midwest but lived in South America for some time, stays true to what he learned by serving authentic ceviche at this lively eatery in Wicker Park. Each day he changes the selection on the menu, but look for creative concoctions like blue marlin with vanilla and rum or smoked jalapenos and tequila, yellow tail snapper with smoked poblanos and shrimp and tilapia duos. The ceviche, which leans toward the hotter side, thanks to more peppers, arrives tableside in a slender martini glass and costs $10.
325 W. Huron, 312-664-2727
Zweiban is known for his ceviche at this River North Latino mainstay, where he serves up four variations, plus a beautiful sampling platter with oyster shells. Pineapple forms the base for the sashimi-grade bass ceviche with pickled onions. Or try the Ahi tuna ceviche steeped in rice wine vinaigrette with chunks of fresh watermelon and touches of ancho and chipotle chilies, Zweiban's signature ceviche. Fluke gets splashes of orange, lime and lemon, plus tomatoes, jalapenos and cilantro, and comes with plantain chips and orange wedges. Opt for the seasonal and crowd favorite, shrimp and scallop ceviche with citrus juices and creamy avocado. The ceviche averages about $5 for a small portion or $10 for two-person portions.
1954 W. Armitage, 773-489-3126
This no-frills, family-owned Peruvian eatery in the heart of Bucktown draws locals looking for some great tasting seafood with little damage to their wallets. Regulars say the ceviches here are the closest you'll find to authentic ones in Peru, where seafood mixes with corn, potato, lettuce and onion for a simple, yet refreshing dish. Rinconcito has four ceviche options, some which use those ingredients plus a lot of lime juice and some cilantro. The fish variations include corvino, a whitefish used prevalently in Peruvian cevich, shrimp, a fish of the day and a mixed ceviche with octopus, shrimp, clam and oysters. Ceviche is $13.90, but portions are large and feed at least two.
1035 N. Ashland, 773-486-6850
This Mexican cantina specializes in seafood, featuring dishes you'd find along the sprawling coasts of Mexico, where the locals consume fish like Chicagoans consume steak. From the outside, the West Town eatery looks like a giant boat, and the theme continues inside, with fish hanging from the ceiling and colorful accents throughout. Regulars flock to El Barco for the ceviche. A favorite is the mixto ceviche of white fish, crab, shrimp and octopus with chilies and lime wedges on the side, so you can decide how hot and citrus infused you want it. Or try each above fish separately for $3.95 on a tostada. A big bowl of ceviche comes with chips or crackers and feeds two people for a meal and four as an appetizer at $11.98.
5413 N. Clark, 773-293-2222
This Andersonville Nuevo Latino joint with contemporary decor, exposed brick walls and floor-to-ceiling windows that open up in the summertime features a menu of tapas, which includes a variety of ceviche. In the summers, large front windows open onto the Clark street sidewalk for a casual and intimate neighborhood feel. Try the mixed seafood ceviche with shrimp, scallops and calamari marinated in a tomato broth, or the fish of the day, usually mixed with lime juice. Sometimes you'll find a red snapper variation with chunks of succulent fish, avocado, onion and tomato. Ceviche is $8.
702 W. Fulton Market, 312-850-5005
This Jerry Kleiner hotspot has been all the rage lately for its guacamole, hip atmosphere and recently opened patio, but don't overlook the unique ceviches on the menu, available in flights for sampling. Ceviches here are fish-focused, with not much accompanying liquid. A favorite is the jaiba, or large, succulent chunks of Alaskan King crab marinated in a tomato-mango juice and horseradish and topped with a habanero chili glaze. A must try is the very creative conchas ceviche, scallops bathed in coconut milk, curry, basil and sweet aji Amarillo peppers, or the fish ceviche with Hamachi marinated in grapefruit juice with green olives and grape tomatoes. The camarones ceviche features shrimp with roasted tomato, chilies and cilantro, and the Ahi tuna ceviche is steeped in a citrus-soy dressing with wasabi tobiko and avocado. Individual ceviche averages roughly $10, except for the Alaskan crab and tuna, which are $15. Ceviche flights offer a choice of three for $15 or all five for $24.
4212 N. Milwaukee, 773-545-7022
You wouldn't know it from the outside of the Portage Park storefront, this family-run, Ecuadorian eatery gets packed on weekends with a bright decor, energetic crowd, live bands Thursday through Saturday and karaoke on Sundays. The ceviches are a bit less traditional, using pre-cooked, but still fresh, fish and shellfish for more of a seafood "cocktail" than raw fish dish. Shrimp, octopus, large chunks of King fish or calamari are quickly cooked and mixed with lime juice, tomato, onion, cilantro and touches of mustard and cocktail sauce. They're then topped with roasted, dry corn. Each run for about $10. Or opt for the ceviche marinero, a generous serving of all the above seafood items that can feed up to four people for $17.95. For the less hungry, pick two seafood items for $9.25.
1610 N. Wells, 773-266-7999
2005 W. Division, 773-252-9990
Executive Chef Freddy Sanchez knows his ceviche--they are light, refreshing and reflect creative variations on the authentic dish. Choose from tuna marinated in a mango-lime juice with roasted chipotle chilies or the shrimp with a Mexican--meaning hotter--cocktail sauce, accompanied by avocado and pico de gallo. The tilapia ceviche comes with red and yellow peppers, capers, olives, jalapenos and jicama, and the fish of the day has a sesame-chili-salsa base with avocado. Each ceviche costs around $9, with a tasting of all the ceviche for $14.95.
814 W. Randolph, 312-455-8114
At this upscale taqueria, old world Mexican meets modernity with a rustic, wood interior and hip crowd. The eatery focuses on tacos made de cero, meaning "from scratch," but sole ceviche on the menu stands out among appetizers and is a must-have. Rock shrimp and bay scallops bathe in lime juice with touches of jalapeno, tomatoes and cilantro. Light and crispy homemade chips come alongside the ceviche for much-needed, easy scooping. The dish costs $8.
Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: Fall 2006