At some point, New Orleans gets so darn hot you’re ready to let someone else do the cooking. Lately, one of my top candidates for the job has been citrus.
Through the alchemy of ceviche, raw seafood is transformed without going anywhere near the stove. Deploy the citric acid from lime, bitter orange or other strong fruit, and the fish texture tightens, its surface whitens and the result is a bracingly bright, utterly light dish that feels in sync with the season.
Any coastal area in Latin America is fertile ground for ceviche, and since New Orleans never feels closer to its Caribbean kin than in the blaze of summer, it follows that the dish should be at home here, too.
In fact, the best ceviche I’ve ever had was in a New Orleans home, prepared by a transplant from Colombia who was showing off some flavors from her native land. It was different from the ceviche I’d tried at restaurants. The fish was cut thicker, and there was a lot of it. The marinade was sharper, and the process was quick. My hostess seemed so casually confident as she whipped it together that I began to see ceviche less as exotic eats and more as eminently fresh comfort food.
Ceviche has since become a much more common find. In particular, the city’s growing diversity of Latin American restaurants shows a range of traditional ceviche in different regional varieties. This is the sort of ceviche I've been seeking out lately, and here is the best I’ve found.
Chip away at the heat
One Mexican-style ceviche recipe is laid bare at El Gato Negro (300 Harrison Ave., 81 French Market Place, 800 S. Peters St.), where your waiter prepares it tableside from a tray filled with dishes of diced tuna, avocado, pico de gallo, jalapeños and lime. Not a minute later you're eating it, and you can watch as the color of the fish changes in the dish as you progress.
One bonus of ordering ceviche at the right taqueria is access to hot, salty, house-made tortilla chips to contrast with the cool, tart seafood. At Del Fuego Taqueria (4518 Magazine St., 504-309-5797) the chips are replaced with tostadas the size of tea plates, and you can really load these up with the thick-cut ceviche liberally interspersed with avocado chunks. Casa Borrega (1719 O.C. Haley Blvd., 504-292-3705) in Central City serves its ceviche in a similar style, or you can get it with black-and-gold chips. Either way, you're building your own bite-sized ceviche nachos as you go.
Street food, bar snack
In other ceviche-loving lands, it’s common to find vendors selling cups of it as street food. In New Orleans, you can experience something similar from the Pupusa Lady, a walk-up stand in the Roux Carre (2000 O.C. Haley Blvd. 504-309-2073) food court in Central City.
Before she was the “pupusa lady,” proprietor Miriam Rodriguez was known as the "ceviche lady" at RioMar, the now-closed Latin American seafood restaurant where she handled all the ceviche. Today at Roux Carre, she serves three ceviche varieties — a purplish-hued, habanero-spiked "el Huracan," a style from Rodriguez's native Honduras; a sweeter mango version; and a shrimp ceviche in a tomato-based seafood cocktail concoction topped with popcorn, a nod to Peruvian tradition. Fans of the old RioMar may recognize the flavors at the Pupusa Lady; served up in plastic cups, anyone in a rush on a hot summer day can appreciate this cool, quick snack to go.
Almost as casual is the approach to ceviche at El Rinconcito (218 N. Carrollton Ave., 504-484-0500), a workingman’s bar in Mid-City with a Salvadoran kitchen. I admit it took a leap of faith to order a nearly raw dish in a watering hole, but I was rewarded with a salad-bowl-sized serving of chopped shrimp and chopped fish (tilapia in this case), very fresh and mixed with a crunchy salsa fresca and diced avocado. Working through it with soccer roaring on TV above and a cooler case of cold longnecks dead ahead, El Rinconcito made a convincing demonstration of ceviche as bar snack.
If any country has a claim to ceviche as a national dish, it’s Peru, where the stuff is regarded as an everyday staple but also calls for intricate composition and artful presentation.
In Kenner, the hole-in-the-wall cafe Las Carnitas (2721 Roosevelt Blvd., Kenner, 504-469-1028) serves classic Peruvian dishes done with customary Peruvian flair, and that goes for the ceviche. A modest masterpiece, it’s a generous serving of big, thick-cut hunks of fish (the type varies) beautifully arrayed with multi-colored potato slices and a crunchy drape of thin red onion curls.
Downtown, the unique, pan-tropical cafe Carmo (527 Julia St., 504-875-4132) has been another leading light for ceviche in New Orleans, with meticulously sourced fish (including some interesting alternate species). Chef Dana Honn prepares a few different varieties. There's an Ecuadorian style that bathes for hours in its juice, yielding a very tight, deeply citric bite. Beside it there's a traditional Peruvian version, which is marinated ever so briefly, and finished to spec with peppers and cashew fruit and passion fruit and two types of Andean corn — choclo, with its plus-sized corn kernels, and toasty, crunchy canchitas.
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Honn also consulted on a more fully Peruvian menu at Catahoula (914 Union St., 504-603-2442), the new boutique hotel in the CBD where a contemporary pisco bar and a casual eatery meld together with the lobby and courtyard.
In Peruvian tradition, the highly seasoned citrusy ceviche liquid carries an evocative name: leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk. At Catahoula, the bartenders may encourage you to slurp down the leftover leche de tigre in your ceviche bowl as a toast to your health. They’ll even spike it with a shot of pisco brandy on request. That feels right. When you can find something refreshing and invigorating like this in the slump of a New Orleans summer, it's worth raising a glass.
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