The Raw Truth

Posted on July 18, 2008 – 9:18 PM | by beckler
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The best ceviche I’ve ever eaten was the shrimp ceviche I had during the thick of shrimp season in Mazatlan.  I knew it was shrimp season because suddenly ladies with buckets of shrimp turned up on every street corner, and also because my mother (who lives there) told me, and she generally repeats everything 26 times.  At the time I was a little wary of raw shrimp due to a fear of harmful microbes, but I have eaten a boatload of it since with no ill effects.  This shrimp still had the gray tinge of the truly raw, which is a sign that it had been freshly mixed with citrus juice; shrimp that has been sitting in ceviche marinade for a while takes on the same firm texture and white appearance as boiled shrimp.  The shrimp was as soft as a cloud and very sweet.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was eating it under a palapa on a sandy island that doubles as a coconut plantation.  I obviously can’t have that ceviche whenever I desire, but the memory of it sent me on a quest for the best ceviche to be had in Sacramento

Much has been made on Yelp and in other local media about the schizophrenic nature of the area’s lone Peruvian joint: Koricancha.  Yes, it is two restaurants in one, a Waffle King and KoricauchaKoricancha.  They ask you which menu you would like to order from at the door.  I was there for the cebiche (as it’s called in Peru), and as far as I know no Southern restaurant has yet to offer ceviche n’waffles, so I went for the Peruvian menu.  The décor of Koricancha is bright and pleasant.  There were few customers at lunchtime.  Our order of three different types of ceviche took about 15 minutes to come to the table, because they prepare most of their dishes (and all of their ceviche) fresh.  You will not find this anywhere else, and I found it to be both good and bad.  Good, because the fish was fresh and unimpeachably tender.  Bad, because I surmise that they use a very strong dose of citrus in order to get the ceviche to cure quickly, and the tartness became a bit fatiguing to the palate after a while. 

I got the ceviche mixta, which was a heaping helping of octopus, squid, mussels, and best of all, soft chunks of translucent fish.  Three pungent flavors (garlic, onion, lemon) waged a war on my tastebuds, and I was the winner.  My friends got the two different types of all-fish ceviche, which only differed by the type of peppers used to spice them up.  I was not really able to detect a difference.  The ceviche was accompanied by corn and sweet potato.  Overall, it was very healthful and Summer-y.  We also got an order of yucca fries, presented with huancína sauce (a sauce of cheese, aji Amarillo, and garlic) which were over-fried but still wonderful. Their starchiness was a good counter to the mouth-puckering bite of the ceviche.  I think that their ceviche is best eaten as is intended, as an appetizer, rather than as an entrée, which presents too much acidity for one sitting.  We ended the meal with a scoop of helado lucuma, ice cream made from a Peruvian fruit which was delicately sweet and nutty. 

La Fiesta was next on my list, because I was looking for a good ceviche source downtown.  The La Fiesta/La Favorita chain was my introduction to “authentic” Mexican food (whatever that means, you can all hash that out for yourselves), but in recent years I’ve either outgrown it or it’s seriously fallen off.  I darkened the door of La Fiesta for the first time in months to sample the ceviche.  When served (before I even found a seat, as is the norm for this chain), the ceviche looked mushy and was oddly coupled with a bottle of…ketchup?  I’ve never seen that before.  The slices of avocado on the top were bruised.  The texture was indeed soft but the tostada had a corn-y heft to it.  The citrus flavor was not very assertive, and the mixture was interspersed with pink, mealy tomatoes (an all-too-common problem with ceviche).  As I approached the halfway mark on my tostada, enjoying my bottle of Modelo Especial and marveling at the busy and diverse crowd on this weeknight after nine, I was dismayed to discover that underneath the fish was a pearly layer of mayonnaise.  I am not a mayo hater but I for damned sure don’t want it on my ceviche! This turned my stomach and I was unable to finish.  And yes, I confirmed with a worker that it was indeed mayo, not crema.  Thumbs down.

ZocaloAfter Fiesta, I decided to class things up a bit and head over to Zocalo.  I put on my best thrift store outfit, spritzed some Febreze in the general direction of my ‘pits, and I was ready to go.   The food at Zocalo has never struck me as noteworthy, but that’s not really why people go to Zocalo.  Zocalo has beautiful and dramatic décor, and the prices are reasonable when you factor in the ambiance and the high caliber of service you can expect. This makes it a great place for a date or a family outing. The ceviche, which was presented dramatically encircled by large corn chips curling inward like scorpion tails, was serviceable.  I can forgive mushy orange tomatoes in ceviche that costs four dollars at La Fiesta, but not in a ceviche that costs nine bucks.  The ceviche mixture also contained jalapeno, cucumber, cilantro and red onion.  They use orange roughy for their ceviche and it was quite chewy and lemony, with a rather strong fishiness.  I dined there alone, sitting on the patio and sipping an excellent margarita, and I enjoyed myself immensely.

Las Islitas is not much to look at from the outside, but as I went around to the side entrance and found myself on a shaded patio with a live band in matching sky blue shirts setting up, I felt like I had been whisked back to Mazatlan.  Do you know how serious Las Islitas is about mariscos?  They serve you ceviche as a FREE APPETIZER, that’s how serious they are.  And it’s good (sometimes; on a second visit it was obviously not fresh).  It’s pulpy, and the fish is firm and tuna-like.  It has a proper level of liminess, and contains shredded carrots in addition to the normal ceviche vegetables. I also ordered six of the oysters (too large and creamy for my tastes), the ceviche mixta (which comes with fake crab and tender but bland octopus on top of the same ceviche that they serve as an appetizer) and shrimp al vapor (a platter of shrimp with a kick-ass tomatillo salsa).   It was Saturday, and this restaurant was rockin’-with icy buckets of beer being passed around, and three different sources of music going on at any given time.  I surreptitiously snapped a picture of a customer in the signature soccer jersey of a La Favorita employee.  This is probably where they come when they want ceviche.  Overall, this restaurant pretty much charmed the pants off me even although no single dish stood out as spectacular. 

Las IslitasOn a second, weekday visit, I really missed the liveliness added by the bands,  so I recommend a weekend (or Friday night) visit.  This time we went for the full molcajete, and this mélange of seafood presented in a tomatoey and rich broth bubbling and charring within its volcanic rock goblet must be experienced.  Brush up on your Spanish and don’t be afraid to be assertive if your beer takes a while or you need your bill (“La cuenta, por favor,” will suffice), because although the service can be a little distracted, this is a friendly, family-owned place.

I don’t yet know how I feel about the MARRS building.  As far as new development goes, it seems well thought out and fits in with the neighborhood, but I don’t frequent any of the businesses there.  My lone visit to Azul is not likely to change that.  They served their ceviche in an oversized martini glass, which is a bit of 90’s flair I could do without.  This small portion was served with stale chips and one small tostada for nine dollars.  It was unpleasantly fishy, and I had to add tapatio to make it more palatable.  My jamaica margarita and my boyfriend’s tamarind margarita were strong as hell and I kind of think the food is beside the point at this establishment, which is sadly the case for so many of the new “hip” downtown spots.  Sorry I sound like Andy Rooney, sometimes that’s the way I feel.

A return visit to El Herradero, which I’m sure you all remember me reviewing in June’s Midtown Monthly, confirmed my belief that their ceviche is king.  Two things put it over the top: tender shrimp and a flaky, fresh tostada.  Ok, three: badass stallion paintings.

Did I recapture the magic of that ceviche on the beach?  Not exactly, but I definitely cemented my belief that ceviche is a perfect cool and fresh Summertime food.  I would recommend that you make a trip out to Koricancha, if only to experience it before it’s gone (which is a prediction I hope does not come true), and that you also try the ceviche at El Herradero, which is just one item among many that is delicious there.  Order it at Zocalo if your grandma is in town, and for sure visit La Islita on a weekend because you’ll feel like you walked into a fiesta.  That’s Spanish for party.

Koricancha 2751 Fulton Ave, Sacramento, (916) 488-3555
La Fiesta 1105 Alhambra Blvd, Sacramento (916) 454-5616
Zocalo 1801 Capitol Ave, Sacramento (916) 441-0303
Las Islitas 7240 24th St, Sacramento (916) 421-6271
Azul Mexican Food and Tequila Bar 1050 20th St, Sacramento (916) 447-4040
El Herradero 2330 Arden Way, Sacramento (916) 646-1773

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