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The Peruvian-style ceviche at Yelapa Playa Mexicana had mahi-mahi, squid and shrimp pieces tossed with "local citrus" fruit and avocados in a mélange seasoned with pasilla chiles and hibiscus. It's one of the most ingenious ceviches I've ever had, if a little on the sweet side, and one of three ceviche variations on the platos crudos section of Yelapa's menu. All three come in your choice of raw, Peruvian-style or fully cooked "Texas-style" versions.
Yelapa shares the restaurant complex with Blue Fish and Hobbit Hole on Richmond. The low-slung building includes an airy veranda and a dark interior dining room that had an annoyingly smoky fireplace roaring on a recent winter evening. I much prefer the laid-back porch seating area, which is furnished with Mexican equipale furniture and decorated with bright-colored photos of tropical scenes. It's the perfect atmosphere for the tropical cocktails and ceviche at which the restaurant excels.
The other two ceviches on the menu were made with apples — one with Fuji apple and chorizo, and the other with apple and coconut. I think of ceviche as raw fish cooked in acidic citrus juice. But many modern chefs, like Nobu Matsuhisa, have reinterpreted South American ceviche, so all's fair these days — including combining it with Japanese sushi.
Houston, TX 77098
Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby
Sopes with lamb: $14
Mexican shrimp and grits: $16
Three-course lunch special: $12.95
If you have eaten ceviche at Peruvian restaurants like Lemon Tree, you know that the authentic version can be extremely tart, a problem the version at Yelapa certainly didn't have. I ordered it as a lunch entrée and found myself wanting something to eat it with. There was no bread, tortillas, chips or any other starch on the table. So I paid two dollars for a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa. The chips were thick and cold. The salsa tasted like spaghetti sauce. So what sort of Mexican restaurant serves cutting-edge ceviche but can't get chips and salsa right?
Owner Chuck Bulnes, formerly of Joyce's Oyster Resort, was thinking of a different kind of restaurant when he came up with the name Yelapa. "I didn't want to compete with Pappasito's or Maria Selma's or any of the other Tex-Mex or Mexican places on Richmond. I envisioned a Mexican seafood restaurant," Bulnes told me. The name is borrowed from a fishing village on the Pacific Coast of Mexico just south of Puerto Vallarta where Bulnes used to eat grilled fish on the beach. Bulnes hired chef L.J Wiley, who broadened the concept. "We are still evolving," Bulnes said.
Wiley, 32, was raised in Houston and got a degree in philosophy from Texas State in San Marcos. When he decided he wanted to cook for a living, he moved to New York, where he worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Spice Market restaurant. He also worked in China for a while, opening upscale restaurants with one of Vongerichten's associates. His last cooking job was at Cullen's restaurant.
I would call Wiley's cooking at Yelapa a clever, postmodern spin on tropical Latino cuisine with an Asian twist using local ingredients. What makes it real is that this wild mix of influences is native to Houston. Like Reef and Catalan, Yelapa is drawing on indigenous ethnic ingredients and flavors. And some of the food he is turning out is sensational.
Braised lamb shoulder meat piled on two freshly fried, thick masa sopes came with an array of condiments that included finely cut watermelon radish sticks and a Mexican escabeche of carrots, cabbage and onions made in the style of Korean kimchee. The combination of the funky Mexican kimchee, crunchy radish and spicy tender lamb was absolutely brilliant.
On a dinner visit, I had fresh amberjack perfectly grilled and topped with mango salsa. The aggressive flavor of the amberjack contrasted stunningly with a pool of taro risotto garnished with a ring of cinnamon oil. It reminded me of the Hawaiian tradition of eating spicy tuna poke with bland poi.
Wiley's crab fritters served with avocado and hearts of palm conjured up remembrances of Caribbean conch fritters and made me wonder why we don't make seafood fritters around here more often. The juice drinks were also fabulous. A Texas red grapefruit refresco was spiked with basil, while a blueberry, coconut and lime soda combination was dark purple and decorated with a lime wheel.
Yelapa's chocolate-chipotle shot dessert is a simple but ancient mix of chocolate and chile peppers that reminded me of the movie Chocolat, in which the beautiful chocolate-shop proprietress sends the townspeople into frenzies of passion with chocolate confections that are seasoned with chile peppers.
One night after watching the movie at home, I made myself a mug of Abuelito Mexican chocolate that I spiked with a huge dose of New Mexican red chile powder. But even my homemade concoction wasn't as hot as Yelapa's. I felt the wonderful burn for half an hour.
When I wrote about Yelapa's innovative ceviche on our blog, I guessed that the "local citrus" was mostly grapefruit and suggested the kitchen add some Meyer lemon or something tart. I also complained that charging for chips in Texas is like charging for bread and butter in France.