Halfway through the meal, everyone in the restaurant was standing, leaning slightly forward, staring at one wall of the restaurant with expressions of mixed fear, anticipation and excitement. No one except me was paying any attention to the food.
As I picked up a translucent sliver of raw tilapia with my fingers and dragged it through the cloudy leche de tigre — so tart it felt like a slight electric charge starting at my tongue and coursing through my body — I felt as if I were the one truly being entertained. While all the other diners (and I use the word "diners" loosely, since these guests were mostly occupied downing Negra Modelo and picking at logs of fried yuca) were seated along the back wall, their eyes glued to the flat-screen TV across from them, their heads moving slightly with each kick of the ball down the field, I was watching them and enjoying a Peruvian feast in the process.
When I arrived at Ceviche House, a tiny dive of a restaurant in a run-down Alief strip center where every business has bars on the windows, the World Cup wasn't even on my mind. In fact, I'd been eager for the escape of the half-hour drive and the promise of ceviche far from the boisterous fans invading every Inner Loop bar with a television. What I found was a lively group of elderly Argentina fans, a single cook poking her head out of the kitchen at intervals to check on the game and some of the most alluring ceviche I've tasted outside of South America.
14165 Bissonnet, 281-575-1714. Hours: Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Cilantro soup $7.25
Arroz con pollo $10.95
Lomo saltado $9.95
Ceviche de mariscos $15.95
Chaufa de mariscos $10.45
Aji de gallina $8.95
The name is a little misleading, though, for the restaurant is much more than just ceviche. There's a full menu of Peruvian classics, from lomo saltado to aji de gallina, all of them executed with the care — but not quite the finesse — of Houston's more upscale Latin American restaurants such as Latin Bites and Churrascos. The plating is simple, but the flavors are dynamic, even in deceptively simple fried rice, ruddy with tomato paste and spices and almost buttery in its richness. With most dishes less than $12, it's reasonable, too. What you're saving on the cost of the food is reflected in the service, though. It's always given with a smile, but sometimes, as when the World Cup is on, other things take precedence.
Still, I was happy on that day to sit hunched over a plate of ceviche de mariscos while the folks around me cheered and jeered with each kick of the ball. It felt authentic, like being welcomed into the fold by a bunch of older South American men. They spoke no English, and my Spanish is shoddy at best, but we were united in this far corner of Houston by two universal passions: food and fútbol.
Though there are only two true ceviche dishes on the menu — ceviche de pescado and ceviche de mariscos — I can't quibble with the restaurant's name because the ceviche is what the cook does best. The cook, it seems, is a middle-aged woman whose children provide the front-of-house service (and sometimes, the lack thereof). There's no sense of chef superiority about her. She peeks out of the kitchen to check on things or leaves the restaurant entirely when it's slow. She wears jeans and a T-shirt, and her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and tucked under a baseball cap or inside a hair net. Her modest appearance and attitude belie the complexity of her cuisine.
The arroz con pollo in particular wowed me and a friend, who ordered the dish to compare it to the simple comfort food his mother used to make. After one bite, he closed his eyes and sat back in his seat, seemingly oblivious of the rapid-fire soccer announcements blaring from the TV. Then he jolted upright and dug back in.
"Is it as good as your mom's arroz con pollo?" I asked. He looked up sheepishly. "Better."
The boneless chicken breast and thigh were braised in the same cilantro sauce that coated each grain of rice. The spicy herb infused every piece of tender chicken that pulled apart in delicate strips without any prodding from a knife. The dish is served with a side of papa a la huancaina, boiled and sliced potatoes with a creamy, slightly spicy sauce made of queso fresco and aji amarillo. To my friend's dismay, I made a point of dipping each bite of chicken into the huancaina sauce, combining every element on the plate in one perfect bite. He was more of a purist than I.
In the ceviche, the ingredients end up mixing whether you want them to or not. The dish is served with each component — citrus-cured seafood, sliced sweet potatoes, puffed hominy, boiled hominy on the cob and one giant romaine leaf — in a distinct quadrant on the plate. Once you start digging in, though, all the elements slide toward the center in the creamy leche de tigre, and the meal is actually improved by combining the different textures in each forkful. The crunchy puffed hominy, like half-popped kernels of corn, is the exact opposite in flavor and mouthfeel of the citrus-drenched raw fish, but together they provide a distinctive taste of Peru.
At lunch, a few select dishes are offered for $6.95 each, allowing diners to explore the food of the Andes without overindulging in the middle of the day. When I went for lunch, though, I wanted to try as much as possible, so I asked about the trio plates I'd seen on the restaurant's Facebook page. Initially the server told me they were a special and not available, but then she returned from the kitchen with good news.
"My mom will make you a trio plate," she said. "What do you want?"
That kind of flexibility isn't something you find at every restaurant in town, so I decided to take advantage of it. I told the server to have the chef surprise me, and that's precisely what she did.
I was presented with a trío de mariscos, a colorful platter of three different seafood dishes, each topped with the same criolla sauce of red onions and lime juice that adorns nearly every Peruvian seafood meal. On one end of the transparent plastic tray was jalea, similar to ceviche only with lightly fried (instead of nearly raw) fish, squid and crab meat. In the middle was tomato and red-pepper-spiced arroz con mariscos, also featuring fried fish and a few beautiful clams. On the other end, a bright green bowl of cilantro soup with more seafood, including peachy-pink shrimp and a large crab claw.
The soup was the highlight of the trio. It looked to be filled with a medley of frozen veggies, the typical green bean, pea, lima bean, corn and carrot mix you can find in any freezer section, but the mixture of peppery cilantro and briny seafood masked any subpar flavors that might linger in bulk bags of vegetables. Fish stock, fresh cilantro blended to a paste and a hefty helping of garlic combine to make a soup that's almost summery in its lightness.
A heartier dish is the lomo saltado, a Peruvian classic featuring stir-fried beef with slivers of onions and thick slices of yuca. With its strong soy sauce marinade, it shows the influence of the Chinese immigrants who settled in Peru in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The beef is tender, and the starchy yuca fries soak up the residual juices, taking on the flavor of the lomo saltado themselves. This, more than any other dish, is indicative of the melting pot of Peruvian cuisine and the variety of cultures that converged to make the native food so unique.
By the time we'd finished the ceviche appetizer, my friend and I had become buddies with the group gathered to watch the World Cup. They all seemed to be acquaintances of the cook, people who stopped by for the air-conditioning and cable and some yuca fries dipped in huancaina sauce. Like us, they'd brought booze, but throughout the game, they made several trips to the gas station around the corner to retrieve more Negra Modelo and a few more packs of cigarettes. At one point, when I joked I was rooting for Bosnia and Herzegovina instead of Argentina, they rose to their feet and, with broad grins, gestured to the door, implying I could change my allegiances or leave. Noting my penitent look, the oldest man began laughing and offered me a beer. As long as you were rooting for the home team, you were all right.
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The sense of community is what I liked best about Ceviche House, aside, of course, from the ceviche. My friends and I were the only other diners there every time I went, but we were embraced like old friends. In fact, my photo is now on the wall at the restaurant, tucked into a frame along with the faces of other customers. The frame bears an inscription that reads "LIVE LAUGH LOVE," and it seems like something you'd be more likely to find in a home than in a modest strip-center restaurant.
But it seems appropriate here, where the neighborhood gathers to watch sports over bowls of the best leche de tigre in town and where the teenage servers are sometimes too preoccupied with their cell phones to deliver an extra napkin. It doesn't matter if you can't speak Spanish or don't know the difference between aji amarillo and aji rocoto.
All you have to do is appreciate the ceviche and shout when the home team scores. Do that, and Ceviche House will feel like home to you, too.