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.
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.