In keeping with our recent trend of expanding the weekly food fights to encompass more than just burgers and donuts, this week's battle pitted two restaurants against one another to see who could craft the finest fish dish.
Ceviche is made differently from country to country. Although originally from Peru -- and you can certainly try Peruvian ceviche yourself at restaurants like Lemon Tree or Charivari -- the kind of ceviche that most Houstonians are more familiar with is Mexican ceviche. The difference lies not so much in the ingredients (fish, shellfish and more fish) but in the marinade. Although the fish and shellfish used in ceviche is raw, the acidic marinade quickly "cooks" the pieces so that any harmful bacteria is neutralized -- this is the most important part of any ceviche, obviously, as no one likes salmonellosis. With Mexican ceviche, the marinade is heavy on lime juice -- which is where the acid comes in -- as well as tomatoes, cilantro, onions, olives and chiles.
Mexican ceviche is typically served the same way that one would receive a shrimp cocktail in a restaurant, and it ends up tasting very similar if all that you order is shrimp ceviche. But that's boring. We recommend getting a Vuelve a la Vida whenever you see it on a menu. A combination of octopus, fish, oysters and shrimp, the Vuelve a la Vida is a perfect medley of briny sea flavors and brisk tartness.
But does price matter when it comes to ceviche? It's just as easy to get a cheap, high-quality Vuelve a la Vida over on Airline as it is to splash out for an expensive ceviche elsewhere. We headed out to find out for ourselves...
Connie's Seafood Market, 2525 Airline Drive
We've raved about Connie's in the past for things other than their Vuelve a la Vida. They also mix up a wicked michelada and serve succulent whole red snapper that's among the best in town. And if you want fried rice and egg rolls with your Mexican food? Connie's beats neighboring Tampico's hands down.
The brightly-lit, nearly neon interior of Connie's is part circus, part seafood market, all spectacle. On the weekends, it's completely packed with customers and the occasional dueling mariachi bands. Weeknights are a better bet to enjoy the inexpensive seafood over a margarita or michelada and take in the sights (such as the family we once saw feeding a child ketchup on Saltines while they sucked down enough beer to drown the Mayflower; that same child had a grill on, but that's a story for another day).
The Vuelve a la Vida at Connie's comes in two sizes. The small costs $8, and the large costs $13. For splitting between two people, the small will do just fine. Despite the festive appearance of the cocktail and the high price, it's clear that these have been made ahead of time and stuck into a refrigerator. The pieces of fish and shellfish have been marinated separately, so that only the octopus tastes of lime -- or sometimes only the white fish -- and the rest tastes purely of cocktail sauce. Although the oysters are always good, the octopus tends to be overly tough and the shrimp is of the puny, frozen popcorn variety.
Hugo's, 1600 Westheimer
Think you need a special occasion to visit Hugo's? Think again. This is one of our favorite places to grab a weeknight drink at the bar -- which is never overly crowded and always pleasant -- and relax. With a malinche in one hand (trust us on this -- have a malinche and you'll never look back) and a Vuelve a la Vida in the other, you can enjoy the best that one of Houston's finest restaurants has to offer without emptying your wallet.
It's a little known fact that the Vuelve a la Vida at this swanky Mexican establishment actually costs less than the ceviche at Connie's. At only $11 and with more than enough for two people, Hugo's ceviche is a ridiculous bargain. Throw in a huachinito -- a fluffy but dense masa cake topped with roasted vegetables, beans and crema -- for $6 and you have a full meal. Yeah, we're a little bit in love with Hugo's.
The Vuelve a la Vida here only has one drawback as far as we're concerned: the oysters. Being born and raised on the Gulf coast, we're not fans of the tiny, extra-salty oysters used at Hugo's. Are they Pacific oyster? We're not the oyster experts -- that's Robb Walsh's territory -- we just know that we prefer the fat, buttery oysters that are grown in our own waters. Otherwise, this ceviche is excellent and obviously fresh, with a robust and very well-balanced flavor of tomato, lime, and a hint of salty green olive. The fat shrimp and scallops inside hold up well to the marinade, which pairs perfectly with Hugo's thick, housemade tortilla chips.
Is it any wonder that Hugo's wins the ceviche battle with one octopus tentacle tied behind its back? With both a richer and more flavorful ceviche and a lower price than its lower-end competition, the Westheimer restaurant doesn't have to worry about Airline taking its ceviche customers any time soon.