You’ll find one in almost every barrio in San Miguel de Allende.
I’m talking about a seafood restaurant. A very typical Mexican seafood restaurant. It will probably be named after a shrimp, a crab or, perhaps, a crayfish. It will be overstuffed with marine kitsch. There will be a mural, most likely, waves splashing up the walls. A television will be perched high in a corner, tuned to either a soccer game or a tele-novella. There will be two very visible coolers, one hustling Corona, the other Coke. There will be formica-topped tables, each struggling to hold seven or eight different bottles of hot sauce. And, at one of those tables, there’s almost sure to be a young couple doe-eyed either over each other or the fishbowl-sized coctel de camaron that they’re sharing.
All of the casas de mariscos frescos I can think of in this town have been here longer than the 15 years that I have been peeling shells off shrimp here. Except one. Recently a new seafood restaurant docked in San Miguel and it’s a little different, a little better than the others.
Yes it’s got the coolers, the kitsch, a lot of hot sauce bottles and a TV. But, with a gentle request, the television can be switched from broadcasting soccer to some soft jazz and the overall look is a little less crass and bright, a little more class and comfortable. Plus there are quite a few things on the menu that sets this restaurant apart from most of the others.
The place is called El Puerto and top of the list on the menu are those compulsory seafood cocktails and on top of the bar are displayed the containers for the compulsory chico, medio and grande sizes of cocktails. Now, admittedly, in the seventies, I was a shrimp cocktail junkie. These days I’m more of a follower of the words of Diana Kennedy: “If there is one thing that is death to seafood it’s a cocktail and that awful catsup sauce.”
Fortunately, below the cocktails on the menu at El Puerto, things get a lot more interesting.
The first time I walked into the restaurant, I asked our server, Carlos, recognizable from his Los Milagros days, the same question I almost always ask the first time I walk into any restaurant: “What on the menu is your chef most proud of?”
“El ceviche, seguro el ceviche”, was Carlos’ answer.
Most Mexican seafood restaurants have a ceviche on the menu. Some have two or three. El Puerto has six.
Now for most of my life I was confused about ceviche. And not just because some restaurants called it cebiche or seviche or even sebiche.
I always thought that ceviche was all about the seafood. And, over and over, I would be disappointed when I couldn’t even identify what kind of fish I was eating. All I would get was a lip-puckering mouthful of citrus and vinegar. Close my eyes and I couldn’t tell whether I was eating tilapia or tuna.
Now one half of that problem is many restaurants are not really sure what the difference between a tartare, a carpaccio, a ceviche or any of the other names that raw seafood dishes go by. The second half of that problem is me. I have to get my head around the most important part of a ceviche may not be what’s in there that swam (or is that swum) but what it swam with.
The easiest comparison I can make to ceviche is pasta. When I order a pasta dish, the noodles aren’t really that important. Do I really care if it’s spaghetti, fusilli or rigatoni? What I’m really ordering and care about is the sauce.
El Puerto’s Chef Juan José Santiago has spent most of his life working in coastal towns, in seafood restaurants, in places like Cancun and Veracruz. I think Chef Juan José understands ceviche. As mentioned, he has six different ceviches on his menu but they all have the same seafood mix: Shrimp, octopus and tilapia are fairly common in local restaurants’ ceviches; bay scallops are less common; chocolate clams and sea snails I haven’t seen in any other ceviche anywhere. What is really different between the six ceviches at El Puerto though is what keeps that mix of seafood company.
Though Peru claims to have originated ceviche and it is considered that country’s national dish, it has probably been around in coastal Mexico for centuries. Combining seafood with lime juice is an alternative to cooking it with heat, as the citric acid firms up the flesh, and maintains a freshness in taste that otherwise would be lost.
Most of the ceviches I’ve had in Mexico have been served as an appetizer. Most of them have been served in a glass or on a tostada. El Puerto serves their ceviche as a main and on a plate.
The first ceviche that Carlos the server ever recommended was El Puerto’s Puerto Madera. Don Day’s Wife and I were half-and-halfing and, as much as she likes capers and olives, the squid ink was a no-go. I decided I would be back, alone if necessary, for that ceviche negro. We instead decided to share two other of the restaurant’s ceviches, the red and the green, the Isla Del Carmen and the Creta.
Before the ceviches arrive, we were treated to complimentary mini-glasses of shrimp consomme. It was extraordinarily good, a peppery broth, rich in color and taste from the shells. Our first impression of El Puerto’s food was a very big impression.
The best ceviches, in my opinion, are made a la minute, with the kitchen starting fresh when they receive each order. Though Chef Juan José was somewhat hidden from view, he had two aluminum bowls on top of the counter and I could see that our ceviches were being made from scratch. And, when he plated, I liked the choice of dishes. The dark matte grey bowls brought out all of the freshness in the color of the ingredients.
The more conventional red ceviche had tomato, white onion, cilantro, lime juice and olive oil in the mix. It was decorated with leaves of lettuce, avocado sections and some perfectly-cooked and decently-sized shrimp. There was a touch of chile heat and a salty, citric overall taste. Nice.
The green ceviche had more of a salad look to it. It helped reinforce my current fascination with raw tomatillos, combining them with cucumbers, lots of red onion (more appropriately called cebolla morada or purple onion in Spanish), serrano chile, cilantro and lime juice. It was also accompanied by shrimp plus a generous wedge of octopus on top. It was more vinegary than the red ceviche and, also, full of exploding freshness on the tongue.
The obligatory, store-bought tostadas and saladitas, that sit on each table at El Puerto, make perfect little shovels for the seafood with their crispy and crunchy texture and, though I’d had thoughts of checking out one more menu item…salmon and tuna carpaccios were what I had my eyes on…I was just too stuffed.
Those carpaccios and that squid ink ceviche will have to wait until next time. I’m predicting that will be soon.
El Puerto is located at San Pedro #14 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm every day except Tuesday. For delivery, telephone 415 688 1548.