SAN DIEGO – El Gringo and his señora dropped in at the 57 Degrees Wine Bar in San Diego Sunday for the 1st Annual Ceviche Showdown. The stakes were high at this event; ten of San Diego’s most celebrated chefs and restaurants were on hand to compete for nothing less than the title of “San Diego’s BEST Ceviche”. A panel of four celebrity judges sampled a bit of each pescado plate to determine which would become San Diego’s “Top Fish”. Additionally, the crowd were asked to choose their favorites for the “People’s Choice” award.
At the end of the day, Chef Luisteen and his staff at Puesto at the Headquarters in the Gaslamp District took home the title of Best Ceviche. George’s at the Cove in La Jolla won over the masses, winning the People’s Choice award. We had our favorites, but our picks jibed with the judges’ and attendees’ picks, overall.
The ceviches ranged from traditional Baja, Yucatanean and Peruvian preparations to fusions of Mexican, Asian and Mediterranean styles, and we tried them all. Presented here, in the order they were numbered at the event, is a rundown of all 10 entrants, as well as El Gringo and Baja Luxury designer Ursula Koenig’s observations and ratings.
10. Finch’s Bistro and Wine Bar (La Jolla)
Chef Mario Medina’s ceviche consists of large morsels of salmon, sea bass, shrimp and smoked halibut, all swimming in a slightly spicy base of lime, papaya and coconut milk. Cabbage, celery, tomato and a sprinkle of delicate roe complete the dish. We liked the combination of ceviche and the tropics, and thought that this was one of the more imaginative preparations of the day. OUR SCORE: 5 out of 5
9. Old Town Cafe (Old Town)
The chefs at the Old Town Cafe prepared three types of ceviche – a mixed fish, shrimp and octopus; fish only; and a vegetarian gazpacho style dish that substitutes cucumber. El Gringo had his very first ceviche years ago at this restaurant, and their classic ceviche preparation of seafood, lime juice, tomato, cilantro and avocado finished with a dash of habañero really took me back. OUR SCORE: 4 out of 5
8. Fish Public (Kensington)
The entry from Fish Public was one of the more elegantly presented. A stack of local Dover sole co-mingles with colorful red bell peppers and green cilantro and celery atop a dollop of creamy avocado mousse. We felt that the sole’s proteins broke down a bit too much during marination, losing it’s potential texture and tooth. The marinade tasted of oil and vinegar dressing, which overpowered the delicate tastes this dish could highlight. OUR SCORE: 2.5 out of 5
7. George’s at the Cove (La Jolla)
WINNER: People’s Choice Award
La Jolla’s venerable George’s at the Cove won the People’s Choice award with good reason. Their ceviche of halibut is cured in seaweed, then marinated with lime juice and coconut milk. The dish also includes pepitas (seeds), bell pepper and two dollops of jalapeño aioli, which were spicy and complemented the ingredients nicely. This was one of our favorites and we agreed it would be best enjoyed at George’s overlooking the Pacific. OUR SCORE: 5 out of 5
6. Tequila Factory (Old Town)
Served in a plastic tequila glass with a section of cucumber, the selection from the Tequila Factory in Old Town felt like more of a “hometown” preparation. There was nothing necessarily wrong with this ceviche, but the flavor profiles and combination of shrimp and dorado in lime juice in a spicy chipotle sauce with diced bell peppers and corn felt uninspired and heavy next to the other entries. OUR SCORE: 2 out of 5
5. Wet Stone (Banker’s Hill)
Wet Stone’s ceviche was another favorite. The chefs there immediately marinate the daily catch of halibut for the freshest possible dish. Combining lime juice, coconut milk, habañero chilies, cilantro, passion fruit and a dollop of yam puree on top, Peruvian conchas (toasted corn nuts) add a nice crunch to the mix. We both liked the way all of the tastes worked together, as well as the Peruvian/Mediterranean fusion of the dish. OUR SCORE: 4.5 out of 5
4. Viva Bar and Kitchen (Downtown)
The chefs at Viva Bar and Kitchen were the only entrants who presented a true, “Baja style” ceviche. The sea bass, diver scallop and halibut are nicely sized and textured, maintaining just the right amount of firm and tender. Keeping it Baja simple, the ceviche is finished with onion, tomato and cilantro – utilitarian for sure. The substitution of a Sun Chip for a traditional tortilla chip was the only choice made that we questioned. OUR SCORE: 3.5 out of 5
3. Duck Dive (Pacific Beach)
The chefs at Duck Dive concoct a very simple and satisfying ceviche. Sea scallops are marinated in lemon juice instead of lime, so the taste of the seafood comes through a bit more than with some of the other ceviches. Onion, cucumber, avocado and chili oil are added to the mix and served atop a tostada. We enjoyed this ceviche’s mild, refreshing and simple taste profile, one that focused on the fish. OUR SCORE: 4 out of 5
2. Puesto at the Headquarters (Downtown)
WINNER: Best Ceviche in San Diego
Chef Luisteen apologized for the amount of time it was taking to prepare our ceviche, explaining that it was being made to-order. Two sous chefs worked behind him, carefully plating the Yucatanean-style dorado ceviche on a cold china dish. Impression made. The result reflected the care they showed in crafting their entry – named 2014 Best Ceviche in San Diego. The fish is perfectly “cooked” in lime juice, combined with pepitas, cilantro and onion, then topped with an artfully displayed sprig of cilantro and avocado slice. A sweet beet puree elegantly finishes the plate. OUR SCORE: 5 out of 5
1. Allegro (Downtown)
Allegro Bistro is the new restaurant that will open soon in collaboration with 57 Degrees, the event venue. Allegro’s ceviche is one of the only ones in the competition that incorporates yellowtail – the Pacific is having an abundant season, so it just makes sense. A simple combination of roasted corn, cilantro, yellow bell pepper and onion nicely complement the lightly marinated fish. OUR SCORE: 4 out of 5
What’s your favorite ceviche in San Diego? Let us know!
Your Gringo in Mexico (reporting from San Diego),
El Gringo would like to say GRACIAS to LMA Wines for keeping our glasses full with some great blends from the Valle de Guadalupe during the event, including a Chenin Blanc varietal from Vinos Palmar and a blend of Columbard and Chenin Blanc from Torres Alegre y Familia. Both paired perfectly with the ceviches.