I get a little upset at bad ceviche for a few reasons:
1. It’s dangerous. Under-cooked or under-marinated fish causes anything from indigestion to…well, worse.
2. It’s so simple. It’s an art to do really, really well. But if the fish is fresh and you don’t add a bunch of extra flavours or ingredients it should be delicious.
3. Lima has so may good options that a bad version is a waste of a meal.
Peruvian ceviche is not Mexican ceviche. There’s no avocado involved. Here’s the breakdown of the best classic ceviche in South America:
Cubes of (preferably sustainable) white-fleshed fish, usually sole or corvhina
red chili pepper, usually diced aji limo mixed with the lime juice and a slice of rocoto as garnish
a single leaf of lettuce
White choclo corn
sliced red onion
braised or steamed orange yam
optional: crunchy salted corn kernels
That is all. No MSG. No sugar. No soy sauce. No ketchup. No peaches or tomato paste or sesame seeds or anything that could be described as fusion. Now there’s nothing wrong with fusion in my opinion, but in classic ceviche it has no place.
But there’s one thing I like more than classic ceviche, and that’s conchas negras ceviche. That translates to “black conch” or black mussels. It’s seafood and the black juices leach into the marinating juices turning it all murky brown. Why is this better than corvhina?
1. The texture is a little chewier and crunchier.
2. The season for fresh conchas negras is short, making it a rare delicacy.
3. The leche de pantera (panther’s milk) – that’s the collected marinating juices are richer. There’s more of a seafood flavour, a thicker creaminess, and a mild sweetness, not a bland neutrality of the whitefish.
4. It’s even more of an aphrodisiac than classic ceviche, though this doesn’t make it more delicious.
Normally the dish is served with diced black conch, diced red onion (not sliced), and this gives it a completely different texture than classic ceviche. It’s for people who want a different ceviche flavour but won’t dive into fusion waters. It’s exciting. It’s exotic. And you should not eat it at Canta Rana.
Canta Rana is a cevicheria in Barranco. It has a good reputation and the children of the owners more recently opened a place a block away called Canta Ranita. It’s hipper, with a younger crowd and some say better fish. But I heard it wasn’t open for dinner, which was the only meal I could have it for before I left Lima. Never eat ceviche for dinner unless you’re sure the place will be full and the quality as high at lunch. Here I don’t think it is. I didn’t get to go back for lunch, but the conchas negras I got excited about and ordered (they were fresh and available! Hurray!) were awful.
They tasted fishy. There weren’t may of them. I felt ripped off (they were 35 soles – 10 soles more than a regular ceviche. Going rate for corvhina or sole ceviche in Lima at nicer places is about 30, so maybe the classic would have been better). The yam wasn’t anything special. Neither was the corn. The hygiene in the restaurant was questionable. And the service was awful. The restaurant was almost empty when we went (around 8:30pm) so there was no excuse for bad service. It’s not as though they were too busy. But it took 20 minutes for the server to come back after giving us the menus and our drinks didn’t come until after the food, which took another 30 minutes. Great, it was made to order, but it’s a dish that’s pretty quick to put together, and if the fish is fresh it doesn’t need to marinate long.
Canta Ranita also just opened a spot in the beaches to the south, but I couldn’t find it, so this was my only experience with the Canta Rana/Canta Ranita brand, and I would not go back. I would try Canta Ranita in Barranco but I would definitely go to the Burrito Bar for dinner instead of Canta Rana next time. Fresh salsas, guac, beans, tortillas, fish, chicken, pork all together in a giant burrito (or on a bed of rice for the gluten-intolerant). MUCH better. Rarely do I say skip ceviche. But suppertime ceviche at Canta Rana is one thing you should skip.
I tried my friend’s sole tiradito. It was okay. But the fish wasn’t great. It tasted like nothing. The portion size was nothing for the price. There were no complimentary apps besides the toasted corn so we were still hungry afterwards. It’s a fun place in terms of decor, but when it’s empty it’s dead.
For now, I’ll keep looking for better conchas negras.