Cebiche de Pescatore and Tiradito at Ay Ay Picante ($15 ea)
You get a lot of bang from your buck at this unassuming and excellent Peruvian spot, where the piles of chewy, fresh tilapia in the Cebiche de Pescatore and—in a nod to the broad streak of Japanese heritage in Pacific-edged Peru—the Tiradito are each the size of the Andes foothills.
The only difference between the brightly colored marinades is the color of the pepper that’s been pureed with a ton of lime juice, garlic, and something savory the folks at Ay Ay Picante call “seafood cream.” That amazingly flavorful cold broth, called leche de tigre, is one mark of a true Peruvian cebiche. Large kernels of corn and a hunk or two of cool, soft sweet potato are the others. The candied flavor of the potato explodes when jabbed onto the fork with a big slab of fish, then swabbed in the citrusy pool of sauce on its way to your mouth. Your jaws will be sore by the end, but of all of the ceviches I’ve tried in Chicago, these two still call out to me.
Ceviche de Camaron at La Encantada ($12)
This is a simple and elegantly executed Mexican-style ceviche, with shrimp, tomato, and avocado uniformly chopped into tiny bites and filled in with plenty of cilantro and purple bits of onion. If you’ve ever had Mexican shrimp cocktail—the kind that comes swimming a glass like the dinner version of a bloody Mary—you’ll find the flavor similar, minimal on lime with ketchup-y sweetness and an underlayer of heat. The chips served alongside are unique: baked instead of fried, unsalted, with a toasted gritty corn flavor that gives the ceviche the spotlight.
Ceviche at Slurping Turtle ($11)
This cool River North noodle shop earns a spot on the list for its mixed seafood ceviche. The delicately plated pile is composed of different textures: chewy squid and octopus, silky Hokkaido scallops, and delicate shrimp. It’s topped with—as a paragon in miniature of the way Takashi plays with high and low food culture—a few fried wonton strips and a pinch of precious saffron threads. The vinaigrette shines: the tiny Japanese yuzu is the main ingredient, with a flavor less mouth-puckering than lime or lemon and tinted with the bitterness of orange peel.
Ceviche de Pescado at Garcia’s ($9.50)
Garcia’s easygoing ceviche de pescado is a thick mixture of flaky tilapia and chopped tomatoes, served with big, buttery slices of avocado on the side. If you’re nervous about the rawness of ceviche, this one’s a good way to get your feet wet. The fish has been marinated long enough to cook through and fall apart, giving it a familiar flaky texture that soaks up the tomato juice and thickens the dish into a sort of chilled stew. Ideal for scooping up with the limitless fried tortilla chips you get tableside.
Ceviche de Camaron at Mariscos El Veneno ($11.99 for large)
You’re probably already familiar with El Veneno’s practically perfect marlin ceviche, a sample of which comes to your table minutely flaked and spread on tortas as an amuse-bouche. The shrimp is even better. It’s quality stuff, marinated fresh and raw to order and still soft in the center. The plate is about half cucumber-tomato-onion chop, half tender shrimp, with a tiny sprinkling of cilantro.
This is as close to a tabula rasa you can get, with no spiciness and light lime on the plate. Instead, your server brings upwards of a dozen lime wedges and a few bottles of hot sauce, plus a bowl of El Veneno’s searingly spicy salsa, and it’s yours to customize as you will.
Trio, Trio, Trio at Topolobampo ($19)
You can’t do ceviche without considering what Rick Bayless, reigning king of high-end Mexican food in Chicago, has to offer from his raw bar of sustainably caught seafood. At Topolobampo, the Trio, Trio, Trio gives you three martini-glass sized samplings. From left to right are the Ceviche Fronterizo (albacore, tomatoes, cilantro, lemon), Coctail e Atun Tropical (bigeye tuna, mango, avocado), and Ceviche Yucateco (shrimp, squid, cucumber, radish, orange).
Of these, only the Fronterizo follows the strict technical definition of ceviche—the Atun Tropical is more of a sashimi-grade tuna tartare, while the Yucateco shrimp and squid have been pre-steamed. But the Yucateco is still my favorite. A honeyed sweetness against spicy habanero is perfect in the orange and pineapple-hinted marinade, and Bayless gives the dish drama by leaving tender squid tentacles whole and dangling.
Ceviche Mixto at Sabor a Café ($14.99)
Colombian ceviche is mostly similar to the traditional Peruvian version, though it adds a few starchy accompaniments of its own. At Sabor a Café, the ceviche mixto—a lemon-dressed pile of cooked and cooled calamari and shrimp—comes with charred corn kernels, lightly fried strips of plantain, and big wedges of avocado. When the server asks if you want sauce, say yes. Their little bowl of creamy blended green chili, lemon juice, and minced onion packs wonderful flavor, and after taking this photograph, I dumped the whole thing on top of the seafood.
Ceviche Mixto at Carnivale ($12)
Carnivale’s loud, colorful lounge vibe plays off of its busy location perched above the Kennedy Expressway, and the ceviche mixto has bombastic, bright flavors to match. The seafood—an appreciably tender mix of octopus, shrimp and calamari rings—is topped with highlighter-hued bell pepper ribbons and doused in an extremely orange-forward juice. It’s true that when spooned straight from the bowl this marinade has a flavor somewhat like Sunny-D, but seeped into the seafood it lends a sweet, mild, zest-flecked shine.
Ceviche Langosta at Mercadito ($15)
Some lobster ceviches force this lovely seafood into the background, flaking it too finely and filling it in with onions and other overwhelming flavors. But Mercadito wisely lets the big chunks of sweet, muscular lobster meat speak for themselves. The red-skinned king of shellfish, joined by thin shreds of green tomato and a sprinkling of pepitas, is thickly coated in a pineapple puree; that last has a lovely savory melted ice cream texture with a tiny hint of chile behind the tropical flavor.
Carne Apache at Del Toro ($5)
The same mysterious and wonderful chemical process that happens when citrus juice seeps into fish flesh and “cooks” it all the way through? It also works for beef. Del Toro drenches this big bowl of finely ground lean beef in generously salted lime juice, rendering the meat incredibly tender, juicy and flavorful hours later. It’s cheap, plentiful, and studded with bright jalapeños and tomatoes. The accompanying chips aren’t homemade or anything to write home about, but I’d eat this on whatever you put in front of me—or alone.