One of the things I can always count on when returning to my native Miami is dirt-cheap authentic Cuban food - the sustenance of my heritage. But now, with Miami's booming culinary scene congregating in the resurgent Downtown and the newly created Midtown, that good quality at affordable prices is true for other cuisines as well. Miamians are broadening while fine-tuning their culinary palates, and Peruvian Chef Juan Chipoco knows it.
In September 2008, Chipoco opened a brilliant restaurant centered around the cuisine of his homeland in the heart of downtown - a risky move (that paid off) in an area that is known to transform into a ghost-town at the close of office hours. The playfully named CVI.CHE 105
(pronounced ce-vi-che) was the word on the street upon my recent visit back to South Florida, and the packed, boisterous sleekly-clad space proved it.
On a random downtown street, lined with empty storefronts advertising the "coming soons," CVI.CHE 105 had guests pouring out the door on an early Sunday evening. I squeezed my way through the disproportionately cramped waiting area to find a grand gray and white concrete expanse flecked with bright Caribbean colors and numerous occupied tables. First turn-off: the noise level is almost too much to bear, bouncing off the lofty walls and floor. First turn on: mounds of fresh fish ceviche were piled high on pretty white plates being doled out one after another from the ceviche bar at the front of the house. My stomach was rumbling.
Next thing I see: Chef Chipoco standing solidly, arms crossed observing what I was observing but with a different eye. Mine, longing. His, scrutinizing. Talk about pressure in the kitchen. He almost made me nervous. But his overbearing attentiveness gets the job done; his food is spectacular. His hands-on approach wafts from the kitchen to the house as well, personally greeting guests at each table with pointed eye contact, a firm handshake, and an immaculately white smile. To assume he is meticulous man would be more than fair. And it radiates through his menu.
The ceviches are rightfully their specialty, not letting the eater down with the expectation-setting namesake. Because, of course, I had to try them all, my two guests and I ordered the tricolor mixed ceviche ($36). Weighing in at 32 oz, it was marvelously presented on a dish compartmentalized into quadrants, three of which boasted a ceviche each in a different marinade (which are also offered a la carte), and the other with robust hominy, crunchy corn kernels, and a fork-tender sweet potato cube. Of the three sauces (a creamy yellow pepper, a mildly spicy, and a light milky cream), the yellow pepper was the most interesting for the fresh mixture of naked octopus, shrimp, scallops, and fish. But I was not wholly satisfied with the fancy sauces and had my try at yet another ceviche, the most simple they could offer. The "Ceviche Anconero" ($12.95) was the most brilliant, allowing the seafood to shine through with a traditional and uncomplicated Peruvian aji lime sauce.
Our tries at the non-ceviche fare were also a hit, save for the pork tamales ($6.95), whose corn meal had the most off-putting, disturbing flavor of Play-Doh. (The table was unanimous on that one, and it was so quickly disregarded that no photo was taken.) This oversight was easily overlooked by the booming strength of the other dishes. Our "Antichuchos" ($8.95) of spice-rubbed octopus were a tad salty but cooked to a pleasant texture and savored just as well. The traditional tomato-based Peruvian seafood soup, "Parihuela" ($14.95) was also packed with a flavorful punch and was a sizable liquid portion.
The dish I was most pleasantly surprised by was the "Sudado Mixto," ($14.95) a wickedly succulent stew of poached fish and seafood, with potato chunks and softened onion and red pepper slices. I didn't know what to do with myself and this bountiful bowl of layered flavors that revealed themselves as every spoonful traveled from the tip of my tongue to the back of my throat. No doubt my stomach was quickly expanding to the point of explosion, by my hand was possessed by this Peruvian poach as I absent-mindedly lifted it to my lips until there was nothing left to scoop. Licking the bowl did cross my mind, but I thought better of it. I would not be able to escape the chef's surveying eyes, after all; he does not miss a beat.
Suffice it to say there was no room for dessert, but I was sure to take the tiny portion of leftovers with me. While my stomach said no, my taste buds were not ready for this Peruvian journey to cease. There was no way I was going to leave behind fish that fresh and satisfying. It was an early dinner and there is always a pre-bedtime snack to be had. And while the plentiful portions at this cevicheria do not imply snacking, you can have as little or as much as you'd like and you will seldom go wrong. (Again, I will regard the tamales as an oops that you can certainly pass over.) Stick with the sea and savor the authentic tastes of Peru via the expert hands of Chef Chipoco.