M is a ceviche aficionado, so we did a lot of research to find the best ceviche in Lima, Peru before we arrived. In terms of Ceviche, anyone visiting Lima is absolutely spoiled for choice. Ceviche, which is basically an art form in its native Peru, is simply raw fish or seafood “cooked” in citrus juice and chiles (known as “tiger milk”). However, in our research, we found a few ceviche-centric picks that rose to the top, including El Mercado (Hipolito Unanue 203, Lima, Peru) in the trendy Miraflores neighborhood. Mercado is the brainchild of chef Rafael Osterling, and it is known for offering both traditional and nouveau takes on ceviche.
There are no reservations accepted at El Mercado, so in order to get a table, people line up outside before opening time (maybe using the word “line up” is too strict) to get a table. We heard that lunch was an easier sell than dinner, so we waited outside for the restaurant to open for about 45 minutes. When the restaurant finally opened up at 12:30 we were among the first 20 to get in – and we were very happy to have secured a table (though, to be honest, the restaurant wasn’t full at that point, so we probably could have just arrived when it opened, but YMMV). The restaurant itself was partially open to the elements, and live trees grew straight through the floorboards. We enjoyed the woodsy, convivial environment, and it really felt like you were eating outside. We also liked that there was an open window to the kitchen where we saw a bevy of female chefs at work.
We were surprised by the sheer size of extensive menu of tiraditos, causas, ceviches, salads, sandwiches, sushi and more substantial wood-fired dishes like lobster and whole grouper. If your taste is not necessarily for ceviche, there will still be dozens of options for you. There are inventive starters including a suckling pig spring roll and scallops in spicy ceviche “tiger milk.” Despite all this choice, we were most intrigued by the two classic categories of Peruvian appetizers: tiraditios, thinly-sliced fish with citrus; and causas, Peruvian potatoes mixed with chilis and other fillings like fish and avocado. We decided to sample the Causa Tumbesina, with yellow Peruvian potatoes, shrimp, crab and avocado (42 Soles), which was a delicious mixture of textures and mild spiciness that we were not expecting.
However, the stars of the show are Mercado’s ceviches, of which there are 8 varieties, inspired by different areas of Peru, and the ingredients local to each region. In a dish with relatively few component, every element of the ceviche has to be absolutely perfect, and M certainly has a critical eye for ceviche. Unique options included the “Galactic ceviche” with Lemon Sole, Bull Crab, and Scallops Cooked in Lime Juice and Sea Urchin “Galactic Milk.” We selected two different types of ceviche: the classic Lenguado (55 S): Lemon Sole in Lime Juice, Chili “Tiger Milk” Red Onion, Cilantro, Iceberg Lettuce, Sweet Potato & Corn and the more avant-garde Norte-Norte (54 S): Sea Grouper, Cockles, Shrimps, Green Banana Majado (fried mash) & Chili.
The seafood in both ceviches was super fresh and delicate, and was some of the best fish we had ever tried. Each was garnished simply with large Peruvian corn kernels- choclo– and mashed sweet potatoes or plantains. The flavors of each ceviche were clean, simple and not over-complicated. M admired the technical perfection of the Lengaudo ceviche, with its perfectly uniform slices of fish, and just the right amount of onions with a pungently citrus-y tiger milk that was not overpowering. Mercado’s rendition was basically a template for everything a classic ceviche ought to be. We were struck by the purple color of the Norte-Norte ceviche, and the tantalizingly smoky flavor of the chilies. Upon consideration, M deemed the Lenguado as his favorite ceviche of the trip. We would highly recommend Mercado for all things seafood, but if you are ceviche lover, it is a must-try!