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La Cevicheria, Mid-City

Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats restaurants—often obscure, ethnic, unsung spots—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Have a place she just must taste? Drop us a line.

“So what are we thinking?” asks Julio, the owner of La Cevicheria, when I walk into his tiny eatery for lunch on a weekday afternoon. I’m not sure if I caught him in an especially talkative mood, or if he’s always this way, but when I ask him to tell me a little about the menu, he’s off and running and we don’t stop chatting until I leave, 45 minutes later. Julio is from Guatemala, but wants me to know this isn’t a Guatemalan restaurant. Rather, it’s an international one. Though there’s a Guatemalan mixed ceviche on the menu, he points out that he also serves a Peruvian-style ceviche with red snapper with potatoes; a Caribbean shrimp dish cooked in coconut milk; and a variety of tostadas, tacos and burritos all stuffed with different types of seafood. Since it’s my first time in, Julio recommends either the Guatemalan mixed ceviche or the bloody clam variety. I choose Guatemalan (I’ll get to the whole bloody clam thing later) and have a seat.

It’s clear whoever was in charge of designing the restaurant’s oceanic theme isn’t one to do things halfway. The interior is painted multiple shades of blue and the restaurant’s walls are covered with framed seashell paintings and aquatic knick-knacks like fish-bone wind chimes and wood-carved puffer fish. A handful of men take up two other tables and they all gab a little in Spanish with Julio before heading out.

With the restaurant now empty, Julio pulls up a chair just as my ceviche arrives in a giant sundae bowl (apparently he went ahead and put me down for a large) topped with diced avocado and cilantro, served with a side of crispy tortillas and Saltines (Saltines are what Guatemalans eat their ceviche with, says Julio.) It looks just lovely with chunks of pink shrimp and eggplant-colored octopus along with lots of diced tomato, mint and ? is that imitation crab? Before I even get to taste the ceviche (or ask Julio what’s in it), he mentions the crab issue and seems genuinely worried he might disappoint me. It’s the only way he can keep the dish affordable for his customers, he explains. (The small is $7.99, the large is $9.99.) His daughter, a crab connoisseur, has searched high and low for the best imitation crab she can find and the whole family believes this is it. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s shredded into small pieces or that it’s been soaked in the ceviche juices or that I rarely give this much thought to the taste of “krab,” but I have to admit, it doesn’t have that artificially sweet flavor, it’s got a pretty good texture, and I’m not all that bothered by the substitution, though I’m sure some purists might disagree. The flavors are wonderful and Julio is happy that I’ve tasted the Worcestershire sauce (trust me, you will too), a staple in Guatemalan ceviche which works especially well with the mint.

Business is down, he tells me. Construction workers used to make up a big part of his lunch crowd but nobody’s building anymore in this economy, at least not here in Mid-City. The restaurant gets mostly locals, but people come from all over Southern California – most recently Oxnard and Anaheim -- for the bloody clams they serve, named for the dark inky liquid inside of their shells. They might have heard about La Cevicheria on the Internet, but he’s not sure. “I don’t have a computer. I’m old fashioned,” Julio says. He disappears into the back and comes marching out with a colander full of live, medium-sized clams with dark shells. He says they’re hard to come by in the United States and though some places try serving previously frozen ones, he gets his bloody clams (I can’t seem to get a more official name out of him) imported fresh from Mexico.

So, of course, despite a bowl of ceviche the size of my head sitting in front of me, I have to try them. (La Cevicheria serves them raw by the dozen for $13.99 or chopped up in a ceviche for $9.99.) If I’m gonna do it, I might as well go for raw. They’re still moving after they’re shucked and Julio instructs me to top the little suckers with a squeeze of lime and a dash of Tapatio hot sauce. They’re meatier than typical clams, with an earthy flavor and a texture more like conch. The black juice is rich and salty but tart from the lime and I truly enjoy throwing back a few of them with the warm breeze coming in through the screen door. All that’s missing is a beer which could have been a very cheap addition to my meal thanks to a BYO policy.

Julio keeps chatting till the very end. La Cevicheria has been open seven years and he’s proud of the dishes they serve. His wife, a former personal chef does most of the cooking. His clientele just isn’t eating out as much in this darn economy. Julio asks me to come again as he hands over my change. I tell him I will. And I mean it.
Lunch and Dinner: $2.50 to $13.99

—Lizbeth Scordo

La Cevicheria

97-01 Shore Front Parkway, Queens, NY 11694 (347) 600-8489 Visit Website

La Cevicheria

3809 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA