This Mariscos Tasting Menu Is so Good It Might Make You Cry
Chef Gilberto Cetina is sourcing incredible seafood and turning it into the best mariscos in town.
The second course of the tasting menu comes with a dramatic presentation at Holbox, Chef Gilberto Cetina’s stunning modern marisqueria in Mercado La Paloma. You sit at the newly expanded counter in front of their dry-aging fridges in the big market hall, eye to eye with gorgeous whole fish hanging upside down as South LA locals, USC students, and workers from the next door DMV file past you, just a few feet from the register where you can otherwise order à la carte. You watch Cetina and his team as they work the raw bar, deftly shucking oysters and slicing fish. The dish arrives, a tight lump of ceviche made with local white seabass, two dollops of avocado salsa, and a slab of Santa Barbara sea urchin layered into the spiny purple husk of the urchin itself, plated on a bed of ice.
But the dish is perhaps not intended to be as dramatic as it was a few weeks ago when, upon receiving her plate, my wife suddenly reached over and squeezed my arm in quiet alarm. “It’s moving,” she whispered. I laughed, thinking it was a trick of the breeze from the overhead fans that keep air circulating in the high-ceilinged warehouse that holds the market, but she wasn’t kidding. She pointed at her plate, where one solitary burgundy spine on the underside of her urchin shell wriggled in a short arc. Suffice it to say the seafood at Holbox is exceedingly fresh.
The emphasis is always on sourcing for Cetina, getting the freshest sea creatures from the closest waters possible. “Sourcing is one of the things that I spend the most time on,” Cetina said. “I think it’s the most important task we have in our kitchen, building relationships with farmers.” Now he’s regularly getting fish from Omega Azul in Baja, sea urchin and more from Sea Stephanie, and prawns from TransparentSea and letting the catch dictate what they serve for any given tasting menu.
The menu’s first course is always a selection of bivalves, whatever is freshest. In late summer, that might mean an oyster with little pops of smoked trout roe and cucumber, another oyster topped with urchin and a touch of smoky salsa, or a simple ceviche of geoduck with a spot of avocado crema. The ethos is clear from the first bite: great seafood with creative presentations, but always rooted in Mexican culinary tradition.
Sourcing wasn’t always easy, Cetina said. He had a hard time getting the good stuff in the early going, mainly because people were a little skeptical about the concept. He tells a story about visiting producers during his research and development phase, telling them, “Here’s a list of products I’m looking for; I want spiny lobster for a lobster taco. And they would ask, ‘What kind of food is it?’ And I would tell them it’s Mexican seafood, it’s mariscos. And immediately, they would say, ‘Oh, you know what? We also have frozen Australian lobster tails.’”
Now he’s getting all kinds of ingredients that are generally considered fancy, like local abalone, sea urchin, spot prawns, bluefin tuna, whatever is best and freshest that day. But it has also raised some interesting questions about perception—many of those ingredients are unusual to find in mariscos and are more commonly associated with high-end Asian preparations, bluefin in sushi, or abalone at Chinese celebrations. Cetina and his team want to be careful to keep dishes clearly in the Mexican tradition to show that these ingredients belong in their cuisine. Moreover, Cetina said, “All those ingredients are native to Mexico. We have spot prawns and sea urchins in Baja California, but they’re just never thought of as Mexican ingredients, which is a shame.”
In one course of the tasting menu that has become a mainstay, Cetina lays a ceviche of bluefin tuna on a tostada raspada with a few dots of sharp chile de arbol and peanut salsa on top. The tuna is lovely, tender, and rich, treated with as much precision and care as you will find anywhere regardless of cuisine, but, as Cetina tells it, it’s almost beside the point. “The fact is, it almost plays backup to the tostada,” he said. “Our focus is really more on the tostada because that’s such a traditional Mexican thing,” he continues, “and with the ceviche, it’s bluefin because that’s what’s biting right now on the Channel Islands… we don’t shy away from it because it’s one of the iconic ingredients of Japanese cuisine, but we do try to present it very much in the context of Mexican food.”
The tostada raspada is worthy of the attention, too. Making the tostadas is an involved process that is most common in Jalisco, and Cetina said it took quite a bit of research and development to nail down. They cook one side of a tortilla, then scrape the raw masa off the other side, dry it, and later fry it. That leaves it thin and crispy, rough on one side in a way that plays perfectly against the luscious tuna on top. No matter what was layered on top of the tostada, though, you would never mistake this for anything other than a remarkable Mexican dish.
And the ingredients aren’t the only thing out of the ordinary for a mariscos joint—even offering a tasting menu is a rarity. Cetina said that Holbox was initially intended to be something small and perhaps transient, a fun little ceviche bar extension of Chichen Itza, the Yucatán-style restaurant stall in the market, which his family also owns. But as he began playing with the menu at Holbox, running specials and working with unusual mariscos, regular customers started asking him to whip up a bunch of his favorites for them, whatever he felt like serving. Word spread, and suddenly, it was a tasting menu. Things grew slowly, two diners one night, four another, but now it’s blown up into a bona fide hit, sold out for months in advance.
There’s good reason for that, of course—it’s a truly special meal. The balance of creativity with classic, technical dish construction with familiar Mexican preparations is a powerful combination. The Taco de Jaiba is another perfect microcosm of the menu, a taco filled with house-smoked yellowtail, Dungeness crab, and locally made queso oaxaca, a smoky and rich taco that is topped with a stunning salsa macha that’s been infused with crab butter for a spicy, saline sharpness.
The menu is always composed of four cold dishes followed by four hot dishes, each taking a more or less familiar format. There are ceviches, tostadas, and tacos. Perhaps you will get a tetela, the Oaxacan stuffed triangle of masa, filled here with an earthy kanpachi liver and black beans, topped with grilled shrimp and dressed with a bright salsa verde made from chiles and lettuce. There is likely to be a tamal, made from Yucatán-style masa colada, soft and savory and topped with abalone and abalone liver sauce. Lobster is a fixture, too—local or from Maine, not the frozen Australian stuff—grilled over mesquite so that it’s gently smoky, accompanied by cabbage stuffed with spiced house-made fish sausage and resting on a complex and intense mole amarillo.
The blend of nostalgia and novelty, the brilliant recontextualization of high-end ingredients into mariscos, and the intensity of the flavors combine to make the meal genuinely affecting. On the perfectly nerdy food forum Food Talk Central, posters report becoming misty-eyed and nearly crying at dinner and noticing their neighbors at the small counter tearing up, too. Posters on the same forum also found a review on Yelp in which tears were shed. It is quite a meal, and even if you don’t weep yourself, you will probably leave with one of the best dinners of the year.
Over the last few years, Holbox has grown into an iconic LA restaurant, a mariscos tasting menu at a counter in a warehouse market that feels like it could only ever be here. It was supposed to be an experiment, a trial run to see if it was worth expanding into a full-on marisqueria somewhere else—specifically somewhere where they could get a liquor license. But now it’s not going anywhere, rooted as firmly in the community as the menu is rooted in Mexican cuisine.
Cetina and his family have been at the market since it opened in 2001, operating Chichen Itza and then Holbox. “The fact that it’s a community space, that 90% of my staff live in this community, the fact that it’s a unique place to come have a meal,” Cetina said it all contributes to their decision to stay in the space instead of relocating or expanding. “The reality is that if Holbox was in a different space, the food would be the same,” he said, “This is the best we can do. We don’t tone anything down because we’re in this casual mercado.” That much is clear, and guests have responded to Cetina and his team’s diligent, creative, unique work. With reservations, with awards, and with their tears.