Holbox: An Ode to Coastal Mexican Cuisine

There’s an island off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula located between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Separated from the mainland by a crystal clear and shallow lagoon frequented by flamingos, Holbox Island is an unpaved paradise. People flock there to lay in the white sands, swim with whale sharks, and fish for tarpon, otherwise known as the “Silver King.”

3,000 miles northwest of the island, at South Los Angeles food court “Mercado La Paloma,” a new food stand has opened. Named after this famed island, the place seeks to provide a variety of fresh seafood both local and imported.

Chef Gilberto Cetina Jr.—who also owns and operates the Yucatan-style Mexican food stand “Chichen Itza” in the same market—was inspired by the fresh mariscos (seafood) he grew up eating when visiting Yucatan and wanted to bring the ocean to South L.A.

Amid the bustling market, the stand resembles a sushi spot. A white marble bar encircles a short wall of glass protecting all the goods: bay oysters from the Pacific Northwest, blood clams from Baja California, fresh prawns, and an assortment of condiments such as limes, chopped onions, cilantro, and tomatoes.

Putting on a pair of black latex gloves, Cetina Jr. prepares all the cold dishes behind the glass as eager customers surround him on bar stools and peer at his oyster shucking, fish slicing, and ceviche mixing techniques. Very much like a sushi restaurant, Cetina Jr.’s approach to Mexican-style seafood is one in which special care is given to sourcing, cutting, and preparing the meat in order to showcase freshness and subtleties in flavor.

Instead of marinating fish and shrimp in lime juice for hours as is typically done when making ceviche, here, the seafood is sliced to order into perfectly bite-sized pieces then mixed with tomato, onion, and micro-green cilantro. Lime juice, an umami-tinged dried chile guajillo salsa, and creamed avocado are drizzled at the bottom of the plate so the tangy, salty, spicy and oceanic flavors come together with each bite.

Only a few varieties of fish are actually sourced from the Yucatan peninsula due to Cetina Jr.’s desire to provide the freshest and highest quality of seafood. The cooking techniques are also regionally diverse. On the menu you’ll find Ensenada-style fish tacos, pata de mula clams from Baja, and seafood cocteles famous throughout Mexico. Some dishes come straight from the imagination, as is the case with chiles rellenos de jurel, which are sweet yellow chiles stuffed with yellowtail then deep fried and served over a bed of lettuce with homemade tartar sauce and a smokey morita chile salsa. In fact, only two items on the menu are actual Yucatecan seafood dishes: cazon shark empanadas served with a black bean dip and octopus tacos braised in calamari ink sauce.

While the menu may not be representative of the restaurant’s name, Cetina Jr. finds ways to add his Yucatecan touch. The strange but widespread ingredient in the southern state of Mexico that gives seafood in that region a special flavor is actually fake olive oil. Green in color and medicinal in flavor, this oil was created by “Productos Gary” in Yucatan decades ago. Seeking to create an inexpensive version of olive oil, the company mixed together a variety of vegetable oils with artificial flavoring and coloring into what is today called a “dressing” that is used to liven up ceviche in Yucatan. This added ingredient is almost unnoticeable if unaware of the regional tradition but it does add a softer texture and slight herbal flavor to the lime-cured fish dish.

Unlike a sushi bar, the marble table-top is full of a variety of glass bottles filled with homemade hot-sauces: classic Yucatecan habanero salsas, dry morita chile made slightly sweet with caramelized onions and balsamic vinegar, and chile de arbol with peanuts and white vinegar for a citrusy nutty flavor. The options make each dish customizable according to spice tolerance.

In addition to staple items, dishes are interchanged every day depending on what ingredients are sourced that week. On a recent Tuesday, the lunch special was a seafood paella which showcases the inevitable Spanish influence in Mexican seafood, particularly in coastal regions where trade with Spain was prominent.

While you may not be eating ceviche on a beach with blinding white sand and shallow translucent water as far as the eye can see, Holbox, the restaurant version, is a welcome ode to Mexican coastal cooking bringing thoughtful and elevated mariscos dishes to the community south of Downtown.