“Be careful, save room,” Douglas Rodriguez said. “We’re on our way to Mecca.” He kept on eating as he spoke.
Led by an Ecuadorean friend of Rodriguez’s named Humberto Mata, we’d arrived at one of those multi-cevicheria buildings in Playas, a town an hour or so west of Guayaquil. Our eventual destination was the resort town of Salinas, where Douglas had predicted we’d have the best ceviche in Ecuador at a place he’d once visited called La Lojanita. The building in Playas was a large shed that had a thatched roof and used split-bamboo fences to carve out separate outdoor dining areas for a dozen or so cevicherias with names like Cevicheria Brisas del Mar and Cevicheria Viagra Marina—the latter an allusion, I assumed, to the widespread belief in that part of South America that ceviche is useful not only as a hangover cure but as a sexual tonic. (“Anything with that much acid in it can’t actually be good for hangovers,” I had been told by a resident of Lima, who was mum on the sexual-tonic issue.) The cevicheria we’d chosen was a corner establishment called Fuente del Sabor, or Source of Taste, and the food made Douglas’s warning difficult to heed. After some fine black-clam ceviche, we had been served patacones (chunks of plantain pressed down into the frying pan with a wooden mallet until about the size of a cocktail-party crab cake), a spectacular seafood and rice combination, and a huge oyster that, after having been pried open with a hammer and chisel, had been covered with cheese and butter and mustard and cooked right on the flame of the range, with its enormous shell acting as the cooking vessel.
The ceviche gang was on its second day of eating. In Guayaquil, our haul had included a ceviche with so much tomato that it veered toward the fish cocktails of Veracruz and, in a simple but spectacular restaurant called Los Arbolitos, a sort of mixed-stew platter that included a tripe stew, a fish stew, a mixture of salt cod and onions, and, perched on top of the pile like a jolly hat on somebody wearing a dull brown uniform, a ceviche. We’d eaten fish in a peanut sauce that tasted almost like curry, plus a sort of onion soup with tuna. At a place called Churrín Churrón, in a flashy shopping center that also had a Pizza Hut and a Dunkin’ Donuts, we’d had a chocolate-filled churro that Abigail said was worth the trip.
We had also eaten fanesca, an astonishing fish and vegetable soup, nearly as thick as porridge, which is available in Ecuador only during Holy Week. In the Quito market, on the day after Palm Sunday, I’d noticed signs saying hoy fanesca! By Tuesday I’d eaten it three times. As I worked on the rice and shellfish in Playas, I found myself wondering what good deed I might have done long ago that resulted in my landing in Ecuador by accident during Holy Week. In other words, I was trying to anticipate ceviche at La Lojanita while daydreaming about fanesca and shoveling in a shellfish and rice dish I couldn’t seem to stop eating. “Save room,” Douglas said again as he carved off another piece of the oyster. “Don’t forget about Mecca.”
La Lojanita turned out to be a couple of blocks inland from the Salinas beach, just past a cevicheria cluster called Cevichelandia. It was an open-air place, with permanent stools lined up next to a counter on two sides. Its sign was further proof that the Coca-Cola company had a lock on cevicheria signage in Ecuador and Peru. Douglas did the ordering, and I could hear him go down the list, almost like a chant: black clam, octopus, regular shrimp, shrimp in the manner normally used for langostina (which were unavailable), sea bass with the sort of mustard sauce usually accompanying crab (also unavailable), mixed. As we started to eat, I looked around and realized that much of the ceviche gang had fallen by the wayside. Douglas and his publisher, Phil Wood, and his ceviche chef, Adrian Leon, and I were the only ones left at the counter. In front of us I counted 20 bowls of ceviche. “Do you think you really have to taste every single one?” Alice asked from the sidelines. She spoke in the tone she uses when, after quick inspection of the outfit I’ve chosen for an evening out, she asks, “Is that the jacket you’re going to wear?”
I did think I had to taste every single one; I couldn’t let the side down. We grabbed spoons and started. Everyone remarked on the glories of the black clam. After Adrian tasted the second type of shrimp, I heard him mutter, “Russian dressing.” I was trying to keep up with the rest of the gang, even though it did occur to me that Humberto Sato would probably describe most of what we were eating with whatever Spanish phrase translates roughly into “gussied up.” Douglas praised the octopus but thought that, all in all, La Lojanita was not quite as good as it had been on his previous visit. It was possible that the proprietor had become distracted, he said, since the splendor of her ceviche had led to her being elected mayor of Salinas.
I woke up the next morning feeling a bit fragile. For some reason, I was imagining the Seville culinary competition Abigail and I had seen mentioned on Costa Verde’s menu. I envisioned it as purely a ceviche contest. The judges appeared to be Sevillano gazpacho experts pressed into service, although there were also some of those stone-faced East Germans who always seem to be among those judging Olympic diving competitions. The instant-ceviche man was there, again in a baseball cap and a crisp white T-shirt, practicing his moves in the corner. Manuel Noriega paced back and forth, glowering at his competitors in an attempt to frighten them away. Rick Bayless walked in from Chicago carrying a huge marlin on a sling across his back, the way Indian women at the Otavalo market sometimes carry full-grown sheep. Off to the side, Humberto Sato, dressed in street clothes rather than his chef’s whites, stood silently, having decided to withdraw because the fish were not up to his standards. Some health-food demonstrators who objected to the acid in ceviche were parading around with signs that said if it does that to a sea bass, think of what it’s doing to you! I wasn’t planning to stay for the judging. I’d decided to take a day or two off from ceviche eating.