Yesterday was a beautiful day in Sarasota, Florida, and since we’ve had nothing but rain the past week, I hadn’t been able to take my motorscooter out for a good ride in quite some time. I’d been wanting to go and eat at CeviChela out on Siesta Key for even longer, so I figured, why not do both.
Chef / Owner, Darwin Santa Maria and I go back over 17 years to our days of opening and working together at Fred’s Restaurant (Now Libby’s) in Southside Village, so I knew I was in for a treat. It was kind of ironic, that on my ride out to The Key, I passed this horrid little restaurant, with cars in the drive-through line circling the building like a bunch of sharks. You’ve probably passed this place too…it is the one with the big yellow “M” sign situated in the corner of the parking lot, proclaiming “billions and billions served.” I thought to myself…”what a waste…you only get three meals a day, and those idiots are going to waste one of them on that!!!” I just smiled, mouth watering thinking about what was in store for me just across the bridge ahead.
CeviChela is tucked away in the little shopping center where Davidson Drugs and the Siesta Chamber of Commerce are located. There are about a half-dozen tables outside on the deck. Most of the tables were occupied, and everyone was clearly enjoying their meals. I’ve never been to an orgy, but I can only imagine that the sheer delight that everyone was experiencing would be very similar.
As I walked inside, I was thoroughly impressed with the really cool industrial decor. The use of metal, wood, and concrete was really artfully done creating a casual, yet playful space. One wall running the length of the restaurant was covered by a colorful mural of an octopus painted by a Ringling Art School Student, and the other wall displayed a huge chalkboard of the menu.
I’m a sucker for tacos. They are, without a doubt my favorite comfort food. I appreciate the authenticity of time-honored tacos from different regions of Mexico, but, what also gets me fired up are when chefs take tacos and do a riff on them. That is exactly what Darwin did…tacos, but stuffed with the flavors of his native country of Peru. Come to think about it, they were overflowing with another ingredient that you don’t see many places (especially at the restaurant I described earlier)…LOVE my friends, pure LOOOOVE!
I devoured three different tacos yesterday; salmon, skirt steak and chicken. They were presented in a double layered corn tortilla (although flour is available) with pickled red onions, queso fresco, radishes, cilantro and lime wedges. The marinades that Darwin uses to flavor the proteins are all truly deadly…so much flavor, and such a wide array of tastes that it gives your palate a workout. The phenomenon that pushes these tacos through the stratosphere are the salsas that are served with them. Darwin has carefully created salsas to complement each of the tacos that he serves, from mild to hot. I was given the lime roasted jalapeno mayo, chimichurri, and my favorite, rocoto rojo. Although they were designed to compliment a certain protein, it was fun to mix and match these devilishly colorful little cups of sunshine.
For such a small place, the menu is quite ambitious. Darwin is probably best known in town for his ceviches, which dominate the first part of the menu. He is also offering poke with a Peruvian twist, which is brilliant. He creates specials, offers colorful salads for the health conscious, but what I find to be very cool in a Latin street food joint are his stir-frys, referred to as “chifa.”
Most Americans are unaware, but Asian influence has created a huge impact on Peruvian culture. Peruvian cuisine is arguably the hottest of all South American nations and certainly one of the most exciting in the world. Peruvian cuisine is so amazing, because not only did a bunch of different cultures join forces to create amazing fusions, but the geography offers everything from the ocean, to the Andes mountains, and the bounty of the rainforest. Chifa is a tribute to these culinary foundations, and the way in which Darwin presents these dishes are playful and fun.
So, how can this place get any more exceptional? Craft beer! Darwin carries an eclectic menu of local craft beers. In fact, while I was there, I met another fellow blogger, writing a story. His blog is amazing, and you can find it at CraftSeeker.TV
I’m so proud of Darwin and his accomplishments through the years. I’m delighted that he has a concept that I don’t feel like I have to reserve for a special occasion. I know Darwin’s food really well, and the exciting thing is that his guests are getting the same flavors, quality and attention to detail as they would if they were eating at the most chic, hip place on South Beach. I have always been shocked at how beautiful Darwin can present food…he can even make food served in paper-boats look like it should be served on a table adourned with a white tablecloth!