Holbox Takes On New Depths Of Flavor In Seafood
There's a kind of paradox with exceptionally fresh seafood; sometimes the taste is so exquisite and nuanced that it never feels like you're getting enough. The result is that you keep coming back for more—it almost feels like a Sisyphean ordeal.
And indeed the fare is wildly fresh at Holbox, the Yucatán-style seafood joint that's helmed by Gilberto Cetina Jr., best known for founding the venerable Chichen Itza with his father Gilberto Cetina Sr. (both spots are housed in Mercado La Paloma near USC).
As Cetina Jr. told LAist, the freshness is owed to a customized network of suppliers that he's pieced together. "There's no single source. It's more like a patchwork of sources," said Cetina Jr. Most of the items come locally, with select items hailing from the East, which Cetina Jr. claims has a "special blessing" for scallops and surf clams.
The menu at Holbox, we should warn you, is deceptively lean. There are the blood clams and the oysters, to be sure. And there's ceviche, as well as cocktails loaded with a maelstrom of the ocean's finest denizens. It all seems like familiar territory on the surface. But then you dig into the specifics and realize how wildly distinct each item is, and suddenly what seemed like a simple task has turned into an agonizing session of second guesses. Do you want the half moon scallops marinated in lime and serrano? Or the blood clams served with a morita sauce? Perhaps you'll sample the "cazon" shark empanadas? The uni and yellowtail ceviche tostada?
The good news (or bad, depending on your take) is that it's hard to fall short at Holbox—the items not only delight you with their flavor and freshness, but will also provoke contemplation on the strange alchemy that takes place on each dish.
On the day of our visit, we started off with the blood clams, which has a certain give in body that we found irresistible. As for the yellowtail and uni ceviche tostada, the fish is neatly diced and made piquant from the lime, as expected. The uni is so wonderfully subtle, however, that you almost want to eat it separately, so as to free it from the acidic kick of the spread.
We also got the Spanish octopus cocktail, which is surprisingly sweet—a good counterweight to the roster of rich and tangy items on the menu. The octopus is pleasantly soft and substantial; you may have some perception of octopus as being slightly rubbery, but Holbox gives you a new appreciation of how tender the tentacled animal can be. "Octopus can go from being good to bad so fast," Cetina Jr. told LAist. "So you really have to be careful with it." Speaking of octopus, the highlight of the meal were the tacos that came with braised and fried Spanish octopus. Here the octopus is dressed in a mix of soffrito and calamari ink—the end result is an intensely aromatic dish that comes at you in gradients.
As for those East Coast scallops? The scallops al carbon is dressed in a xcatic chile sauce that pairs a bright heat with a certain draw of indulgence (it's almost buttery). And like the octopus, the scallop is exceptionally pliable on the inside.
As mentioned earlier, we struggled to boil it all down to a single order. We missed out on a wood-grilled branzino (served whole) and the chile relleno that's stuffed with fish and doused with a homemade mayo and morita sauce. What complicates the matter is that the menu at Holbox may change on occasion, depending on the ingredients that Cetina Jr. is able to obtain.
Inevitably, your experience at Holbox will end with promises to return, and fever dreams of the new loot you'll be snagging during your next conquest.
Holbox is located at 3655 South Grand Avenue in Los Angeles. (213) 986-9972