On Sunday, September 3, 2017 my husband Mike and I attended our first ever Ceviche Challenge at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa. Hailing from the east coast, we had never even tasted ceviche until we moved to California. The first time I ever ordered it, I remember feeling confused because I had never eaten fish with a spoon before, and I wondered why it was served in an ice cream sundae dish. Of course, once I took a bite of it, I learned quickly that it doesn’t necessarily matter how it’s served as long as the fish is fresh and its accompanying ingredients are complementary and flavorful.
With San Diego County being just minutes from the Mexican border, a friendly rivalry has long existed between the chefs of Baja, Mexico and Southern California. The Ceviche Challenge would have been fun on its own, but when it was turned into a Baja vs. Cali cross-border challenge, it became even more intense. Chefs competed not only for personal bragging rights, but for national pride.
With so many ceviches to sample, Mike and I needed a plan of attack. I procured a high top table under an umbrella while Mike went station to station to procure two of each ceviche offering. While seven chefs were in attendance, Host Chef Aaron Obregon, who works at the Marriott’s Current & Tides Restaurant and Lounge, prepared two different ceviches, including one that was vegan. While it felt like there was a lot of food on our table all at once, it gave us the opportunity to readily compare and contrast each creation that was carefully and thoughtfully prepared by the chefs.
Wow! What an array of flavors, textures, savory/sweet combinations, and beautiful presentations! I can honestly say that there were no ceviches I disliked, but there were definitely ceviches that I preferred a little more than others. I was thoroughly surprised by Chef Aaron Obregon’s vegan ceviche, made from beets. I know beets are healthy, and I’ve tried incorporating them into my diet, but I’ve never fancied them until now. It was hard deciding which ceviche I liked best, but, because this was a challenge, and we were expected to vote, Mike and I were “forced” to take additional bites of each one. We narrowed down our two favorites, noticing that one was from Baja while the other was from Cali.
Chef Zach Stofferahn’s ceviche looked stunning with its vibrant colors, and it had a zesty zing with hints of fresh citrus. To me, Stofferahn’s ceviche tasted like summer, and since we were outside along the bay in the midst of a heat wave, it tasted extra refreshing. It was interesting how Stofferahn, who works at Fire Pit Sushi in San Diego, incorporated Asian elements into his ceviche. Mike said, “The citrus and fish mixture paired with a fried wonton wrapper was very unique, and I liked how the chef was really thinking outside the box in terms of cultural fusion. I never imagined Japanese elements would fit so well with ceviche, but it not only worked, it was delicious.”
Our other favorite ceviche was prepared by Chef Gilberto Morales. Morales of Baja, did the opposite of Stofferahn, highlighting the commonalities between Baja and Southern California. Ceviche Challenge guest Clyde Van Arsdall, a chef and Coronado resident, shared, “I loved that the chip had seaweed and blue corn so it tied in the ocean and the Mexican aspect of it. I loved the fact that it had acorn oil from the Kumeyaay tribe, even made with local acorns. We have Kumeyaay descendants here in San Diego as well as in Tijuana, and if you judge it on the blending of the Cali-Baja tie, I think Chef Morales did it best. The crispness and saltiness of the chips went well with the ceviche.”
Mike and I weren’t able to articulate why we liked Morales’ ceviche in the same historical terms as Van Arsdall, but we both agreed its flavor was exceptional. With sneaky bits of heat, the ingredients practically melted in our mouths. “I could eat that every day,” Mike said.
While guests were there to judge the ceviches, there were also fresh shucked oysters as well as smoked oysters to feast upon, further delighting everyone’s palates.
In addition to the ceviche and oyster offerings, guests were also given the opportunity to make artwork from fish. Yes, you read that correctly. Fish. A local organization known as Slow Food Urban San Diego was there to educate guests about sustainable fish in the San Diego area. According to their mission statement, Slow Food Urban San Diego “seeks to create dramatic and lasting change in the local food system, rediscover food traditions and cultural heritage, and educate the community about the plants, animals, fertile soils and waters that produce our food.”
The ancient Japanese art of gyotaku was taught to those guests willing to get their hands a little dirty all in the name of good fun. Jena Perez of Slow Food Urban San Diego shared, “Before photography, this is what the Japanese would do to document their catch, including the size and the shape. Now it’s a beautiful art method. We’re not professionals, but we’re letting people try it out here today. We have three types of local fish that were caught here today: sheepshead, mackerel, and perch, and the fishermen who caught them are in attendance today.”
Sarah Shoffler, Vice Chair & Seafood Liaison at Slow Food Urban San Diego, said, “We promote good, clean, and fair food for all. Today we’re promoting our local bounty from our local fishermen. We try to connect people to their food sources and food producers, and connect the food producers to the community.”
Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa’s General Manager, Nusrat Mirza, was in attendance, and was so excited as he discussed how it was just as meaningful to him to have locals such as myself and my husband attend the event at the Marriott as it is for him to entertain out of town guests. Locals frequently ask Mirza what events they can look forward to attending at the Marriott, and Mirza is proud of events like the Ceviche Challenge, where guests can enjoy the stunning bay views while feasting on world-class cuisine.
When asked if he had sampled all the ceviches yet, Mirza smiled and said, “I’m going to, but, as always, the guests come first. I want our guests to be the ones who decide who the winner of the Ceviche Challenge is. Our goal at these events is to attract people from Coronado. While we love our guests from all over, we want our neighbors here in Coronado to feel at home here just like those who stay here over and over again do.”
As we waited with anticipation for the announcement of which chef would win the Ceviche Challenge, Mike and I had fun mingling with other guests. The De Quillien family, who just moved to Laguna Beach from New York, were guests at the Marriott, and wanted to go to the Ceviche Challenge as soon as they heard about it. “We love seafood, even the kids,” Mrs. De Quillien shared. When asked which ceviche was his favorite, her youngest son chose the second of Chef Aaron Obregon’s ceviches, the non-vegan one. (For those interested in trying it, it’s a regular menu item found at the Marriott’s Current & Tides.)
Another guest at the event, Latasha Al-Jarbua, who’s staying in San Diego on business from Florida, was thrilled to attend the Ceviche Challenge. “I wanted to try some local California foods, and when I heard about this, I knew I had to come over to Coronado! This is as authentic it gets, and the food served here today is so different than anything I’d ever find back home in Florida,” she said. Like everyone I spoke to, Latasha also had a hard time choosing her favorite.
Also in attendance at the Ceviche Challenge was local food celebrity Claudia Sandoval, winner of the sixth season of Masterchef. Claudia, who’s just as nice in person as she is on TV, said, “I came today because I think it’s super important to support not only Baja chefs, but San Diego chefs too. I think it’s important to have borderless dining experiences, and I think that more and more we will continue to see the collaboration between Baja and California. It’s such a valuable thing, and, as a chef, I think competition is always a wonderful opportunity for chefs to learn from each other and push their creativity.”
Finally it was time to announce the winner of the Ceviche Challenge, even though those of us with copious amounts of ceviche in our bellies were technically the real winners. Chef Gilberto Morales was crowned the champion, and as the crowd cheered for him, his friends dumped a huge tray of ice on him in similar fashion to athletes dumping a cooler of water on their coach. Along with Morales’ win came bragging rights for all of Baja. The Ceviche Challenge, as advertised, truly was a friendly one, and it was wonderful to see so many people, including his fellow chefs/competitors, congratulate him on his well deserved victory.