Chad White thinks the first time he tasted ceviche was in San Felipe on a hot and humid spring day in, well, “let’s just say 2002.”
He might not remember the year. But he remembers the place: in Northern Baja California on the Sea of Cortez. And he remembers the flavor.
“It was extremely bright,” he said. “It was very fresh. It was simple. It was limes, cucumber, chilies, salt, cilantro.”
And it marked a turning point in the young chef’s life. Although he didn’t start making ceviche himself until a few years later, after that first taste, “I became kind of a ceviche geek,” White said. “Everywhere I went, I had to have it.”
Since then, White has sampled ceviche from Cabo San Lucas and Mazatlan to Mexico City, Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta. This spring, he plans to bring his take on the traditional raw-fish Mexican dish to the Inland Northwest.
Zona Blanca, or White Zone, is slated to open in May in a craft-beer incubator business in the Luminaria Building in downtown Spokane.
The name of the walk-up ceviche counter, tucked into the back of the barroom, comes from the color of the space and, of course, the chef’s own name. “The room was white. My last name is White. It’s a small zone inside a community space,” he explained.
White’s subleasing the space from Steel Barrel Taproom at 154 S. Madison St. The look is rustic and industrial with corrugated metal and white-washed and sand-blasted brick walls.
The focus is on fish: raw, fresh fish cured in citrus juices.
“I really wanted to do ceviche,” said White, 33. “I love eating ceviche. It’s delicious. It’s easy.”
And, he said, “There’s an opportunity for me to educate the community about what Mexican food really is. The concept is really traditional. But I’m not saying these recipes are from 100 years ago. The authenticity comes from me being in Mexico. I’m not trying to make American Mexican food. I’m trying to share a part of the world.”
White has traveled extensively in Mexico and owns La Justina restaurant in Tijuana (as well as a craft pizza place in San Diego). He moved back to his hometown of Spokane in December after 14 years out of state, largely splitting his time between Southern California and Mexico. He also appeared on the most recent season of “Top Chef,” which was filmed last year and took contestants on a road trip throughout the Golden State, with stops in Palm Springs, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego.
When White returned to Spokane, he had planned to open an Inland Northwest-themed eatery called Native Post and Provisions this spring.
“It’s still a plan,” he said. “I just want the perfect location, and I’m not going to rush it. I think I found the right spot, but I want to get this open first. It’s a little bit easier for me to produce.”
His walk-up ceviche counter is slated to serve five kinds of ceviche and five non-seafood items – all of which, White said, pair well with beer. He won’t be offering beverage service at Zona Blanca, which will share seating with the tap room.
The initial menu features ceviche from five coastal regions of Mexico. Look for the Sinaloa, with shrimp, cucumber, chili and lime; the Yucatan, with carrots, carrot juice, jalapeno, red onion, dried shrimp, fish – “whatever’s freshest” – and mole; Veracruz, with tomatoes, capers, olives, red onion, cilantro, lime and fresh fish; Guadalajara, with avocado, pickled carrot, lime, red onion, carne secca, or dried beef, and ahi tuna; and Baja, with avocado, cilantro, red onion, fried pork rinds, ponzu and ahi tuna.
White said he’ll change the menu seasonally and source shrimp from Mexico. The rest of the fish – ahi and white fish such as sea bass, snapper, halibut and rock cod – will come from Seattle.
Ceviche will be served atop a single tostada with mayo and hot sauce for $8 or in a bowl for $12.
“Everything is technically raw, but the acid (in the lime juice) helps change the texture of the fish,” White said. “I’m not going to shy away or alter anything to fit the Spokane palate. It’s going to be my interpretation.”
He explained the process this way: “You soak your fish in lime juice and herbs. You let that soak for about 45 minutes to an hour and a half depending on how much you’re doing. You don’t want to agitate the fish too much because it starts to become mealy. You want to be delicate with it. You don’t want to move the fish around a lot.”
After soaking the fish, the lime juice is drained and discarded, and the rest of the ingredients are add to the fish, including fresh lime juice.
Rounding out the menu are Mexican street-food snacks such as radishes with coriander mayo and cilantro; fried pork rinds with lime, cilantro, chili and salt; dried beef with lime, chili and salt; and a torta with Oaxacan cheese, avocado, tomato, pickled red onion, cilantro and maybe a choice of meat.
White also plans to offer a charcuterie platter.
Plus, “I’ll have all kinds of cool Mexican-style condiments,” he said.
Initially, White and his girlfriend, Niya Ivanova, 28, will be the only ones behind the counter. White will be the ceviche chef. Ivanova will be the counter manager.
“I’ll always be involved,” White said. But, at some point, “I may hire somebody to do most of the work.”
While Zona Blanca will share space with the tap room, it won’t keep the same hours as the bar.
“I think it’s going to be 4 to 10 p.m.,” White said. “I’m not making ceviche at 2 o’clock in the morning.”
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