Here’s the thing about fresh seafood: You don’t have to do much to it. Any accountant can watch a YouTube video about shucking oysters, go to a fish market, and make something almost as good as what they’d get at a restaurant. On the other hand, even the best chefs can go too far overboard, and ruin a fresh spiny lobster with a gallon of cream and a sprinkling of gold flakes. Historic South Central’s Holbox occupies the sweet spot between the two. This wholly original Mexican restaurant serves impeccable seafood, with thoughtful details that showcase the fish - but never outshine it.
This order-at-the-counter spot is at Mercado La Paloma, in the Figueroa Corridor near USC. There are plenty of other great stalls here (especially Chichen Itza, a Yucatecan spot from the same chef), but Holbox is the best restaurant in the market, as it would be in just about any other market in LA.
You’ll find a bunch of great stuff on the a la carte menu. This includes a bowl of buttery-soft Baja scallops and avocado that’s doused in lime/serrano/cilantro aguachile, and a smoked fish tostada with yellowtail, shrimp, and scallop, topped with diced onions, avocado crema, peanuts, and some deadly hot chile de arbol. There’s a whole section of tacos that are worth your time, too. Among our favorites is the rockfish, deep-fried then topped with cabbage, salsa roja, and crema, that’s as great as anything you’d get in Ensenada, and scallop and octopus ones that are nothing like you’ll find anywhere else (but are just as good). We will say, there are a couple misses on this menu, too - we’d avoid the wood-grilled kanpachi taco and the torta de camarón. The kanpachi is usually overdone, resulting in dry, too-flaky fish, and the torta just involves entirely too much bread to taste the shrimp. On the whole, though, this menu (available all day, every day) is good, and often great.
To understand how special this place can be, though, you need to come for the tasting menu, served Thursday-Saturday nights. It’s $75, and an incredible value for six inventive, filling, and usually off-menu courses. The chef will bring them out and tell you about each course in exquisite detail, like a professor lecturing on Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” But you don’t need an art history degree to appreciate the cold-course starters, like shellfish ranging from savory oysters to a sweet giant surf clam, or a cured sea bass and scallop crudo that’s olive oily, smoky, and sweet. Then, there are three hot courses, including an absurdly decadent (and excellent) sopa de mejillones - a mussels stew in octopus stock with house-made chorizo. The wood-grilled octopus with almond pepian is also great, and the half-spiny lobster, served simply with lemon and butter, is the perfect way to close out the meal.
That simplicity is a common thread throughout the meal, but your experience at Holbox is enhanced, and even defined, by the specific details - the peanuts adding a necessary crunch to the smoked fish tostada, or the fragrance of saffron deepening the flavor in the mussels stew. When things slip here - rarely, and usually at lunch - it’s when those details get lost. But when Holbox is at its best, those details allow the seafood to shine fantastically and brightly. There’s an art to the simplicity and the restraint - and you’ll never learn that just from a YouTube video.
If you’re here for the tasting menu - and you should be, at least once - this will likely be your first course. From the two savory oysters, served without dressing (and so good that we don’t want any), to the blood clams topped with smoky morita, and the sweet giant surf clam with house-made cocktail sauce, this is the best way we know to start a meal.
Besides the fried fish, our favorites are the scallop and the octopus. That octopus is braised, fried, and served over ink sofrito. It’s among the best in a city full of great tacos, as is the Maine diver scallop with pickled fennel.
Ceviche might not be your top choice here - it’s usually pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. This one with shrimp, octopus, and rockfish is acidic, bold, and bright. The fantastic kick from the arbol-guajillo salsa underneath rounds it out well.
An excellent Baja-style lime-and-red-onion-heavy sea bass ceviche, topped with uni, and served on a tostada. We highly approve. At dinner, this is served in a still-moving urchin, which we approve of even more highly.
The springy, crunchy meatiness of the tentacle balances perfectly with the almond pepian - a supremely nutty mole - it’s served with. The caramelized pepitas on top give it an added layer of sweet crunch.
Lunch or dinner, don’t skip this dish under any circumstances. If they bottled the aguachile, we’d bring it home and use it as a marinade, a cocktail mixer, and probably a mouthwash, too.
A meaty, absolutely massive prawn that’s rare to find in restaurants, and even rarer to see at $15 a pop. They don’t show up on the menu even when they have them, so make sure you check the seafood case before you order.