South L.A. Food Diaries: Fishing for Holbox

With just a glance, one can tell Gilberto Cetina — chef and owner of Holbox, a Mexican seafood restaurant a few blocks off campus — possesses a great passion for food. However, it wasn’t always this way.

In fact, years before he owned Holbox and sister restaurant Chichén Itzá, he was averse to the idea of cooking.

“My parents had been cooking and selling food since I can remember. They would give [my sister and I] this big container of warm, just-cooked chicken, and they would say, ‘Okay, you need to shred all this chicken for the tamales we’re going to sell,’” Cetina recalled, mimicking the motions of shredding chicken with his fingers. “That was me growing up … and I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, ever.’”

Cetina was born in Mérida, Mexico, but lived in the United States for several years in the 1980s before moving back home. In 2000, he and his family moved to Los Angeles to support his father’s dream of opening a restaurant, which became the prominent Mexican restaurant Chichén Itzá.

The restaurant shares a location with Holbox just east of the 110 Freeway inside Mercado La Paloma, a warehouse-like building with colorful walls and English and Spanish music spilling out of the speakers.

Cetina situated his restaurants inside Mercado La Paloma because he saw that they could have an impact on South Los Angeles — an area he refers to as a “food desert,” with its limited access to both nutritious and affordable food.

“A big part of the idea behind [Mercado La Paloma] was to counterbalance the excessive number of fast food restaurants and liquor stores in South L.A.,” Cetina said.

Fileting fish · Chef and owner Gilberto Cetina brings his love for seafood and Mexican cuisine to the cutting board at his Los Angeles restaurant Holbox. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

Cetina created Holbox, named after an island off the coast of his native Yucatán Peninsula, out of a desire to put a creative twist on the area’s traditional cuisine.

“Chichén Itzá is a traditional Yucatán-style restaurant and for me at least, by definition, that means that it’s pretty much static,” Cetina said. “I needed something where I could do something new every day, and that’s where Holbox came [in].”

With his glasses and salt-and-pepper beard, Cetina looks scholarly, but the knowledge he seeks is not in dusty libraries; it’s in the raw fish he handles every day.

“I think fish is beautiful,” Cetina said. “Each fish has its own character, its own characteristics and way of handling. Each fish requires you to learn a new way of cutting it … and each one has its own little nuances.”

Cetina attributes his love of seafood to summers spent in Yucatán during his childhood and teenage years, diving for spearfish, octopus, lobster, shrimp and conch.

“On the way back usually there was a little ceviche action on the boat where we would quickly chop something up, rinse it off in seawater, and then we would always take some tomatoes and onions and cilantro,” Cetina recalled with a gleam in his eye. “That is my go-to flavor memory for ceviche: really fresh fish, just simply prepared and raw. We just cured it for a minute in lime juice and we would eat it.”

Emily Smith | Daily Trojan

Years of practice and a learned expertise are obvious in Holbox’s Ceviche Mixto, a tostada shell piled high with fish, shrimp, octopus, tomatoes, onions and cilantro — reminiscent of the dish Cetina described from his childhood. The tostada shell is thick but crunchy, and the ceviche is topped with avocado puree and salsa roja, bringing a duality of creaminess and spice to the dish.

Cetina was trained in computer science, so when his father opened Chichén Itzá, he became “front of the house” for his family’s business, which meant running operations rather than making the food.

But he became more receptive to cooking when Chichén Itzá opened a second location in MacArthur Park and hired a new chef to run it.

“I would find myself in the kitchen all the time … correcting things that I felt were incorrect because I was used to how my dad would do them,” Cetina said.

Then, during a birthday celebration at the MacArthur Park location, his dad gave him a roll of chef’s knives as a present — and asked him to take over the kitchen.

“That was important. That was validation . . . because it felt to me like it wasn’t okay and like it wasn’t my place,” Cetina said. “After that day, I knew it was allowed, that I [was allowed to] cook, and that’s when it all started.”

After closing the MacArthur Park restaurant, Cetina returned to Mercado La Paloma to work side by side with his dad, and eventually took over kitchen operations completely.

Finally, a year and a half ago, he created Holbox. The restaurant is a physical manifestation of his love for cooking; it took a long time to get there, but now that he’s found his passion, he’s going to stick with it.

“Just try to make the most memorable, remarkable food that will make people happy and things will fall into place,” Cetina said. “I’m not in a hurry … I just want to continue making good food.”