“Now I wish we were sitting inside,” I grumbled to my friends as the host led our party of four out the door to a table at San Antonio restaurant Leche de Tigre. My gripe was not with the converted cottage’s perfectly agreeable patio; sculptural fish-shaped lights hung above it, and tall trees shaded the tidy black-gravel yard. My problem was that on our way through the lively dining room, I had glimpsed the tiger mural, on the wall facing the chef’s counter. And trust me, once you’ve seen the tiger mural—three big orange cats belly deep in a surreal white pond in an emerald-green forest—you want to sit and stare at it for a while. Oh, well. I resolved to make reservations further ahead when I returned to visit this Peruvian cevichería, one of the most engaging restaurants to have opened in the Alamo City in quite a while.

Leche de Tigre means Tiger’s Milk, a poetic name for the punchy marinade that defines Peru’s distinctive ceviche. “It’s fierce and bold, like a tiger,” says Emil Oliva, the 30-year-old chef. He founded the four-month-old restaurant along with his two brothers: general manager Axel, who is 27, and beverage director Alec, age 23. They are Texans (specifically Laredoans) by birth but spent eight years of their childhood in Lima. 

Alec, Emil, and Axel Oliva.
Alec, Emil, and Axel Oliva.Photograph by John Davidson

Their Peruvian father was a commercial airline pilot, and their Mexican-born mother was a homemaker who shared her love of cooking with her sons. When the marriage ended in divorce, in 2012, she and the younger brothers returned to the States (Emil had moved back two years earlier), eventually settling in San Antonio. For several years the siblings tried out different jobs in the hospitality industry, all the while dreaming of doing something with the food of their adopted country. When a dining venue in the growing Southtown area became available, they couldn’t let the opportunity go by. 

Back in Leche de Tigre’s pleasant yard, our group was ready for libations. We considered the short, well-edited wine list, then turned to the lineup of cocktails, many of which showcase pisco, the herbaceous brandy that is Peru’s national spirit. In a few minutes we were sipping pisco sours, topped with a froth of hand-shaken egg whites, and mint-brightened maracuyás, so named for a main ingredient, passion fruit. 

After that indulgence, we definitely felt in need of a snack. Fried wontons with a creamy avocado salsa tempted—Chinese and Japanese immigrants have played a major role in Peruvian food culture—but ultimately we went for crisp, fat yuca fries. Alongside was an aioli punched up with a mildly spicy puree of sweet ají rocoto, one of Peru’s many native chiles. Once we polished those off, it was time to get serious. And that meant ceviche. 

The Nikkei tiradito topped with a nest of fried sweet potato.
The Nikkei ceviche topped with a nest of fried sweet potato. Photograph by John Davidson
The pie de maracuyá.
The pie de maracuyá. Photograph by John Davidson

The much-loved national dish (the restaurant uses the spelling “cebiche”) goes way back. Some historians speculate that Indigenous peoples used the juice of a large passion fruit known as tumbo to cure the Pacific Coast’s abundant seafood. Other scholars suggest that they used a mix of salt water, seaweed, and hot peppers. When Columbus and friends arrived in the New World bearing citrus fruits, in the fifteenth century, the dish began its steady evolution into Peru’s nationwide obsession. Today, says Emil, numerous regions have beloved traditional ceviches, and chefs obsess over fine points. “The versions our kitchen makes are like the ones my brothers and I had at cevicherías when we were in Lima.”

To Texans used to eating Mexican-style ceviches—in which one main component, usually fish, is marinated (i.e., “cooked”) in lime juice and tossed with pico de gallo—modern Lima-style ceviche is a big surprise. For one thing, the seafood is basically raw; for another, the dish is complex, with multiple ingredients. Leche de Tigre offers as many as five distinct daily preparations, the Clásico being the most basic. But, says Emil, “there’s a lot more to it than just fish and lime juice.” The process starts when precise cubes of just-delivered striped bass get a quick preliminary cure in a paste of mild ají limo (a fruity yellow chile), salt, and a small amount of lime juice. Then the cevicheros—the ceviche prep cooks—add in the leche de tigre, which is made in advance. True to its name, it’s milky white, a finely blended and strained mix of lime juice, raw fish, red onion, garlic, cilantro stems, celery, and ginger. The final step is the artful presentation of the marinated fish in an attractive bowl alongside slices of roasted sweet potato and two kinds of Peruvian corn: big kernels of spongy white choclo and smaller golden brown maiz chulpe (a bit like American corn nuts but less likely to break your teeth). The finishing touches are cilantro and julienne-cut red onion. The minute the preparation is complete, the bowl is rushed to the waiting customer. 

Out in the yard, our four ceviches had just arrived, and even though we had studied the menu, we were still astonished at the variety. The pristine seafood ranged from flounder and scallops to shrimp and fried calamari. Other ingredients included avocado and cucumber as well as plantain in three forms (a puree, chunks, and crunchy chips). One of the leches had a hit of tamarind, another of ginger. And that wasn’t all. We also had ordered the Nikkei tiradito, sashimi-like sliced tuna with daikon and green onion. We started sampling and passing, reaching and tasting. Tart flavors played off sweet ones, each bite of seafood had a different texture, and the assorted garnishes were crunchy, chewy, crispy, and squishy. Every bite revealed something new. 

A welcome breeze had sprung up by the time we declared a time-out to regain our bearings. In a minute, we spotted Axel conferring with another table and decided to ask for help in choosing a main course. He had three recommendations, so we got one of each. One was Peru’s favorite dish after ceviche, lomo saltado: a colorful Chinese-inspired stir-fry of beef, onion, and tomato in a light soy sauce–based gravy. The ingredients were top quality—the little imported yellow Peruvian potatoes had an almost fluffy texture and the meat was tenderloin—but the whole thing struck me as more homey than exciting. The same was true of another classic, arroz chaufa. There are endless variations on the fried rice dish; street stalls in Peru often serve it with chicken or even hot dogs. The version here was classy (sautéed pork belly, bean sprouts, slices of firm lap cheong sausage) but definitely designed for timid diners. The pulpo anticuchero, however, was terrific. The superlatively tender, gracefully coiled tentacles of grilled octopus sat atop bright yellow pools of pureed ají amarillo—the plate looked almost polka-dotted—with choclo and chunks of crispy-fried Andean potatoes alongside. 

By now our foursome had reached a part of the menu that we felt confident in tackling without help—dessert. There were two that night: sweet potato doughnuts with fig syrup and pie de maracuyá. We went with the second, which turned out to be a delicious twin of key lime pie, right down to the sweetened condensed milk filling. 

The yuca fries and lomo saltado.
The rice with choclo, yuca fries, and lomo saltado.Photograph by John Davidson

A few weeks later I went back to San Antonio to find out how things were going. I was interested to see what the brothers had done since my first visit, but before we got to that, I had a burning question. “Who dreamed up the idea of the tiger mural?” I asked as soon as we sat down to talk. “We all did,” Emil answered, grinning. Axel elaborated: “One of us saw an image online of tigers in a pool, and we just thought it would be cool if they were swimming in milk.” They took their idea to the mural artist they had engaged, Claudio Arguellas, who brought their vision to life. My curiosity satisfied, I had a more practical question: How’s business? “Growing,” said Emil. “I think the city was ready for something new and fresh. We’ve even had Peruvians drive in from Austin and Houston to check us out.”

When I asked what was next, he answered without hesitation: “We want to explore.” Peru, he reminded me, draws immigrants from all over the world, and their distinctive foodways intertwine to create a dynamic, idiosyncratic, always compelling culinary scene. Leche de Tigre’s focus is ceviches, but that still leaves plenty of room for the country’s multitude of dishes. “Our menu is an expression of all the things we love,” said Emil, “and it will always be evolving.”

Leche de Tigre Cebichería Peruana
318 Cevallos, San Antonio
D Tue–Sat. B Sun.
Opened February 24, 2023

This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Worth Its Stripes.” Subscribe today.