Aguachile is all over Mexican restaurant menus, a ceviche-adjacent seafood dish. But “aguachile” literally means “chile water,” and the oldest version of the dish had nothing to do with shrimp and everything to do with chiltepín: a small, round chile that grows wild in Sinaloa state. For Eater, Michael Snyder travels through Sinaloa with Mexico City chef Luis Valle in search of the “original-original” aguachile.

Really, aguachile is a roadmap to Sinaloa, a state whose name is often tied to the drug war and the larger-than-life dons who have become its bombastic, public face. Aguachile, Valle explained to me on my first visit to Don Vergas, began in the hills, where chiltepín still grows wild between plantations of poppy and cannabis, then drifted west toward the sea. Along the way, it touched Sinaloa’s disappearing indigenous traditions, centuries of mestizaje, cultural and economic ties to the United States, and two of the major industries — shrimp and agriculture — that drive the Sinaloan economy.

On my first visit to Don Vergas, in April 2018, Valle told me that if I wanted to try the “original-original” aguachile, we could go look for it together in Sinaloa — on what he would later call our “super mega mission.” I told him I would love to go, only half expecting it to happen, as he slid a plate of aguachile across the counter. Crystals of Maldon salt cracked between my molars. The chiltepín blazed a trail of heat across my tongue. I’d eaten plenty of aguachile before, I told him, but nothing quite like this.

“Verga,” he exhaled with a Cheshire smile, using the word that gives his restaurant its name. Translated literally, it means “mast” (as in a boat). In this context, it meant something more like “dude” or “no way”’ Sometimes, it means “cool” or “good;” sometimes it means “shitty.” Mostly, though, verga means “dick.”

“That’s because you’ve never been to Sinaloa.”

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