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Culichi Seafood and Grill is a spicy Mexican blast of food and sound

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Aguachile is a dish of citrus-marinated raw shrimp at Culichi Seafood and Grill in Medford. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Cocktails are served in terra cotta cups at Culichi Seafood and Grill in Medford. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Fish tacos feature traditional toppings over fried fillets at Culichi Seafood and Grill in Medford. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Scallops are one of several preparations of tostada at Culichi Seafood and Grill in Medford. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Whole tilapia and whole shrimp can be prepared grilled or fried at Culichi Seafood and Grill in Medford. Photo by Sarah Lemon.

Lips still tingling — and ears still ringing — a half-hour after dinner, I marveled that I’d never eaten such spicy food at a Mexican restaurant in Southern Oregon.

Fish and shellfish headline the new Culichi Seafood and Grill on Medford’s West Main Street. But along with seafood, spice and sound distinguish this establishment specializing in the cuisine of Mexico’s Sinaloa state.

Diners who associate mainstream tacos and burritos with travels to Mazatlan likely weren’t tempted by the plethora of dishes prepared with shrimp and fish favored in this coastal region. While there are several beef and chicken dishes on Culichi’s menu, seafood constitutes the vast majority of appetizer and entree options.

In the broader category of “seafood,” shrimp play the starring role in more than half of those dishes as defined at Culichi. Fish is almost exclusively tilapia with the exception of a single grilled salmon dish. Complementing the three prominently advertised oyster dishes are assorted preparations incorporating scallops, mussels, octopus, crab and clams.

Strong sensibilities for Pacific Northwest and Alaskan seafood likely will not be satisfied with Culichi’s selection. And consumer ethics aligned with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch are mismatched at Culichi. But the eatery that opened in late September is serving up a unique experience among local counterparts.

An ebullient ensemble on guitar, accordion and Sousaphone greeted our Friday night arrival at Culichi. As the early hour afforded almost any table, we sought refuge in a corner booth where the amplified Spanish lyrics weren’t quite so loud.

But as the evening advanced, the music kept pace with crowds filling the dining room to capacity, and conversation became impossible. While raucous ambiance clearly suited much of the clientele, diners accustomed to chatting throughout their meal should consider a midweek visit to Culichi.

The server could hear us well enough initially to clarify some menu descriptions and offer some recommendations.

The dish closest to ceviche, she confirmed, is “aguachile” ($20.99).

Did we want fresh chiles, too?

“How spicy is it?” I asked.

“Very” was the reply, to which I declined in deference to my partner’s preferences. The decision happily preserved my own palate in the end.

Deeming fish tacos ($13.99) indispensable, my partner and I agreed to split the order of two. Always drawn to scallops, I was buoyed to see them prepared as a tostada ($10.99). I was even more delighted to hear the dish dispensed with lettuce, so commonplace on restaurant tostadas.

Because the tacos’ fish was fried, we felt compelled to try a grilled recipe, too. The server vouched for the red chile-coated preparation “mojarra rellena” ($17.99), served with rice, salad and tortillas.

Decanted into terra cotta cups, the Paloma ($10.99) that I ordered and my partner’s “cantaritos” ($12.99) both featured tequila, citrus juice and grapefruit soda with chile-salt rims. They paired deliciously, as expected, with complimentary chips, salsa and bean dip.

Dishes arrived in quick succession with hardly a few minutes for relishing the cold, acid-cured seafood in advance of the hot items. Culichi’s “tostada,” I was surprised to see, wasn’t a single fried tortilla piled with proteins and produce but rather a dish of the primary components served with several tortilla shells, promoting DIY assembly. The same crisp tortillas and saltine crackers apparently were intended for the aguachile.

The primary difference between the tostada and aguachile — apart from their protein — was size. The latter was roughly twice the size for twice the price and, as an appetizer, easily would feed two or more diners. The tostada, by contrast, would make a lovely light meal for a single person.

The aguachile’s whole, peeled, raw shrimp — cured in lemon juice and homemade green salsa — weren’t as visually appealing as a cocktail’s plump pink morsels. The texture, however, and the fact that some crustaceans were less cured than others implied these shellfish hadn’t languished long in their marinade. My partner tried mightily to enjoy the aguachile, but its intense spice coupled with the shrimp’s chew diminished his perceptions of a dish likened to ceviche.

More closely resembling that Peruvian staple were the scallops — succulent and tender, standing in slightly sweet contrast to their chile-spiked marinade. Buttery avocado fanned on top imparted some essential richness while cucumber and onion lent crunch. I’d order this perfectly proportioned, nicely seasoned dish again and again.

Also neatly plated and arrayed in a riot of colors and textures, the fish tacos could have vied for the best I’ve tried. But the flavor of fish, a thin fillet encapsulated in twice as much breading, fell flat. The tacos relied more on copious tomato, cabbage, onion and cilantro.

There’s no mistaking fish when it’s ordered whole. And Culichi’s “mojarra rellena” kept company with five whole shrimp — heads and shells intact — lounging atop the sauce-smothered tilapia. I briefly moved those aside to pick the fish while still hot, pausing to exclaim that the smoky red salsa alongside was utterly delicious.

My partner tucked into the accompanying rice and salad, grateful for their soothing effects after the aguachile. I pried pieces from the fish’s body, excising numerous small bones that clung a bit rather than separating cleanly. And just as I was sensing chiles scorching my fingertips, my partner asked how to handle the shrimp, also dipped in a spicy sauce.

I demonstrated twisting off a crustacean’s head, pulling off its legs, peeling off the shell and pinching just below the tail to get all the body meat. Dismembering shrimp apparently too much trouble, he turned back to his taco.

Having eaten more than our fill, we deposited the few remaining aguachile shrimp in a to-go container to sauté at home for tacos — with plenty of fresh veggies to cool the burn.

Located at 2716 W. Main St., Culichi Seafood and Grill is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. See culichi-sea-food-and-grill.business.site. Call 541-770-5770.

Tempo Tidbits

Hiring on with Medford’s Texas Roadhouse restaurant could come with tuition reimbursements.

The chain based in Louisville, Ky., announced Monday’s National Hiring Day in concert with its new program for employees interested in pursuing college degrees. Any Texas Roadhouse team member working at least 30 hours per week, who qualifies for benefits, will now be eligible for $5,250 in annual reimbursement for classes at an accredited university, while maintaining a C average, the company stated in a news release.

Medford’s location of Texas Roadhouse, 1720 Delta Waters Road, will conduct in-person interviews Monday to fill both full and part-time positions. Schedule interviews and read more about benefits and careers at Texas Roadhouse at texasroadhouse.jobdetails.io/hiringday

Texas Roadhouse encourages its “Roadies” to love what they do today and prepare for tomorrow through extensive training and advancement opportunities. In 2020, the company spent more than $20 million in COVID-19-related pay, relief and bonuses for employees, according to its news release. Also last year, Forbes named Texas Roadhouse one of America’s Best Employers for Veterans.

Founded in 1993 and family-owned, Texas Roadhouse has more than 610 locations in 49 states and 10 foreign countries. The full-service casual concept touts hand-cut steaks and an assortment of ribs, chicken, salads, hamburgers and vegetables. Most selections include two made-from-scratch side dishes and unlimited fresh-baked bread and peanuts. The Medford location, Oregon’s first, opened in 2013.

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A monthly dinner series will replace regular evening service through winter at Ashland’s Hither.

Harvest Dinners are planned for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12-13 at the restaurant, 376 E. Main St. The six-course meal paired with vintages from Goldback Wine and Sound & Vision Wine Co. costs $120 per person. Proof of vaccination is required. Reserve at resy.com or call 541-625-4090.

While Hither has seasonally suspended dinner service, it still serves brunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. See hithermarket.com

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The following restaurants in September received perfect scores of 100 on their semiannual inspections by Jackson County Environmental Public Health:

Miners Bazaar, Jacksonville; Omar’s, Ashland; Porters, Medford; Prospect Historic Hotel, Prospect; Punky’s Diner and Pies, Medford; Rumors Lounge, Medford; Sam’s Corner, Grants Pass; Taco Bell No. 1683, Ashland; Taco Bell No. 028005, West Main Street, Medford; Underwraps Cafe, Medford.

The county’s searchable database of restaurant and food service inspections is at healthspace.com/Clients/Oregon/jackson/Web.nsf/home.xsp.

Have a Tempo tidbit to share? Email news about the local dining, food and beverage scene to: thewholedish@gmail.com

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Sarah Lemon has relished the Rogue Valley’s dining scene for nearly two decades as one of the original contributors to Tempo’s dining column. Her palate has helped to judge some of the region’s culinary competitions and festivals. The former editor of A la Carte, the Mail Tribune’s weekly food section, she writes a biweekly column, The Whole Dish, and blogs and podcasts under the same name. Listen at mailtribune.com/podcasts and read more at mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish. Follow @the.whole.dish on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.