Searching for Fish Tacos

What I remember most of my college weekend in Ensenada are the fish tacos. From a small taco stand on the street, my American quarter bought me a corn tortilla filled with fried fresh white fish, shredded green cabbage, chopped tomatoes, cilantro, lime, and a white creamy mayonnaise-like sauce. I bought several tacos over the next two days, amazed at the freshness, the flavors, the price and have been searching for a similar savory experience ever since.

Perhaps I’ve been eating in the wrong places, pseudo Mexican restaurants catering to their American clientele, mainly on the East Coast. Fish tacos in flour tortillas with cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce and tasteless red salsa is more common than not. My kids groan at my disappointment. I am too picky and should know better than to order fish tacos in New England.

It was time for a trip to Santa Barbara, a town near enough to the Mexican border to have the real thing, and while I paid more than a quarter, each taco on my trip far exceeded my culinary expectations.

First stop: Spencer Makenzie’s Fish Company: a small beach takeout and eat-in restaurant in Ventura, California, 30 miles south of Santa Barbara. My friends and I ordered the “giant fish taco” with grilled fish and requested corn tortillas instead of flour. Chopped cabbage, cilantro, delicious and only $4.99. It wasn’t giant, but I was happy; my friends were disappointed. There are better tacos around the corner they told me. We’d go there another day.

IMG_1049

Second stop: On the Alley: a small takeout place on the harbor in Santa Barbara. The menu was promising. I ordered two: the Baja Fish Taco (beer-battered fish, avocado, pickled onion, queso fresco, and salsa blanca) and the Shrimp Taco (seared shrimp, ponzu-marinated slaw, queso fresco, salsa blanca, and mango salsa) served in corn tortillas. They were both so good, the perfect blend of flavors and textures, and only $3 each.

On the Alley

 

Third stop:  Natural Café: a restaurant specializing in healthy, local, and green living with several locations in southern California. Although we ordered at the counter, here our food was brought to the table. I chose the Cabo Fish Tacos: two tacos for $8.59. These tacos were different than the others in flavors and textures. Instead of grilled or fried, the fish was sautéed in a tomato-based salsa. The addition of coarsely shredded carrots reminded me of a salad. Would I go back? Yes, but not for the tacos.

Natural Cafe Fish Tacos

Fourth stop:  Beach House: takeout on the Ventura Pier; a fish taco mecca.

IMG_1230

Six fish taco options plus a shrimp taco and a calamari taco. After much deliberation, I chose two, the Baja Fish Taco ($3) and the Early California Taco ($4). I sat at a counter inside while watching the surf through the window, enjoying the many flavors of my tacos: the tangy and sour of the lime, the distinct flavor of cilantro, the spicy chipotle sauce, the finely shredded cabbage and the flaky grilled fish. Yum.

Tacos at the Beach House

Fifth stop: Blue Plate Oysterette: a full service restaurant on Ocean Avenue near the Santa Monica Pier. The question, should we eat at Blue Plate Tacos or Blue Plate Oysterette? My friend and I were advised to eat at Blue Plate Oysterette where we were told the fish tacos were the best. We sat outside at this sidewalk café, warmed by propane heaters and Mexican blankets, and enjoyed being waited on. We ordered the fish tacos: spicy aioli, grilled mahi mahi, purple cabbage, chopped cilantro, and lime; these fish tacos were some of the most delicious, the biggest piece of fish, and the most expensive ($15), if not the most authentic tacos we’d had all week.

Blue Plate Oysterette Fish Tacos

I will return; there are so many tacos I didn’t try. And now, after a few months back in New England, I haven’t given up hope of finding a good fish taco closer to home. I ate a surprisingly delicious salmon taco at an autumn fair in September and a tasteless one at a Mexican restaurant last weekend. I’m still looking, but if I want a sure thing this far away from the border, I stop at the fish market, start up the grill, and make my own fish tacos, just as I like them.

Trip taken August 2013.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Carefree

According to the dictionary, to be carefree means being free from anxiety or responsibility. Perhaps that’s why, when I think of my most carefree moments, I am on my own, exploring or trying something new: I’m kayaking in the ocean or scrambling up a mountain; I’m walking on the beach or meandering through a farmer’s market; I’m making chocolate chip cookies or staring at the ocean.

Carefree

When are you most carefree?

You Say Oysters and I Say . . .

After lunch in Point Reyes Station, we drove north to Tomales Bay, intent on sampling a few local oysters.

Yellow kayaks brightened the foggy gray Tomales Bay as we drove along the rolling highway. Cars lined the narrow and curvy road as we passed a crowded Tomales Bay Oyster Company before reaching our destination, Hog Island Oyster Company.

100_4213

People sat outside, shucking and eating, laughing and chatting.

100_4217

100_4219

We bought a couple dozen oysters and headed home, anticipating our dinner of oysters on the grill and goat cheese ravioli followed by homemade strawberry ice cream and fresh blackberry pie.

100_4224

 Trip taken August 2012.

 

Eating and Shopping in Point Reyes Station

If Point Reyes National Seashore is your destination, be sure to allow time to visit the small town of Point Reyes Station before or after your trip to one of the most striking locations on the west coast. Once you’ve visited the Bear Valley Visitor Center, made your way to the beach at Limantour or hiked to Abbott’s Lagoon, seen the Tule Elk and maybe driven out to the lighthouse, stop in at the small town of Point Reyes Station for a bite to eat and a little shopping.

Point Reyes Visitor CenterEvery time we make Point Reyes Station our destination, we visit a few of our favorites. We stop at Bovine Bakery for coffee and a sweet or savory snack and at Cowgirl Creamery’s Deli in Tomales Bay Foods for the best cheese around.

Tomales Bay FoodsYou can find picnic essentials at Palace Market and a book for the beach at Point Reyes Books. On our last visit, we walked through a tiny flea market, browsed the variety of items at Toby’s Feed Barn, ogled the fine art at Gallery Route One, and bought a wetsuit at Point Reyes Surf Shop.

Point Reyes Surf ShopIf you go, be sure to dress in layers. It’s usually cooler and windier on the coast. The town of Point Reyes Station is located on Highway 1, about an hour’s drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Trip taken August 2012.

Sampling Local Food in Point Reyes Station

Though not as big as the farmer’s markets of southern Marin County, the farmer’s market in Point Reyes Station is every bit as colorful and unique. On a trip to San Francisco last August, we headed up the coast, stopping in the small town of Point Reyes Station for lunch.

Cyclists abounded. We followed them and a few locals behind Toby’s Feed Barn and discovered a completely local and organic market.

Toby's Feed Store We meandered about the kale and figs, the booths of soap and candles, the squash and peaches, the jam, the hummus and pita bread, the chips and salsa.

Point Reyes Farmer's MarketWe listened to a local folk band, choosing freshly made quesadillas and tacos over oozing grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. We sat at a picnic table next to the town’s community garden.

Point Reyes Community GardenIf you want to go, choose a Saturday morning. The market is open every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, follow Highway 1 north about 34 miles to Point Reyes. The farmer’s market is located behind Toby’s Feed Barn, right on Highway 1.

Trip taken August 2012.

On the Road: Looking for a Burger

You’re in unfamiliar territory. You’re driving (or flying) for miles, and you need a burger. Or at least someone in the backseat does. Besides the obvious and familiar chains, where do you find a good and quick burger when you’re far from home? Here are a few places we’ve found while driving up and down the West and East Coasts.

The West Coast, South West, and Texas

In-N-Out Burger: The menu at In-N-Out is simple and old fashioned: just burgers (made with 100% beef), fries (fried in vegetable oil), shakes (made with real ice cream), and beverages. If someone in the family doesn’t eat meat, they can order a grilled cheese. If you’re gluten-free, be sure to order the “Protein Burger,” a burger wrapped in a lettuce leaf instead of a bun. Messy but yummy.

IN-N-OUT BURGER

All Over (Almost)

Five Guys Burgers and Fries: We first discovered this burger place on a trip to Florida only to learn there was a location close to home. With another simple menu, Five Guys Burgers and Fries specializes in burgers and hot dogs with your choice of a plethora of toppings. And the fries are good and plentiful. But don’t come here if you’re allergic to peanuts. Five guys uses peanut oil and offers peanuts to customers as they wait for their burger. If you’re gluten free, just get a burger without the bun. The burger is gluten free, even if the bun isn’t. Five Guys is located in 47 states. If you live in Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, or South Dakota, you’ll just have to travel.

Five Guys

New England

A small New England burger chain, Wild Willy’s has only six locations in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. While its burgers are made with certified Angus, all natural beef or even bison, Wild Willy’s offers more than specialty burgers. There you can get a grilled chicken or steak sandwich, or salad with fries or onion rings and a shake. If you’re gluten free, make sure to ask for a gluten-free bun, and check to see if the fries or onion rings are fried in a dedicated deep fryer. Last time we checked, both were gluten free at the Worcester, Mass. location.

Washington, D.C.

While traveling in DC in April, we discovered another simple and fast burger joint, just off the highway, Burger 7. Burger 7 offers a healthy alternative to those who crave a burger but are trying to eat healthy at the same time. The menu includes grass fed hot dogs and hormone free beef, turkey burgers and veggie burgers, whole wheat buns and lettuce leaf wraps, potato fries and sweet potato fries both cooked in olive oil, plus shakes made with organic milk. Burger 7 has three locations in the DC area, but we ate at the one in Tyson’s Corner.

IMG_0176

Where else can you get a burger? Do some sleuthing on the internet if you’re visiting a particular place or check out these links for favorite burger joints in Los Angeles,  Boston, the Midwest, in South Carolina, and across the U.S.

Who serves your favorite burger?

Trip taken 2012 and 2013.

In-N-Out photo used under Creative Commons from whatleydude.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries photo used under Creative Commons from kennejima.

Celebrating Buddha’s Birthday

Have you ever observed Buddha’s birthday? Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on different days by different schools of Buddhism, and on Sunday, April 28, his birthday was celebrated at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center near San Francisco.

Yellow poster for Buddha's Birthday

After driving past Green Gulch for years, on my way to the beach or to a trailhead, I finally stopped. We drove down the narrow dirt road edged by towering redwood trees, parked in the designated visitor lot, and walked toward the center.

Several white calla lilies

Although we missed the formal ceremony and pageant, we were in time for some birthday cake and were able to check out the organic plant sale. Green Gulch produce and its bread are sold at the farm and at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers’ Market from May through August.

Green Gulch Gardens

One of the San Francisco Zen Center’s three locations, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center is a Buddhist practice center in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. According to its website, “Our effort at Green Gulch is to awaken in ourselves and the many people who come here the bodhisattva spirit, the spirit of kindness and realistic helpfulness. This is how we offer our understanding of Buddha’s Way.”

Large bell hanging from tree

Green Gulch Farm is located on Shoreline Highway about half a mile from the Pelican Inn and Muir Beach. Check out their website for accommodations and for upcoming lectures and programs open to the public.

Wildflowers on the Dias Ridge Trail

Looking for a gentle hike with spectacular views and a rewarding destination? The Dias Ridge Trail in Mount Tamalpais State Park, a few miles north of San Francisco, meanders just 3 miles from Panoramic Highway down to the Pelican Inn and Muir Beach.

As I hiked the trail last weekend, I discovered a few of the 20,000 or more coastal and grassland plants transplanted by volunteers before the trail opened in 2010.

Trail on hillside

Yellow and orange California poppies, pink wild geraniums, purple lupine, white iris, red Indian paintbrush, and even white wild strawberry blossoms brightened the trail.

I made way for the mountain bikers, runners, and faster hikers and dodged the abundant poison oak growing thickly among its look alike, the blackberry plant.

Shiny green leaves pf three

I stepped carefully to avoid a black beetle and watched him scurry across the dirt trail.

Black beetle near green sneaker

I listened to the sounds of rattlesnake grass when shaken by the wind and discovered that the blooming cow parsnip really does smell like warm corn tortillas.

After stunning sights of the Pacific Ocean and the ridge of Mount Tam on this warm April day, we stopped for lunch (fish and chips and a ploughman’s lunch) at the Pelican Inn.

View of Pacific Ocean in distance beyond green hills

White inn in distance at end of trail

Return to your car for a 6-mile (and more rigorous) round trip hike or send someone back up the trail to get the car, as we did. Muir Beach is only a short hike from the Pelican Inn.

If you go, follow Shoreline Highway from the Mill Valley/Stinson Beach exit off Highway 101. Turn right onto Panoramic Highway and park in one of the dirt pullouts just ahead. Follow the trailhead signs to reach Dias Ridge Trail.

Trip taken April 2013

Finding Gluten-Free at Farmers’ Markets

On a recent trip to Marin, I found several gluten-free products available for sample and purchase at the Marin Civic Center Farmers’ Market.

Besides fresh strawberries, peaches, and other fruits and vegetables, my gluten-free daughter and I tasted gluten-free granola, gluten-free scones, and gluten-free cupcakes.

Bag of granola

plate of scones

We found gluten-free veggie burgers, kettle corn, and gluten-free tamales.

Next time you’re in San Francisco or Marin, consider going to a farmers’ market for lunch. You’re bound to find something that’s not only gluten free but yummy and locally made as well.

Trip taken August 2012.

Visiting Farmers’ Markets in California

Although a few Farmers’ Markets are now appearing in New England over the winter, from November until March, we wait for things to grow. But in California, where an abundance of food grows all year long, the farmers’ markets never end.

kale, cabbages, carrots

If you’re lucky enough to live in or visit San Francisco or Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge, you have your choice of farmers’ markets every day except Mondays. For a complete schedule, click here.

Basket of produce

On Tuesdays, you can find fresh veggies in Novato, Tam Valley, San Francisco Ferry Plaza and San Francisco Marina; on Wednesdays, in Corte Madera and Fairfax; on Thursdays, at the San Rafael Marin Civic Center, San Francisco Ferry Plaza, in Downtown San Rafael, and in Downtown Ross; on Fridays, in Mill Valley.

During the weekend, you’ll find Farmers’ Markets in Larkspur Landing, Marinwood, Point Reyes, San Francisco Ferry Plaza on Saturday and on Sunday, in Sausalito, San Rafael Marin Civic Center, San Francisco Fort Mason.

I often visit the Farmers Market in San Rafael. I love to see the booths overflowing in color and texture, the flowers, the vegetables, the fruit.

Radishes

StrawberriesI like to sample the local food I know I can’t get at home, like Donna’s Tamales, locally grown dates, and pumpkin bolani from East and West Gourmet Afghan Food.

plate of Mexican food

I like to watch the people and feel the positive energy. It’s been several months. I’m overdue for a trip.