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.

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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.

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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.

California Mexican

When a friend asked me what my favorite food was, I didn’t hesitate. “Salsa!” I replied. I like chips, too, but mainly as a conduit to salsa fresca: tomatoes, onion, a pepper, cilantro, and lime juice. I love the chunky and the tart, with just the right heat. I like my salsa on the medium to mild side, too much heat and my taste buds are overwhelmed; too little heat and the salsa remains only a sidebar. Just the right amount, and I want to add it to everything, the burritos, the tacos, the enchilada.

I like the fresh, California-style Mexican, and I love fish tacos. In college, I traveled to Ensenada with a couple of friends where we ate fish tacos for a quarter from street vendors. Fried fish, salsa fresca, sliced cabbage, mayo and a little lime juice all within a corn tortilla. The best.

Now an East Coast transplant, I’m always searching for the perfect Mexican place. I’ve eaten at several in New England over the years, but no matter how hard I try, my favorite Mexican restaurants remain in California, and two of them are located in the Bay Area: Guaymas and Joe’s Taco Lounge.

Guaymas is the fancier of the two. Located on Main Street in Tiburon, Guaymas is perched on the Bay. You can sit outside among the seagulls and the sail boats or inside where papel picado banners (those brightly colored paper cutouts) decorate the room. I ate lunch at Guaymas after the Loma Prieta Earthquake – feeling safe and lucky in barely touched Tiburon, looking across the Bay at crumpled and warped San Francisco. At Guaymas, they serve a variety of salsas. Try the Ceviche de Pescado, the Poblano en Nogado, or the Tamales Platano.

Not far from Guaymas, you can find Joe’s Taco Lounge in the small town of Mill Valley (identified as one of the best small towns in Smithonian Magazine’s recent article). Small, noisy, and colorful, you have to get there early for a table or be prepared to wait. Here the only view is of colorful hot sauces lining the wall and the bar in the center of this tiny restaurant. I’ve heard the burritos are amazing, but I can’t get beyond the fish tacos, and I always ask for more salsa.

Photos on this post by Erica on trip taken in May 2009.