There is no middle of the road with fish tacos. People who haven't tried one furrow their collective brow at the idea. "Fish? In a taco?" Those who have tasted the truth revel in the delight that is the perfect fish taco. They tend to be gloriously dogmatic in their conviction that we should all eat them every day. If you're one of the unconvinced you owe it to yourself to keep trying. Find (or create) one that is true to the external form and underlying romance that is the fish taco.
I sat with my two teenage kids at Yujajay's, our favorite open-air taco spot in Ensenada, Baja. We were bonding over fish tacos. The perfect combination of tastes, the childlike fun of eating with our hands, the noise of the city, the heady smell of the ocean and the fish market had us moaning in heavenly delight. My son was working on his sixth. The people say the port town is the modern fish taco's true home, dating at least from the opening in 1958 of the Mercado Negro, Ensenada's incredible fish market. However, the history of fish tacos may well extend back thousands of years to when indigenous North American peoples first wrapped the plentiful offshore catch in stone-ground cornbread.
As told in a Sunset magazine story, "In search of the real fish taco," by Matthew Jaffe, the leap across the border began in 1974 when Ralph Rubio of San Diego sampled fish tacos from a street vendor named Carlos in San Felipe, Baja. Rubio invited Carlos to open a taco stand in San Diego. Carlos declined, but gave Rubio his recipe for Baja fish tacos. Today Carlos's old San Felipe stand still operates, but under different ownership. Rubio's began his first San Diego taco shop in 1983 -- it's now a multimillion-dollar company serving fish tacos all over the southwest. Rubio said he tried to find Carlos to share the wealth, but he had disappeared.
Fish tacos come in two forms. The original Baja style is a chunk of white fish (cod, halibut, snapper), battered, deep-fried and dropped into a warm corn tortilla or two. Add cabbage, pico de gallo, cilantro (which might all be combined into a tangy slaw), and a mystery spicy white sauce (not really recommended from the stalls in Baja). Further garnish may include chopped tomatoes, diced jalapenos, and minced onion.
The new age version consists of *grilled* fish: cod, tilapia, mahi mahi, swordfish, even salmon. (The Flying Fish Grill in Half Moon Bay once served a taco made with shark dubbed "Surfer's Revenge.") The grilled fish is topped with name-brand cabbage, high-rent guacamole, pickled onions, designer aioli, and/or new wave salsa. As scrumptious as they are, these upscaled fish tacos run the risk of distracting us from the simple nobility and pedestrian perfection that is most satisfying. These new heart-friendly tacos may be more healthful, but they also may lose a bit of their historical connection to the fishing villages of Baja. Done right, however, grilled fish tacos can taste mighty good, authenticity issues notwithstanding.
In either case an abundance of fresh lime wedges is a must.
Perhaps you're not going to Baja any time soon. To our good fortune there are many fish tacos to sample locally. It's just one man's opinion, but these are my personal favorites in Eureka and Arcata. Fish tacos are everywhere now. Hunt to the north and south, too. Your ideal fish taco is surely waiting for you at one of many fine Mexican and non-Mexican food spots in greater Humboldt. Go fish.
In Eureka: Tasty Tacos, Cutten. They mix their own beer batter for the fish, toss on a tasty tangy homemade slaw, and get this: they make your tortilla on the spot each time you order -- a sturdy one that doesn't fall apart.
Arcata: Rita's (also in Eureka). They offer 2 kinds: classic Baha and Corona beer battered. Very tasty, big chunk of fish. Plus they make that mystery white sauce (safe here, not in Baja). They even toss in chips and salsa with a single taco order.
Eureka: Esmerelda's. My favorite so far. Homemade tortillas, nice chunk of fish.
Arcata: Rico's. A delicious version with mahi-mahi. Lime and radish add a nice authentic touch.
Finally, A Fish Story
If there ever was a place for a perfect fish taco it's our North Coast with its abundance of seafood. While some menus reveal the type of fish used in their tacos, most simply say "fish." I am a fan of knowing what I'm eating, so I ask. The replies are across the board: cod, rock cod, "white" cod, pollack, "snapper," (which is what some call rock cod). halibut, catfish, tilapia, and mahi-mahi all find their way into those folded tortillas. And if farmed vs. wild is important to you, that question is worth asking as well.
DIY Fish Tacos
Here's the recipe that even my teenage kids love. Alert: This is a free-form recipe. Those preferring precise quantities may experience some dizziness.
Fish: Boneless cod, halibut or snapper fillets
Plenty of fresh limes (lemons will do)
Toss fish into a big zip lock, add a little olive oil, lots of fresh lime, garlic to taste, some chili powder, less cumin, dash of soy sauce. Seal and refrigerate for at least a couple hours. Longer is better, but not too long ir you'll have ceviche.
Shredded green cabbage (not lettuce)
Pico de gallo (go buy some)
Options: Tomato, jalapeno, onion, avocado
Prep the garnish by dicing everything very small. Put each in a bowl for later.
Mystery white sauce: A blend of mayonnaise, plain yogurt and/or sour cream, fresh lime/lemon juice, garlic granules, and cayenne or Cholula/Tapatio-type red sauce. Experiment. Find the balance you like. (My daughter asked me to leave this to her in my will. Now she gets it sooner)
Tortillas (sometimes two to hold it all together) warming on a griddle with a small bit of cheese melting (tasty, albeit not exactly authentic).
Grill or sauté the fish in some olive oil in at medium-high heat. Not too long. Done but still flakey. Try keeping it in big chunks.
Put fish on the tortillas, toss on garnish, drizzle white sauce and plenty of fresh lime.