In Southern California tacos and serving have always gone hand in hand. There is no food more synonymous with surfing than the Baja fish taco. Roadside stands dedicated to this regional treasurer dot the west coast of Baja and act as fueling stations for surfers traveling from one surf break to the next. When I was a young man, getting up early was something I did only when I had to, with one exception: surfing.
A surf trip to Mexico had me springing out of bed before first light, hitting the sack early the night before to dream of fish tacos and called Mexican beer. With boards strapped to the roof of the car, heading south on Interstate 5, the excitement was palpable. The first stop after crossing into Mexico was always a Corona beer substation to fill the cooler. At an official Corona substation, you could get a case of twenty coronas for $8.99; not a bad price, especially when we found out $3.00 of that was a deposit. This was a mind-blowing discovery.
If we kept the cardboard case, we could return the bottles on the way home and get back the deposit. We were all alumni of the Coronado high school math department, so working together as a team we were able to calculate that the beers only cost us thirty cents apiece. Fish tacos were inexpensive as well, so if you had twenty dollars for the day you can eat and drink like a king or queen and still have money for a bacon-wrapped street dog or two while waiting in line at the border on the way home. To this day, I have not been able to duplicate, and certainly not top the carefree times we had on those magical surfing day trips to Baja.
Surfing trips to Mexico are unfortunately a distant memory for me. Trips down to Baja have been replaced by swanky escapes to the Guadalupe Valley. Cheap Coronas have become expensive glasses of regional wine, and the tacos are now made by celebrity chefs with fancy restaurants located in the vineyards. Today I am left with memories of those roadside stands of my youth where we would power down one crunchy fish taco after the next, washing them down with cold beer while telling stories of waves we caught and the one that got away.
I still love fish tacos, but the traditional ones are hard to find on this side of the border. It is worth noting that people have been eating fish with tortillas for hundreds of years, but the Baja fish taco as a dish is relatively new in the world of tacos. The dispute over the origin of the fish taco goes back and forth from Ensenada to San Felipe. The timeframe of its conception is thought to be the late 1950s to the early 60s. 1966 brought the classic surf film “Endless Summer” tempting countless surfers to head south of the border, no doubt adding to the popularity of this regional delicacy. After reading quite a bit on the subject, I believe Ensenada has the most reliable evidence as the birthplace of the fish taco. Legend tells of a vendor Mario, who would collect the unwanted sharks left on the beach by fishermen. Mario would get the sharks for free, fry them up, and serve them in tacos. They were so popular and Mario was so successful that the other vendor got in the fish taco game. In the spirit of innovation, each vendor would try to outdo the other and improve upon the original. One such vendor decided to batter the fish before frying and the Baja fish taco we know today was born. From the very beginning, fish tacos evolve into someone’s idea of a better taco. Traditional Baja fish tacos are hard to find here in the states, so I recommend trying them out for yourself at home!
The traditional Baja fish taco is a very simple concept: Flour tortilla, locally caught white fish that is battered and fried until crisp and golden brown, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, white sauce, fresh lime juice, and a touch of your favorite hot sauce. If you want to punch up the heat, Valentina hot sauce is great on tacos. Research has the original tortilla as flour, however, I prefer a good corn tortilla and I often double them up to assure the taco stays intact and doesn’t break. The batter should be light, so I like to use beer as the liquid. A traditional Mexican lager such as Corona works well or if you prefer a darker beer, Bohemia or Negra Modelo will do the trick. Just like sparkling water being used in tempura batter, the bubbles in the beer help make the batter light… While not traditional, in the spirit of the ever-changing is taco there are some fun takes on the original at City Taco in Imperial Beach, TJ Oyster company in Bonita, and Salud in Barrio Logan. Fresh tortillas and everything else you will need to make this at home can be found at Northgate Market in Barrio Logan. Don’t let the frying part of this recipe keep you from making these tacos at home and don’t talk to yourself into thinking grilling the fish is just as good because it’s not. I have included a great recipe from Rick Bayless, from his favorite Fish taco stand in Ensenada. It is a good one, enjoy.
• Clyde Van Arsdall IV is the executive chef and general manager of the Neiman Marcus Cafe.
CLASSIC ENSENADA FISH TACOS
TACOS DE PESCADO “CLASICOS DE ENSENADA”
Recipe from Rick Bayless season 8 of Mexico one Plate at a name, the name of the episode is “Astonishing Baja”
SERVINGS: 12 TACOS, ENOUGH TO SERVE 4
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- Salt to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh black pepper
- 1 teaspoon yellow mustard (like French’s)
- 1 teaspoon concentrated chicken base or chicken flavor
- powdered bouillon
- 1 cup beer, sparkling water, or water
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- Vegetable oil to a depth 11/2 of inches for frying 1 pound boneless, skinless fish fillets (practically anything will work, but I like larger-flake, lighter-flavor fish best for the preparation – think halibut, sea bass, grouper, and the like)
- 1/3 cup mayonnaise
- 1/3 cup sour cream or heavy (whipping) cream
- 1/4 cup milk
- 12 warm corn tortilla
- 1 cup (or more) thinly sliced cabbage (I like Napa cabbage best)
- About 1 cup pico de gallo and three limes cut into wedges
- Finely chop the garlic, sprinkle generously with salt, then mash back and forth with the side of your knife across your cutting board until crushed to a puree. Scrape into a medium bowl and add the oregano, black pepper, mustard, base or bouillon, beer or water, and ½ teaspoon salt. Add the flour and baking powder to the wet ingredients and whisk just until combined.
- Heat the oil in a heavy skillet to 370 degrees. While the oil is heating, cut the fish into pieces about 3 inches long by ½-inch square. Use a pair of tongs to pick up a piece of fish, dip it completely into the batter, and lay it into the oil. Continue with a few more pieces of fish, filling the hot oil with an uncrowded layer. Fry, turning the pieces regularly, until deep golden and crisp, about 4 minutes.
- Drain on paper towels and keep warm in a low oven on a wire rack set over a sheet pan while you fry the rest of the fish.
- Mix the mayonnaise, sour cream, and milk. Set out with the cabbage, pico de gallo, warm corn tortillas, limes, and the crispy fish for everyone to make tacos.
PICO DE GALLO
- medium plum tomatoes, chopped
- 2 fresh serrano chiles, stemmed and roughly chopped into small pieces
- ½ small onion, finely chopped and rinsed briefly under running water
- 1/3 cup cilantro, finely chopped
- The juice of one small lime
- Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and sprinkle with salt, usually about ½ teaspoon. Mix and serve.