As James Cameron can tell you, puttering around the Mariana Trench in his tiny submarine, the sea is full of bizarre and mysterious creatures. There are Pompeii worms, which live near volcanic heat vents and can withstand temperatures of 175°F. There are deep-sea anglerfish, those nightmare-jawed beasts with small fins and little glowing bulbs hanging from their heads.
And then – then there is that ocean oddity known as the fish taco.
If you haven’t had a Baja-style fish taco, it might look a bit like the taco equivalent of an anglerfish – you can recognize it as a taco, but it also doesn’t look quite like any taco you’ve ever seen before. The fish is battered (usually beer-battered) and deep-fried into golden chunks. (Don’t let anyone convince you that the fish should be grilled. If it is, you’re not eating a Baja-style taco.) Finely shredded cabbage is a topping requirement, as is the creamy white sauce. Beyond that, you can get fancy with salsas and radishes, but they’re not required.
I once thought myself very worldly because, when I lived in Philadelphia, the Mexican restaurant on the corner near my house served fish and shrimp tacos, quesadillas, and burritos. But there they treated seafood like any other meat, leaving it unfried, and, in the case of the quesadillas, mixing it with cheese. (We’re not going to get into the seafood-cheese debate here. Wait, we will just a little bit – without cheese and fish together, we wouldn’t have delicious, salty anchovies on pizza. So there.)
So when I moved to Los Angeles and was served my first fish taco, I was surprised by the battered, oil-shiny chunks of fish. But that first bite convinced me that the fish taco might be the ultimate street food. It’s crispy, crunchy, and soft all at once, with elements of spicy and creamy. Served with a cold agua fresca, the fish taco is a perfect casual lunch date, hangover cure, and cheap meal all in one.
The history of the fish taco is murky. According to writer Matthew Jaffe in Sunset magazine, people on Mexico’s coast have likely been eating them for thousands of years, but “sometime in the last 40 or 50 years, someone concocted what is generally considered to be the prototypical fish taco.” As for who first brought them to the United States, many fingers point to Ralph Rubio, a college student who first tried fish tacos on spring break. He opened the first Rubio’s fish taco stand in San Diego in 1983. Today, the chain has over 190 stores and serves “The Original Fish Taco®”. I haven’t eaten at Rubio’s yet, partially because I’m suspicious of any restaurant that feels the need to put a reserved mark after its dish names.
But I also don’t need to try Rubio’s because I live within walking distance of what many Angelenos consider to be the city’s best fish tacos – Ricky’s. Ricky Pina serves up fish tacos from a small stand four or five days a week (you have to check his Twitter to see when he’ll be open). The fish and shrimp tacos are both the best I’ve had in LA. And not to say that famous people have better taste than the rest of us (j/k, famous people are always better than the rest of us), but the place is a minor celebrity hotspot. Aziz Ansari frequents the stand, and I once accidentally stole Eric Wareheim’s seat there. (Sorry, Eric.)
Some claim that the fish taco is Southern California’s equivalent to Philadelphia’s cheesesteak. They’re both delicious dishes that evoke a strong sense of place. But I’d argue that the fish taco is rarer and more elusive than the cheesesteak. Rather, tacos in general are Southern California’s cheesesteak, and the fish taco is Philadelphia’s roast pork sandwich – arguably better than the cheesesteak, but less known and less celebrated.
I recommend getting a fish taco at a fish taco stand if you can – I’m a firm believer that you’ll almost always get the best version of a street food on the street. But if you can’t make it to Southern California, at least try this Baja fish taco recipe. Because like all the mysteries of the deep, the fish taco is worth seeking out.
Baja-Style Fish Tacos With Radish Salsa
A slightly modernized take on the classic Baja fish taco, my version adds a few ingredients. I amped up the traditional Baja white sauce with a squirt of sriracha, making it pink. A radish salsa, along with the non-negotiable shredded cabbage, adds crunch and brightness to beer-battered fish. I also recommend pressing your own tortillas – it’s worth it. Use the corn-based recipe below for maximum authenticity, but if you insist on flour tortillas, here’s a homemade version.
12 homemade corn (below) or flour tortillas
2 cups flour
1 bottle of beer
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound white fish, cut in 2-inch chunks
1 cup green cabbage, thinly sliced
⅓ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon sriracha
Small squirt of lemon juice
Radish salsa (below)
Heat 1 quart of vegetable, peanut, or canola oil to 350°F (if you don’t have a thermometer, you can toss a bit of the batter in to test the oil – it’s ready when it with sizzle). Mix the flour with the salt and beer. Dredge the fish pieces in the batter, then fry until golden. Drain on paper towels.
Meanwhile, make the pink sauce: combine sour cream, mayo, cream, sriracha, and lemon juice, and stir until blended.
And finally…layer the fish, cabbage, salsa, and sauce on a tortilla. Top with a slice of avocado.
2 cups masa harina (I used blue corn masa)
1 teaspoon salt
1¼ cups water
Combine the masa, salt, and water. Knead. Split into 12 balls. Press between a tortilla press, or put between two pieces of plastic wrap and roll with a rolling pin (that’s what I did this time, although I find the edges don’t end up as nice). Cook on a hot, dry frying pan for 45 to 60 seconds per side.
½ cup diced radish
1 jalapeño, diced
¼ cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup red onion, diced
Juice of 1 lime
1 small clove of garlic, crushed
½ tablespoon olive oil
Salt, to taste
Combine all ingredients. Serve on fish tacos or as desired.