For some reason, out of town visitors seem to come to San Diego with the idea that the fish taco is the must-try local specialty. My theory is this notion was propagated by some out of town food writer desperate for something, anything, to say about San Diego's food scene. Calvin Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten are likely suspects from what I can gather, though I haven't been able to get my hands on their actual essays. As much as I respect each of their esteemed opinions, I'm not sure they were really on target with this one. The local chains that specialize in fish tacos - Rubios and Wahoos - are either extremely mediocre (Rubios) or almost non-existent in San Diego (Wahoos has only three locations left) to the extent that they're shadows of their former selves. While every taco shop on every corner in town serves a fish taco of some sort - if you're not careful you could easily wind up with the equivalent of fish sticks wrapped in a tortilla. I can only imagine the disappointment our visitors must suffer.
The first time I ever heard of a fish taco here in San Diego was when I was a senior in high school, and the Marine Biology club sold them as a fundraiser to support their Baja surfing expeditions. They had brought the formula back from Ensenada, and the whole school went crazy for the little tacos, made with a puffy tempura fried piece of fish atop a corn tortilla, with shredded cabbage, yogurt sauce and a little lime. That's all. No ranch dressing, no cheese, no salsa.
The story goes that fish tacos originated in Baja, when Japanese fishermen introduced the locals to tempura frying. They are really fairly simple - the fish should be fresh and crisp, the tortilla soft, but not so soft that it falls apart in your hand, and the toppings should be minimal - the better to keep the fish hot and crisp. The most important thing of all, is that the taco be eaten right away.
If you're a San Diego foodie, or if you troll the local Chowhound board with any regularity, you've likely heard South Beach Bar and Grille recommended as the place for fish tacos here in town. Not having tried it in a while, and curious about all the recommendations - I dragged fellow local Chowhounders Josh and Alex down to Ocean Beach a few weeks ago to give it a whirl. Josh strongly recommended ordering the salsa and sauce on the side, and I wholeheartedly agree. As you can see from the picture above, South Beach does not subscribe to a minimalist theory when it comes to toppings. Their tacos are served on flour tortillas rather than corn, with shredded yellow cheddar cheese and tomato salsa, and are - unless you ask for it on the side like we did - drowned in ranch dressing (Sysco Ranch, no less.) The one thing they do right is fry their tacos in a beer batter.
Unfortunately, on the day we visited, it was a little too thick and heavy - resulting in some doughy chunks of uncooked batter (the picture is a little fuzzy - but you can see a chunk there on the lefthand side of the fish.) The salsa was also a little past it's prime - mushy, with that over-ripe tomato flavor. And what can I say about the Ranch dressing? It doesn't belong on any Mexican dish - even one as tenuously related to the original as this one. Likewise, cheddar cheese belongs on a cheeseburger.
The one thing I did really like was the fried oyster taco. Since I asked for the dressing and salsa on the side - the oysters were still nice and crisp, and I was able to add a little bit of hot sauce to make a sort of Mexican version of a po-boy. They weren't terribly cheap at $4.25 a pop, and South Beach has this crazy rule that the servers can't bring you beverages - you have to order from the bar even if you're the only table in there - but I guess popularity has it's price. They also carded us to get through the door, so presumably no one under 21 is allowed inside.
Another oft seen recommendation for fish tacos is the bar at the Brigantine. The Brig, as it's known out here in the East County, is a very popular spot for happy hour and lunches - dinners are a little pricey for what you get, but it's a good place to take the parents or non-foodie guests. It's a local chain, with about a half dozen branches around town - Shelter Island, Del Mar, Mt. Helix and Coronado come to mind immediately. I've eaten many a fish taco in their bar, and though they are ok (certainly better than South Beach) I just can't get past the fact that they PILE on the shredded yellow cheese. You can always ask them to leave it off - but is this really San Diego's BEST fish taco? I refuse to believe it. The setting also sort of goes against my idea of what the best place for fish tacos should look like -which in my fantasy world, would allow me to forget that I'm still north of the border.
So then, you may ask - where do I go to get the best fish tacos? Though I have yet to find a stand that serves a taco to rival the ones served at my high school, I can at least recommend a sit-down restaurant. When I worked in North County, we often went to Don Chuy in Solana Beach for lunch - and I fell in love with their version. It's bigger than usual - about seven inches long - but the fish is puffy and crisp, and it's served with the traditional accompaniments. I used to get it with a side of beans, and either their margaritas were really strong, or it was really delicious - more likely it was a little of both. This is the place I always recommend when I'm asked for the best fish taco, but I know there must be others out there.
I do plan to continue my research with the hope of sorting out this vexing topic - so you'll likely see more posts on fish tacos in the future. In the meantime, dear readers, what do you think?
Do you love San Diego's fish tacos, and if so where do you eat them?
If not - what other local specialties would you recommend instead?
P.S. - As a bonus, here are two lists offering the "Best Fish Tacos in San Diego" from Yelp and Serious Eats.