Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Truth about Fish Tacos

Tacos at South Beach in OB

For some reason, out of town visitors always 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. 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 some 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.  No ranch dressing, no cheese, no salsa.
Menu at South Beach in OB

The story goes that fish tacos originated in Baja, where 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 must be eaten right away.
Tacos at South Beach in OB

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. One thing they do right is fry their tacos in a beer batter.
Fish Taco at South Beach in OB

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?  Likewise, cheddar cheese belongs on a cheeseburger.
Oyster Taco at South Beach in OB

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.
The Kitchen at South Beach in OB

Another common recommendation for fish tacos is the bar at the Brigantine. The Brig, as it's known to the locals, is a popular spot for happy hours and lunches. 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 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? 

So then, you may ask - where should you go get the best fish tacos?   Well, Rubios actually serves up a pretty decent one, and I know of two Mariscos trucks who do a pretty good job - Mariscos German and Mariscos El Pescador but my favorite these days is at Blue Water Grill on India Street.   I'm also a fan of the fish taco at Don Chuy in Solana Beach, though I haven't head it in a while.  

So, 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.

33 comments:

  1. I'm partial to El Zarape. Why would I pay $10 or more in a sit-down restaurant when they still have 99 cent fish tacos that kick everyone else's ass?

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  2. I adore South Beach (and have for over a decade), but I am very partial to their calamari tacos. It's a thick cut, and always cooked perfectly. Hands down, the best taco on the menu.

    Oh, and I think they are good people for serving tacos on flour tortillas, as I don't care for corn tortillas one bit. :-)

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  3. The $1 fish tacos at the bar at Baja Betty's are pretty good, though sometimes they get carried away with the white sauce. They're topped with a bit of the house salsa and some cabbage, too. I think they go easy on the cheese--I haven't had them in a while, and my great enjoyment of them may be due to strong margaritas, so you may take my rec with a shaker of salt.

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  4. Good article, actually any time someone writes about fish tacos I consider it a good article.South Beach is OK but not so authentic. Would probably put it into "gringo" fish taco category. I have not found that many good Baja Style fish tacos north of the border,although Bahia Don Bravo in Windansea makes a pretty good hole in the wall version and you can sit outside and see the ocean. If you want to make your own I posted a recipe on my site you can check out. http://foodluvin.com/2008/06/ensenada-style-baja-fish-tacos/

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  5. The only two places I have really really enjoyed fish tacos are: 1. The now extinct Carlos Murphy's. This is surprising but true. It wasn't exactly traditional but it really worked -- grilled mahi mahi, homemade flour tortilla, cabbage and a nice tangy white sauce. 2. The little taco stand next to Bar Miramar in San Felipe -- anyone? anyone? SF is the town where fish tacos supposedly began. The shrimp ones are great too.

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  6. Call me a "Gringo" and cancel out any foodie credibility I may have, but I like the fish tacos at Rubios.

    Also, I would not trust and would probably end any friendship with a person who preferred their fish tacos on flour tortillas!

    -Cap'n Jimmy

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  7. El Trailero just north of Ensenada makes the best I've had, but that's not in San Diego. I hope they're still open.

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  8. How is it that I worked in Solana Beach for almost 2 years and have never heard of Don Chuy's??? My favorite fish tacos are probably the grilled ones from Blue Water, but I also enjoy them at the Brig in Del Mar and South Beach. I want to try the lobster tacos at the place on the pier in OB.

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  9. I like the calamari taco at South Beach, too. And while I generally prefer corn tortillas for most tacos, I think the flour tortillas work well with the style they make at South Beach.

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  10. We're fans of Blue Water (which is closest to us) and El Zarape. I also like the Mahi Mahi taco at South Beach, though it is grilled, not fried.

    -Gil

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  11. I grew up in San Diego and fish tacos were a regular item at home (my mother was previously married to a Mexican man and learned to cook terrific Mexican food) -- the fish was never fried -- either grilled or blackened in a cast iron pan. She used mahi mahi, tilapia, or orange roughy (bought in bulk from Price Club) -- the fish was seasoned with cayenne pepper, salt, and lots and lots of lime juice. They were served with shredded green cabbage and a tangy white sauce (not ranch dressing!) And, Capn' Jimmy - they were typically served on small, warm flour tortillas -- I am dying for one right now!

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  12. one more thing --- when we lived in Mission Hills, we ate at Blue Water regularly and enjoyed their grilled fish tacos - Brian's favorite was the shrimp sandwich.

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  13. El Zarape, Blue Water, South Beach, and the Mariscos German truck. They are all different, and that's what i explain to visitors. South Beach is definitely the bar food version of the fish taco. El Zarape's is a better quality version of Rubios.

    No comment on the term 'foodie', nor on the chowhound crowd.

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  14. Not quite the south of the border setting, but I had a good fish taco at Henry's Pub in the gaslamp. Not too much sauce and pretty minimalist if I remember correctly

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  15. Very nice post. We tend to pop in at Shelter Island Brig for a bite before concerts. Always order no cheese, sauce and salsa on the side. They use corn tortillas, so ordered that way, pretty decent. And because we can crawl there from our place, we frequent Alfonsos when we are just too tired. Do not eat the fish tacos...but the fried shrimp tacos are surprisingly good! Very light.

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  16. El Pescador in La Jolla is also a good choice for fresh fish tacos (not fried).

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  17. I'm not a fan of the fish taco in any carnation, so I don't have any hot tips for that.

    But what you say about the San Diego food scene is so right. If a visitor comes to town, where do I take them to show what we're about? There really is no signature dish to my mind. We usually make sure to have Mexican food, or go to The Linkery because we love the hell out of that place, but really there's nothing quintessentially "San Diego."

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  18. Julie Wright8/22/08, 8:40 AM

    I've enjoyed fish tacos everywhere they're on the menu. It's my default order. I'm excited to try all the spots recommended here.

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  19. Someone who posted earlier mentioned El Pescador in La Jolla, I agree wholeheartedly with that one. Rimels (also in La Jolla) is great too. They serve their tacos with an amazing cabbage salad.

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  20. Wow, I'm shocked about South Beach. Everybody and their mother has recommended that place to me, but I haven't been yet. Can't say that makes me want to make the drive.

    I like the fish tacos at En Fuego in Del Mar. Minimal toppings, you can get grilled or fried fish, and they have a good selection of good quality fish. They have taco tuesday deals. However, their service is terrible... ambience is basically that of a crowded bar in the summer. In the winter it empties out though.

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  21. Rosemary - I used to really like El Zarape, but I haven't been that impressed the last few times I've been there. May have to give it another shot to see if the fish tacos redeem them!

    Fatemeh - we actually had a calamari taco, and it was pretty good, but the oyster one was better ;-)

    Erin - I think it's clear that fish tacos taste best paired with a refreshing beverage. Baja Betty's looks like fun, but I'm hoping to find something a little more "shack like"

    Rob - I do like Bahia Don Bravo, but I haven't been there in a while. I bet they do have a decent fish taco.

    Jora - Wow - Carlos Murphys, that's going way back! I've heard the fish taco came about somewhere in Baja - I read Ensenada, but I guess San Felipe is just as plausible!

    Cap'n Jimmy - I used to like Rubios too, until the last time I went there and had a fish taco with stale tasting cabbage. Blech. I never liked the Fashion Valley one though. The one in Hillcrest was good until they closed it. I tend to prefer flour over corn tortillas everywhere but in a fish taco, for whatever reason, so I can relate to the flour tortilla advocates on some level.

    Jed - thanks for the tip, we'll have to try that out on a future trip south!

    Amy K - Don Chuy is hidden back there on Valley with Fidels and Tony's Jacal. Does Blue Water make fried fish tacos or just grilled? If they do fish and chips, they probably do the tacos too.

    Mike - thanks for weighing in - I am sure Fatemeh appreciates it! ;-)

    Gil - another vote for Blue Water and El Zarape - so noted.

    "Anony-Mouse" - that sounds pretty darn good, and if I were making them at home I'd use a similar method!

    ikes - thanks for weighing in, those sound like pretty apt descriptions to me. I have yet to try Mariscos Germans' fried fish taco, but I've heard it's not as good as you might expect given the quality of the rest of their stuff.

    Jeff - so noted, thanks for commenting!

    Foodiechick - thanks! I think that's the way to go for the Brig's tacos - after the discussion of price on CH the other day, think it's worth noting that they are MORE at S. Beach than at the Brig. Go figure.

    Anonymous - I also really like their fish sandwiches, and the guys behind the counter are always fun to chat with! ;-)

    Stephanie - yes, it's a common lament. Some would probably say Asian is a strong suit - particularly sushi and Vietnamese, but other than that it's kind of tough. Seafood is kind of the default - but it can be very iffy at the touristy spots!

    Julie - any particular favorites from the ones you've tried, especially if they were fried?


    Anonymous - I like Rimel's too, but their service is SLOOOOW. Be prepared to wait or bring a friend to chat with. Great food though once you get it!

    Tracey - I was shocked when I ate there the first time several years ago after seeing it recommended repeatedly. I think it's more of an atmosphere thing. You're down at the beach in this convivial setting with an ocean view, having a few beers, etc. Anything would taste better in that environment!

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  22. We went to South Beach for the first time a few weeks ago, on the recommendation of Bon Appetit magazine's Best Restaurants in America issue (!) - they were listed for the fish tacos. We went on a Friday, big mistake - noisy, crowded, we waited 90 minutes for a place to sit and weren't blow away by the food. Also we were the oldest people in the place by a mile.

    When we have friends from out of town who want to be able to say they've been to Mexico, and want to try the local delicacy, we drive out to Tecate. We park the car at the border and walk across. As soon as you cross the border, turn right and walk one block west along the border fence, then turn left and walk a couple of blocks to Mariscos Chemel. Great fish tacos, just corn tortillas, shredded cabbage and white sauce on light breaded fish. Pick your salsas, squeeze a little lime, then get back in line and order more! The cocteles are great too. It's been a while since I was there so I don't know what they're charging now. Then you can walk down to the town square, drink a beer and watch the world go by. It's approximately 900 times more pleasant than TJ could ever be.

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  23. El Zarape's salmon taco rocks. I also love Bay Park Fish Co's halibut taco.

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  24. By far the best fish tacos in San Diego are from the Bay Park Fish Co. - (2) grilled or fried halibut tacos w/ rice and beans!
    www.bayparkfishco.com
    Incredibly moist, fresh and the best in SD by far! We live in Solana Beach and drive down to Bay Park just for these tacos. Don Chuys is a must in No County... their Ta Ta Margarita is quite a hit!!!

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  25. I'd have to vote for Blue Water as well. Grilled, and just so fresh and good. And the ambiance is completely San Diego... laid back and wonderful. When I have guests from out of town I often take them to Point Loma Seafood as well and they really soak in the whole experience.

    I'm looking forward to trying all of the competition though! I love fish tacos. And I'm a hard core foodie.

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  26. Nice write up Alice, I agree 100%.
    IMHO the most overated fish tacos in SD = South Beach and El Zarape. I'm working a report on fish tacos as a result of 6 months of research hope to have it done by years end.

    Masa AssAssin

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  27. Someday you'll have to try these:

    http://mexicocooks.typepad.com/mexico_cooks/2008/06/mexico-cooks-and-el-mural-at-taco-fish-la-paz-in-guadalajara.html

    The fish tacos are almost worth a trip to Guadalajara just for themselves.

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  28. I really enjoy Cantina Mayahuel in University Heights (2934 Adams Ave). They have great fish tacos - an unbelievable tequila selection and atmosphere to boot!

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  29. Great posting! I love fish tacos but they really freak my friends from the East Coast out. I have been going to Tower 2, near South Beach, for tacos lately. The The Beer and Food Pairing Blog referenced your fish taco article in our post today about beers that go good with fish tacos.

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  30. I love fish tacos. Love the crispy outside and the moist white flaky flesh. Yum

    Jackie at PhamFatale.com

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  31. I love fish tacos, & although they became famous on the west coast. There found on elsewhere, mostly near surfing zones.

    The best fish tacos I ever had were in at Brophy's in Carmel, Ca.

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  32. El Camino in South Park and Little Italy has authentic fish tacos. Only for foodies, others might complain about size and lack of ranch dressing, salsa, etc.
    My other recommendation is El Indio on India Street.
    Oh, and let's not forget Chiquita's on Home Avenue. Excellent traditional mexican cousine.

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  33. There is a very small walk in restaurent in Pacific Beach called
    Cotija, it's a hole in the wall place but they have the best fresh fish tacos. I believe the price is about $1.49 or less. Made with fresh corn torillas and shredded cabbage,white sauce. they have a bar set up with salsa,green and red and limes,etc. there are about six booths. take out or eat in.
    We love the fish tacos. Mary

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