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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.