In Love with the Fish Taco and Its Hometown

The fish taco is made by placing hot, crispy fried fish on a lightly charred corn tortilla i i

The fish taco is made by placing hot, crispy fried fish on a lightly charred corn tortilla then topping it with a symphony of sauces. Susan Russo for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Susan Russo for NPR
The fish taco is made by placing hot, crispy fried fish on a lightly charred corn tortilla

The fish taco is made by placing hot, crispy fried fish on a lightly charred corn tortilla then topping it with a symphony of sauces.

Susan Russo for NPR

About the Author

Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes, and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers' market buying a lot more food than two people could possible eat.

Having moved seven times in the past 12 years, I have two pieces of advice: (1.) Don't move seven times in 12 years. (2.) If you must, then make the seventh move to San Diego.

San Diego is America's finest city (so says our web site). It certainly has glorious weather and gorgeous beaches. It also has the fish taco.

The fish taco is to San Diego what the Philly cheese steak is to Philadelphia or the lobster roll is to Maine. In fact, if you go to a Padres game here, you are likely to see as many people eating fish tacos as hot dogs.

Like most street food, a fish taco is paradoxical: Its humble appearance belies its bliss-inducing capabilities. That's because like San Diego, the fish taco has it all: It's crispy and creamy; it's spicy and salty. It's got that elusive umami (a savoriness from the protein) that satisfies your taste buds and quells your worst hunger.

The fish taco is made by placing hot, crispy fried fish on a lightly charred corn tortilla then topping it with a symphony of sauces. A silky mayo sauce clings to the fish and contrasts delightfully with a fiery chilies de arbol sauce and a cooling avocado sauce. Then it's topped off with crunchy shredded green cabbage and a zippy pico de gallo. It's a gustatory experience as beautiful and eclectic as the place from which it originated, Baja California, Mexico.

A mere 15 miles from downtown San Diego, Baja California is an 800-mile-long peninsula renowned for its remarkably varied geography and its singular cuisine.

Though rooted in Mexican tradition, Baja cuisine is distinct from mainland Mexican cooking. Since virtually all points on the peninsula are no more than 50 miles from a body of water, seafood plays a starring role in many dishes. Also, its physical separation from mainland Mexico has allowed Baja cuisine to evolve independently.

Indeed, over centuries, many ethnic influences helped shape Baja's culinary character. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers were enticed to colonize Baja because they believed it was an island of earthbound paradise replete with jewels. When they found neither an idyll nor a treasure, they largely abandoned it, leaving their Spanish culinary traditions to marinate with indigenous practices for the next 150 years.

In this interim, both Asian and European seafarers visited Baja on fishing and trading expeditions between the Orient and the West. What emerged was a splendid mix of Mexican, Spanish and Asian cuisines, the consummate example of which is the fish taco.

In its simplest form, a taco is a tortilla wrapped around a filling, and tortillas have been a staple of the Mesoamerican diet for centuries. Most gastronomes speculate that the fish taco emerged when Asians introduced Baja natives to the practice of deep-frying fish. When this battered fried fish was combined with traditional Mexican toppings, the fish taco was born.

Modern fish tacos emerged in the 1950s in the Baja city of either Ensenada or San Felipe; it's an ongoing debate, with both cities claiming to be the "home" of the fish taco. From their tiny stands, street vendors in these cities produced simple, inexpensive fare fast. The fish taco was hot, fresh and delicious — the perfect combination for hungry workers and market goers.

It's no surprise then that San Diego surfers heading across the border to chase the best "swell" (a word I heard countless times before I realized they were talking about waves) were some of the first people from the States to appreciate fish tacos.

Among them was Ralph Rubio, a San Diegan so smitten after his first taste, that in 1983 he opened a restaurant in Mission Beach, Calif., that specialized in fish tacos. Defying skeptics who thought Americans would find fish in a tortilla unappetizing, Rubio has now sold more than 50 million fish tacos at his 160 Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill restaurants in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah.

Fish tacos are ubiquitous here. They're served at beach shacks as well as posh dining establishments, and the recipe continues to evolve. With choices ranging from grilled mahi mahi with tomatillo salsa to boiled lobster with chipotle lime butter, there really is something for everyone. The one thing that San Diegans agree on is that the best fish tacos are the ones eaten hot as you drip dry in the sun waiting for the next swell.

You don't have to move to San Diego, though, to enjoy fish tacos; heck, you don't even have to visit here (although I would highly recommend it). No matter where you live, the ingredients are easy to come by and the preparation is the same.

Keep in mind that like the cheese steak and the lobster roll, fish tacos are best enjoyed with good company and a cold beer. So invite a bunch of friends over for Baja tacos; you do the frying, they do the assembling. No china plates, no silverware, just lots of napkins.

For the record, I don't foresee an eighth move. Although I could make fish tacos anywhere, I know I'd miss the sand between my toes too much. Plus, there's something to be said for wearing flip-flops in February.

Baja-Style Fish Tacos

Baja-style fish tacos i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Baja-style fish tacos
Susan Russo for NPR

My favorite recipe for Baja fish tacos is slightly adapted from Deborah Schneider's cookbook Baja! Cooking on the Edge (Rodale 2006). To capture an authentic Baja flavor, Schneider uses a beer batter, green cabbage and several sauces. If you're short on time, add diced avocadoes instead of making the avocado sauce, and use bottled hot sauce and salsa in place of the chilies de arbol sauce and pico de gallo. All you need is a deep, wide pan for frying the fish and an open flame for warming the tortillas. Since the entire meal can be made in advance, you just have to refry the fish and warm the tortillas once your guests arrive.

Avocado Sauce

Makes 1/2 cup

1/4 ripe avocado, peeled

Pinch of salt

A few drops of lime juice

1 to 2 tablespoons water or milk

2 cilantro springs, stemmed and chopped (optional)

Place the avocado, salt and lime juice in a small food processor. Add 1 tablespoon water or milk (for a slightly creamier consistency) and pulse. Add more liquid as necessary until sauce is the consistency of thick cream. Add the cilantro and pulse until just blended.

Mayonesa Secret Sauce

Makes 1/2 cup

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 teaspoon white vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoon water or milk

Place the mayonnaise in a small bowl and slowly stir in vinegar. Add water or milk until the sauce is thick and creamy.

Chilies de Arbol Sauce

Makes 1/2 cup

1 garlic clove, smashed with the side of a large knife

1 teaspoon canola oil

1 cup dried chilies de arbol (about 30 chilies), stemmed**

1/3 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon white vinegar

Pour canola oil in a small skillet over low heat. Add smashed garlic and cook 4 to 5 minutes until golden and aromatic. Place in a small food processor.

Wearing gloves, seed the chilies (unless you want hotter sauce, in which case, leave the seeds), and place in the processor. Process until well pulverized. Add water and salt and puree until as smooth as possible. Scrape into a bowl and add the vinegar. Let stand at least 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and/or vinegar as necessary.

**Chilies de arbol are thin, red chilies about 3 inches long, and can be found in the Mexican food section of most major supermarkets or in Latin American markets. These small chilies are big on heat, so use this sauce sparingly.

Tacos

Makes 24 servings, enough for 6 to 8 people

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon dried whole Mexican oregano, rubbed to a powder*

Kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

12 ounces (1 bottle) cold beer, plus more to thin the batter if necessary

2 pounds firm, meaty fish (I use halibut or Pacific sea bass)

A little squeeze of fresh lime juice, from 2 to 3 limes

Canola oil, for frying

Serve with:

24 (6-inch) corn tortillas, warmed (you can substitute flour tortillas, but the corn imparts a more authentic flavor)

Avocado sauce

Lime wedges

Mayonesa secret sauce

Salsa de chilies de arbol

Pico de gallo

Finely shredded green cabbage (not lettuce)

Cilantro leaves (optional)

For the batter, whisk together the flour, baking powder, garlic, cayenne, mustard, oregano and salt and pepper in a large bowl until well blended. Stir in the beer until there are no lumps. (The batter can be made several hours ahead and refrigerated.)

Cut fish into pieces the size and shape of your index finger. Sprinkle with some lime juice and salt.

Pour oil into a deep, wide pan to the depth of 2 inches and heat over medium-heat to 350 degrees (if you have a deep-fry thermometer). Otherwise, test the heat by dropping a little bit of the batter into the oil. It should quickly bounce to the surface and be surrounded by tiny bubbles.

Pat the fish dry with paper towel. Check the thickness of the batter by dipping a piece of fish in it; it should be the consistency of medium-thick pancake batter, coating the fish easily and dripping very little. Add a little beer or water if it seems too thick.

Add a few pieces of fish to the batter. Using tongs, lightly swish each piece until thoroughly coated. Remove fish, letting excess batter drip into the bowl before gently placing in the hot oil. Cook a few pieces at a time until they float and the batter is set but still light in color, about 2 to 3 minutes. If a piece sticks to the bottom of the pan, just leave it, and it will release itself.

Remove the fish to a rack to drain, reserving the frying oil. At this point the fish can be cooled and refrigerated, uncovered, if you're preparing ahead.

When you are ready to serve, reheat the oil to 350 degrees, and quickly refry the fish a few pieces at a time for about 1 minute until crisp and golden brown.

Heat tortillas on a dry griddle for 1 minute per side or, using metal tongs, simply hold over an open flame until warmed and slightly charred.

To serve, place refried fish, warmed tortillas and condiments on a table so guests can make their own tacos. To assemble tacos, hold a tortilla in your hand, and spread a spoonful of avocado sauce on it. Place a piece of fried fish on top and sprinkle with a little lime juice. Drizzle with some mayonesa sauce, a few drops of chilies de arbol sauce and some pico de gallo. Top it off with some shredded green cabbage and fresh cilantro.

*Whole Mexican oregano can be found in the Mexican food section of most major supermarkets or in Latin American markets.

Crispy Baked Fish Tacos with Fresh Green Tomato Salsa

Crispy baked fish tacos with green tomato salsa i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Crispy baked fish tacos with green tomato salsa
Susan Russo for NPR

I created this recipe for a lighter, lower-calorie fish taco that doesn't sacrifice flavor. Green tomatoes (which are simply unripe red tomatoes) have a firm texture and zesty, lemony flavor, but if you can't find them, substitute tomatillos.

Makes 4 servings

Salsa

2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger

2 teaspoons cider vinegar

2 teaspoons honey

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice, plus 1/8 teaspoon grated zest

2 teaspoons canola oil

1/2 cup red onion, diced

1 cup red bell pepper, diced

1 cup green tomato (or tomatillo), diced

2 tablespoons jalapeno pepper with seeds, diced

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

Salt, to taste

Whisk in a small bowl ginger, vinegar, honey, lime juice and zest and set aside.

Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook 2 to 3 minutes until slightly browned. Add red bell pepper, green tomato and jalapeno and cook 1 to 2 minutes. Add ginger-vinegar mixture to pan and cook 1 to 2 minutes more, until slightly bubbly.

Place in a bowl and gently stir in cilantro. Season with salt.

Tacos

2 egg whites

4 (4-ounce) servings of a white fish, such as tilapia or halibut

1/2 cup coarse cornmeal or grits

Salt and pepper, to taste

8 (6-inch) whole wheat tortillas

1/4 cup cotija anejo cheese***

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Place egg whites in a shallow bowl and lightly beat with a fork. In another shallow bowl, place cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper.

Pat fish dry with paper towel. Dip each piece of fish in the egg whites then dredge in the cornmeal. Place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet or baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, turning once mid-way through. The fish will be cooked when the cornmeal becomes golden and crunchy and the fish is opaque when pierced with a fork.

To assemble tacos, heat tortillas on a dry griddle over medium heat for 1 minute per side or, using metal tongs, simply hold over an open flame until warmed and slightly charred. Place a layer of salsa on each tortilla, then some cheese, then a fish fillet. Top with more salsa and cheese. Serve immediately.

***Cotija anejo is a mild-flavored Mexican cheese with a crumbly texture that can be found in the refrigerator section of most major supermarkets or in Latin American markets. If you can't find it, queso fresco cheese is a good substitute.

Shrimp Tacos with Chipotle Cream and Charred Poblano Pepper

Shrimp tacos i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Shrimp tacos
Susan Russo for NPR

These tacos are great for a weeknight meal or impromptu get-together since they can be made quickly on the stovetop. A memorable chipotle sauce from a tiny Mexican restaurant in New Mexico inspired me to create this chipotle cream. Its distinctive fiery and smoky flavor pairs well with the shrimp and is tempered by cool mayo and Mexican crema — an unpasteurized cream. Charring the poblano and peeling it first draws out its intense peppery flavor, which goes naturally with crunchy sweet corn and creamy avocado. If you've got more time and you prefer a smokier, charred flavor, then you could make this dish on the grill.

Makes 4 servings

Chipotle Cream

1 teaspoon canola oil

1 large garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped

2 scallions, chopped

4 to 5 chilies in adobo sauce, roughly chopped****

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Mexican crema****

2 teaspoons water, or as needed

Heat oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook 1 to 2 minutes until aromatic and slightly golden. Add scallions and cook an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Place in a small food processor. Add chilies in adobo sauce, mayonnaise, Mexican crema and water, and pulse. Add more water as necessary and pulse until sauce is thick and creamy (a few little bumps are fine). The sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated.

Tacos

24 large or jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 to 2 tablespoons canola oil, for searing shrimp

1 poblano pepper****

1 teaspoon canola oil

1 large ear of corn, kernels cut from cob

1 small avocado, diced

1/4 teaspoon fresh lime juice for sprinkling the avocado

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, optional

Salt, to taste

Place the shrimp in a large bowl with olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss well to coat and set aside.

Place poblano pepper over an open gas flame, turning occasionally, until thoroughly charred and blistered on all sides. Wrap tightly in aluminum foil and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove, and using some paper towel, gently scrape off the skin. Halve, stem and seed the pepper. Cut into strips, then dice and place in a bowl. Set aside.

Heat canola oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add corn and cook 3 to 4 minutes until slightly charred yet crisp. Add to the bowl with the poblano pepper. Peel and dice the avocado, sprinkle with a little lime juice to prevent it from turning brown and add to bowl. Add cilantro, season with salt and toss gently. Set aside.

To cook shrimp, heat canola oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp and cook 5 to 6 minutes, turning to ensure that they brown evenly on both sides. Remove to a plate when cooked.

To assemble tacos, heat tortillas in a dry skillet over medium heat for 1 minute per side or, using metal tongs, simply hold over an open flame until warmed and slightly charred. Spread a spoonful of the chipotle cream on a tortilla, top with some of the poblano-corn mixture, three shrimp and some fresh cilantro, if desired. Serve immediately.

****Chilies in adobo sauce can be found in the Mexican food section of most major supermarkets while poblano peppers can be found in the produce section. Both — plus the Mexican crema can also be found in Latin American markets.

Web Resources

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.