San Diego is famous for its Mexican food – it’s just across the border after all. And the best is surely the fish taco
While Montréal has its poutine, Marseille its bouillabaisse, and Manchester its, erm… Manchester Tart – California’s bodacious southern beauty San Diego is spiritual home to the fish taco. This sublimely delicious savoury treat was invented south of the border, but like so many American classics, perfected and polished and claimed as its own, by an American metropolis. The first American, famously, to taste a fish taco was San Diego student Ralph Rubio. He munched on them while letting his hair down, surfing in Baja, California. Ralph launched his own fish taco stand in San Diego in the early 80s and word of this supremely satisfying creation soon spread across the city – with fish taco stands seeming to pop up on every corner.
And it really couldn’t be more apt. The fish taco is the perfect metaphor for San Diego. Like its hometown, the dish is light, fresh, healthy and vibrant. It’s soft on the outside with a pleasing crunch when you arrive at the middle. There are as many ways to make a fish taco as there are fish taco stores pumping them out at a few dollars a throw. The essentials, however, tend to remain the same – a floppy corn tortilla, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, (also known as salsa fresca – chopped fresh tomatoes, onion, coriander, salt, serrano chilies, and a hefty squeeze of lime juice), crema (a light sour cream), and, of course, some juicy fresh fish. There are no set rules about which fish should star in a fish taco, but most tend to feature cod, followed by tuna and mahi-mahi. In the beach towns of southern California, you’ll usually end up with whatever was the catch of the day inside your tortilla wrap, so it could be anything from snapper to shark. Opinion is divided on how the fish should be cooked but it will be one of two options: either spiced and then fried fast in a crunchy batter, or marinated in spices and grilled, just on the right side of juicy. Both are excellent, but if you’re going for the latter, I’d say whack a few tortilla chips in there for added crunch. It’s the blend of flavours and textures which makes this such an intriguing and successful dish. Nothing beats crunchy fish and cabbage colliding with a soft chewy tortilla, while the milky bread, silky crema and creamy, briny seafood fillets are brought to life by the tangy salsa and zingy lime juice.
Diving into the challenge of finding the best fish tacos in San Diego, I munched through nine or ten during a two-day pig out (I stress, entirely for journalistic purposes) and never got bored. What I would do for one during a gloomy Tuesday afternoon in London! Fish tacos really are the ultimate in 21st-century fast-food, bursting with flavour and texture and overflowing with goodness and health. Don’t be surprised to see them as the next big thing on the foodie scene in the wider world – but it will never taste as good as sitting on a wooden pier poking out into the Pacific, custard sands all around, and then taking a deep breath before that gorgeous, life affirming, first crunch into tastebud bliss.
Four of the Best San Diegan Fish Tacos
George’s at the Cove, La Jolla
Compared to the beach shack taco, this taco for toffs is a little pricey – but $14 is money well spent, not least for the view over the Pacific Ocean from George’s glorious terrace. Here the fish is marinated and grilled so it’s extra-juicy, but the taco definitely benefits from the crunch of of an additional handful of home-made tortilla chips shoved inside. Soft corn tortillas, freshly-caught tuna, jalapeño-lime mayonnaise, avocado, coriander and shredded cabbage make up this fine example of the craft. I added a splash of local Mexican hot sauce to up the heat factor, and this was a dreamily good attempt – especially washed down with an El Corazon, a long cocktail of lychee, passion fruit, pomegranate, blood orange and champagne.
Los Locos, Old Town
This Mexican bar perched just above the historic Old Town may not be quite as swish as George’s, but if it’s chilli and alcohol kicks you’re after, maybe this is your particular kinda heaven. $6.50 bought me a good sized fried cod taco and an ice cold Montejo Mexican beer with a chunk of lime in its neck. The cod was battered and crunchy, enveloped by soft corn tortilla, tangy, crunchy slaw, pico de gallo and baja sauce. Still not hot enough, so a good slug of Tapatio Mexican hot sauce got everything tingling – though the purists might recoil in horror. A very pleasurable few hours could be spent here knocking back the beers and tacos one after another.
Old Town Mexican, Old Town
Just across the road from Los Locos, this place is a San Diegan institution, and although it may look like it could be a tourist trap, it’s rammed to the rafters with Mexicans, so you know they’re doing something good and authentic here. The menu is vast but the fish taco here was far and away the best value, huge at $5.25, crispy cod, crema, peppery salsa bulging with coriander and a chunk of lime to awaken the flavours, plus a big basket of home-made tortilla chips and salsa. With two lethal margaritas, the bill was just over $10 – stupidly cheap for food of this quality and freshness. Highly recommended..
Mikes Taco Club, 5060 Newport Ave
One block from the sand of Ocean Beach, this tiny local hero serves up famously fresh fish tacos which are revered by locals and visitors alike. The fish is fried, the tortillas soft – and everything else is done traditional baja taco style at just $2.99 a throw. If you fancy something more unusual there are surf and turf and crispy shrimp versions, while the octopus tacos have become famous around these parts. There are also some amazing ceviches and torta. The fish is straight out of the sea and can include mahi mahi, red snapper and freshly-caught sea bass. Marvellous!