By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor
The phrase “fish taco” conveys different meanings to different people. To some, it simply means a “taco” with “fish” in it. To others, it means only one thing: battered and fried fish, shredded cabbage, and a tangy white sauce in a soft corn tortilla. This “Baja-style” fish taco reigns supreme in San Diego and well beyond.
Serving Up History
Fish tacos have been around a long time, well before Ralph Rubio (founder of Rubio’s restaurants) had his enlightening experience at a fish taco stand in San Felipe. Considering that the tortilla has been around for centuries, it is safe to assume that fish was put into that delivery vehicle long ago. Where the battered-and-fried part fits in the timeline is a little grey. Ralph Rubio found a favorite stand in San Felipe during his college days when he attended San Diego State and traveled to San Felipe for spring break. There are claims that vendors in the port city of Ensenada were making the tacos we know as “Baja-style” twenty years prior to Rubio’s spring break discovery. Whether it was the Sea of Cortez town of San Felipe, Ensenada, or another region altogether, nearly everyone that has had a well-executed Baja-style fish taco can agree that they are simple and delicious.
Spreading the Word
Rubio’s has helped spread the word of the Baja-style fish taco with locations throughout California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Nevada. The exposure and respect that Rubio’s has given to the simple Baja-style taco has made it an icon of sorts. There are variations, of course and while variations are welcome to most fish taco aficionados, a well-executed Baja-style fish taco is a thing of beauty.
The components are simple, so the success is dependent on the discipline of the cooks. A careless prep cook that doesn’t make the batter or the white sauce just right can destroy the whole thing. The corn tortilla should be fresh, hot, and have enough integrity to hold up to the thin, lemony white sauce as well as the heat and steam being created by the piping hot fried fish. Think about the amount of time it takes to get the taco to the customer, and how long it may sit in a to-go container or on a plate. Will the taco take five bites to finish, or ten? Once the salsa fresca or hot sauce is added, the additional liquid will push the tortilla to the limit.
Dead set on offering a large fish taco? Use two tortillas. Corn tortillas are cheap, and it is a better investment to add a few cents to the food cost if your guests don’t have to resort to eating their taco with a fork halfway through. Consider the cabbage and the freshness factor. Nobody likes to have dry-looking cabbage or the beginnings of black spots or wilt on their produce. Translation: refrain from purchasing the five pound pre-cut slaw mix unless you are seriously moving some fish tacos. The white sauce should be JUST thin enough to pour, but stay within the confines of the tortilla. Mayo adds a richness to the sauce, while the addition of sour cream adds a bright tang along with lemon juice that complements the crisp, fried exterior of the fish.
The fish used in most Baja-style fish tacos is of the “mild, white” variety. Rubio’s, for instance, uses Alaskan Pollock. Something used for traditional fish and chips can do, but anything goes. Baja-style seafood restaurants and food trucks are an example of the limitless options for fish tacos in general. Kiko’s Place is a popular food truck in San Diego, and they offer Baja-style seafood in many forms. While Kiko’s offers ceviche, spicy sautéed shrimp tacos, and octopus tacos, they also offer the “OG Fish Taco” or a traditional Baja-style fish taco made with a mild, white fish.
Choosing the fish for the taco is an important element—whether the fish is battered and fried or not. Fresh is obviously best, and some of the best establishments mix it up based upon availability, as many of the fresh, milder catches are conducive to frying up in the Baja style. Healthier options are movers on menus, so considering a grilled fish taco is a good move. Blackened fish allows for packing in the flavor and avoiding the deep fryer. Smoked fish offers a lot of flavor and can still be amongst the healthier fare on the menu, though consideration needs to be given to the often dry texture of hot-smoked fish.
Dressing it Up
There is a world of sauces, relishes, herbs, and veggies that beg to play a supporting role on a quality fish taco. But keep them to a supporting role. It is dangerously simple to overwhelm the star of the fish taco, so care should be taken. Fresh herbs should be relatively simple, and can be eliminated completely if worked in with a fresh salsa or relish. Definitely add some texture with a crisp veggie, like cabbage or a jicama slaw, but a little goes a long way, and watch the seasoning and dressing on a slaw if a sauce is going to be used.
Be careful with relishes and compotes if flavors are especially bold, and use caution with mixing in too many spices. A sauce of some sort should be flavorful, add a bit of richness, and contain some acid, especially if the fish is fried. Keep hot sauce and salsas on the side to maintain the integrity of the tortilla. Cheese is a polarizing addition to the fish taco, so do it if it makes sense and complements the fish, but hold the cold, fancy shredded cheddar if it is sprinkled on like an afterthought. That’s just going to drive up food cost, and cheapen the look of the taco.
Some menu play is definitely in order, and well thought-out procedures should be put in place so all cooks can execute this delicious and potentially rather profitable menu item.