But done properly - with fresh fixings, just the right mix of spices and deft cooking technique - there is nothing quite like a fish taco to slake hunger after a morning in the breakers of San Diego's beaches.
It is believed to have made its North America debut here a quarter-century ago, a concept borrowed from beach-stand vendors in Baja California. And it since has gained iconic status, the lunch or bar grub of choice for surfers, fishermen and other beachgoers.
Fish tacos are served everywhere in San Diego County - from fast-food joints to upscale restaurants - but the variance in quality has just as wide a swing. Though simple, this is an easy item to foul up. If the fish isn't fresh, the taco can be dry, with a fishy taste. If the batter or breading is laid on too heavily, and the cooking oil not hot enough, the fish can acquire a sodden quality. And the accompanying sauce, variously composed of mayonnaise, sour cream, yogurt or spicy aioli, can make all the difference in the world.
"There's really an art to making a great fish taco," said Ralph Rubio, widely credited with launching the genre here in 1983, who today
There is even a fried-vs.-grilled debate that rages among aficionados. In the San Felipe-style taco, whitefish (usually Alaskan pollock) is dipped in a spicy beer batter and deep-fried; traditionalists will have it no other way. But California's health-consciousness has also given rise to the use of finer filets of fresh fish (often mahi-mahi) cooked au natural on a grill.
Whatever your preference, you won't have any trouble finding a good fish taco on a visit to San Diego. Many establishments offer both a fried and grilled option, with a price swing from $1.60 to about $6.
Also - not surprisingly - most tend to be in close proximity to, if not within sight of, the ocean.
Here is a ranking of the best fish taco outlets in San Diego. The research involved the consumption of 20 fish tacos at 12 different establishments over two weekends, and ranged from Encinitas in the north county to Imperial Beach near the Mexican border.
GEORGE'S AT THE COVE
Purists will howl over this choice. Agreed, the fish taco served at this La Jolla restaurant bears no resemblance whatsoever to the ones dispensed on the beaches of Baja in the 1970s, but it is a culinary triumph nonetheless.
A mahi-mahi filet is first marinated in olive oil, herbs and salt and pepper, then grilled. It is dressed up with a salsa of mango, Bermuda onion and cilantro, plus cabbage, chunky guacamole and jalapeno-lime creme fraiche. Alongside are a dish of fresh tomato salsa, a wedge of lime and sticks of jicama, carrot and peeled cucumber.
The tortilla itself is unlike anything you'll find commercially. It is made from corn but is rolled out thin and arrives par-baked at George's. Once the kitchen finishes it on the grill, it is feather-light and slightly browned, like just-baked bread.
The taco represents a marvelous confluence of tastes, but the freshness of the ingredients is what lifts it above its rivals.
"That's one of the biggest differences," said chef/partner Trey Foshee. "The salsa is made every day. The fish is fresh; I think you find a lot of frozen fish in tacos."
A cold beer or a margarita is the customary accompaniment to a fish taco, but one of the diners at our table enthused over how well this one went with a glass of Au Bon Climat***NOTES BEGIN***CQ***NOTES END*** chardonnay. That confirmed it: George's has taken a beach-stand snack and elevated it to gourmet fare.
A plate of two tacos ($10.50) is on the lunch menu at George's rooftop Ocean Terrace Bistro, and it's advisable to call ahead for reservations. The place offers a superb view of La Jolla Cove, yet has umbrellas for shade and heaters for foggy days.
1250 Prospect St., La Jolla. (858) 454-4244; www.georgesatthecove.com.
OK, traditionalists, don't despair: This neighborhood restaurant in Solana Beach doesn't deviate from the San Felipe preparation style, yet does it extremely well.
Fidel's Little Mexico began as a barber shop in 1960, but quickly became such a local gathering spot that Fidel Montanez's wife Martha began whipping up traditional Mexican dishes from family recipes. That homey feel is still very much in evidence today, amid classic cantina touches: white stucco walls inlaid with painted tiles, low ceilings, arched hallways, a sunny patio, mariachi music on the sound system.
Fidel's fried fish taco ($4.50) is fabulous - mahi-mahi served in double-thick corn tortillas that have been browned on the grill, with two kinds of cabbage and a chile-infused mayo sauce. But the real bonus is the house-made fresh salsa - tomato, onion, cilantro and chile seeds. It packs a lot more wallop than the sanitized gringo stuff you find in the supermarkets, and makes the taco burst with flavor.
They'll also grill the fish, if you prefer, but that offering was found to be a bit dry, and its tortilla was soft-taco style rather than grill-browned. This is a good time to stick with tradition - and in a restaurant that has been operating at this location for more than 40 years, why not?
607 Valley Ave., Solana Beach. (858) 755-5292. Two other locations.
Every coastal city has its classic seafood restaurant, often forming a mini-chain - think of the Dreadnaught in Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential." This is San Diego's.
On the bar menu, the Brigantine serves a fish taco that gets high marks from San Diego Union-Tribune restaurant critic Doug Verkaaik.
Our group found a table on the wrap-around patio of the Del Mar Brigantine, which sits atop a bluff overlooking the famed horse-racing track and the San Dieguito River lagoon. We learned from a very helpful waitress that although the menu offers a plate of two fried cod tacos ($8.50), with a grilled mahi-mahi taco ($4.25) listed separately, they'll gladly serve you one of each style a la carte, if you ask.
We found the fried taco much tastier - isn't it always the case with something that's not good for you? The Brigantine tweaks the formula by serving its fish tacos with grated cheddar cheese, an accompaniment that really worked here. On the grilled taco, a cilantro-lime aioli sounded great on the menu, but it was laid on much too heavily.
3263 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar. (858) 481-1166. Five other locations. www.brigantine.com.
Each of the aforementioned restaurants can pamper you with comfortable seating, a full bar and table service. You'll get none of that at Juanita's Taco Shop in Encinitas, but after sampling its fish tacos (or anything else on the menu), you might sense a powerful, unseen force tugging you off Interstate 5 as you pass through town.
This is a classic, unassuming taco stand on North Coast Highway, four blocks from the beach. Skateboards lean against the front wall. Two picnic tables out front are chained to a couple of scrawny palm trees. The Christmas lights were still up in February.
But there also seems to be a perpetual line of a dozen or more patrons snaking through the building - barefoot beachgoers, well-dressed business people, contractors, gardening crews.
Juanita's fish taco ($1.85) strictly adheres to the Baja style, with no haute-cuisine deviations: battered and deep-fried whitefish, shredded iceberg lettuce, salsa fresca, thin mayo sauce and lime wedge on a corn tortilla. A commendable hot sauce is available in plastic squirt bottles.
Because of the moisture in the tomato salsa, the white sauce and the hot sauce, the thing is a real mess to eat. But in this setting, you're not likely to feel self-conscious about any lapses in table etiquette.
290 N. Coast Highway, Encinitas. (760) 943-9612.
BAY PARK FISH CO.
The strength of this establishment just off Mission Bay is that it is first and foremost a fresh-fish market, with a big glass display case along one wall. When you sit down at one of the tables for lunch or dinner, there is no need to ask the fresh-or-frozen question.
A platter of two fish tacos ($8), served with rice and beans, can be ordered "panko"-fried or grilled. If you don't specify otherwise, the fried fish will be red snapper, whereas the grill options span a tantalizing assortment: mahi-mahi, halibut, shrimp, lobster or other fresh catch.
But this is one accommodating place, and our waitress said the kitchen would gladly prepare the fresh catch panko-style. Because of the high quality of the fish, however, this might be a good place to chuck tradition and go for the grill.
A house-made hot sauce was muy picante, and added a nice zing to the fish. The plate also came with a plump, roasted jalapeno pepper - bite into that one at your own risk.
4121 Ashton St., Bay Park. (619) 276-3474.
TACO SURF: A sign in the window of this Pacific Beach hole-in-the-wall announces that it doubles as a "surf museum." Well, that's a bit of a stretch, though the walls and ceiling are hung with vintage boards and there are some big-wave photos on the back wall.
The fish tacos are pretty basic, but Taco Surf is only a one-block walk from the sand (at about lifeguard tower 24), and its fare really hits the spot on a day at the beach. Premium options are offered daily - white sea bass and albacore when we visited in March. Try a side of guacamole to give the tacos a little extra oomph.
4657 Mission Blvd., Pacific Beach. (858) 272-3877.
THE TIN FISH: Nothing is more quintessential Southern California beach community than a seafood shack at the end of a pier. Imperial Beach has this one, where patrons may sit at an umbrella-shaded table on the pier's wooden planks or perch on a crooked stool at the outdoor counter.
Sea gulls and pigeons will keep you company as you breathe in the salt-scented breeze and gaze south to the Islas Los Coronados off Tijuana.
On a fried taco here, I felt I was crunching down on a lot more breading than fish, but among the five grilled options was salmon, which was pretty good.
910 Seacoast Drive, Imperial Beach. (619) 628-8414. Another location downtown (near Petco Park) at 170 Sixth Ave. www.thetinfish.com.
MIGUEL'S COCINA: A Brigantine cousin, with three locations, its Point Loma restaurant has a second-floor patio that peers over the Shelter Island yacht harbor, part of the bay and the downtown skyline.
Unfortunately, my fish taco sat in the kitchen long enough for the salsa moisture to saturate the tortilla, and the whole thing disintegrated when I picked it up. Tasty, though.
Miguel's tinkers with the formula a bit, to good effect: red cabbage instead of green, and white sauce served in a little crock on the side rather than slathered over the whole thing.
2912 Shelter Island Drive, Point Loma. (619) 224-2401. Two other locations. www.miguels-cocina.com.
ORIGINAL RUBIO'S: Yes, this chain of taco stands has spread to five Western states, but it's fun to go to the place where it all started 23 years ago - a tiny operation just off Mission Bay. It's still so popular that a stoplight has a protected left turn ... into the parking lot!
Be sure to get some of the chipotle sauce from the salsa bar; it's a nice, smoky accompaniment to the original fish taco, the especial or the grilled mahi-mahi.
4504 E. Mission Bay Drive, Mission Bay. (858) 272-2801; www.rubios.com.
SOUTH BEACH BAR AND GRILL: Consistency wavers a bit here. We had some excellent fish tacos at this Ocean Beach institution awhile back, but found them less satisfying on a repeat visit.
Cheese is sprinkled on the Baja offering, and this is the rare establishment that serves its fish tacos in flour tortillas. Nice variety is offered on the grilled ones - mahi-mahi, wahoo, shrimp, calamari - and the windows of the bar look out toward Ocean Beach's concrete pier.
5059 Newport Ave., Ocean Beach. (619) 226-4577.
Next in the series: Cooking classes and demonstrations in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Review other installments in The Culinary Traveler series at www.greatescapes.com/culinarytraveler.
|IF YOU GO|
|BAY PARK FISH CO.:||4121 Ashton St., Bay Park. (619) 276-3474.|
|BRIGANTINE:||Del Mar restaurant is at 3263 Camino Del Mar. (858) 481-1166. Five other locations. www.brigantine.com.|
|BRIGANTINE:||Del Mar restaurant is at 3263 Camino Del Mar. (858) 481-1166. Five other locations. www.brigantine.com.|
|FIDEL'S LITTLE MEXICO:||607 Valley Ave., Solana Beach. (858) 755-5292. Two other locations.|
|GEORGE'S AT THE COVE:||1250 Prospect St., La Jolla. (858) 454-4244; www.georgesatthecove.com.|
|JUANITA'S TACO SHOP:||290 N. Coast Highway, Encinitas. (760) 943-9612.|
|MIGUEL'S COCINA:||Point Loma restaurant is at 2912 Shelter Island Drive. (619) 224-2401. Two other locations. www.miguels-cocina.com.|
|RUBIO'S, ORIGINAL LOCATION:||4504 E. Mission Bay Drive, Mission Bay. (858) 272-2801; www.rubios.com.|
|SOUTH BEACH BAR AND GRILL:||5059 Newport Ave., Ocean Beach. (619) 226-4577.|
|TACO SURF:||4657 Mission Blvd., Pacific Beach. (858) 272-3877.|
|THE TIN FISH:||910 Seacoast Drive, Imperial Beach. (619) 628-8414; www.thetinfish.com. Another location downtown (near Petco Park) at 170 Sixth|