I endured a couple more variations of not-good fish tacos this weekend, as Katie and I continued our foolish quest to find a satisfactory scratch for our itch in the Bay Area. It’s our own damn fault, we’ve got no business eating them here, a place where the food item itself makes no sense at all.
Usually I don’t find it difficult to eat in harmony with the place that I’m at. In Southern California, we basically never ate salmon, except on the rare occasion in Ensenada when a salmon or two turned up in the downtown bay. Now that we’re in parts northern, I savor the access to wild salmon at home and in restaurants, and I only long for yellowtail on rare occasion.
But the fish taco is harder. I’ve been eating them, from Baja street stands, my whole adult life. And on a warm morning when I don’t have any pressing obligations, I jones for one. Or three.
The thing is, though, the fish taco is a genius food where it’s from. In a fishing town like Ensenada, after the high-value fish are sold to market, there is plenty of bycatch and low-value fish which stays in town, at low prices. The cheap and plentiful small angel sharks and dogfish are locally caught and taste as fresh as they are, but they can be a bit on the boring side. So a fillet gets beer battered and tempura’d in beautiful lard, put in a recently made corn tortilla along with cabbage and pico de gallo, and topped with crema-based white sauce and muy picante salsa. It’s an incredibly delicious street food that usually costs about a dollar, even in the higher-priced burghs of North Baja.
As soon as the dish gets transplanted to another location, it starts to fall apart, conceptually. The biggest issue is the availability, or lack thereof, of fresh, cheap, delicious fish that fries well. In the coastal cities of the western US, commercial fishing — to the extent it has not been displaced altogether — doesn’t dump a lot of cheap bycatch into the local economy. So a cook in US California who wants to serve a fish taco is faced with either 1) purchasing cheap, poor-tasting, usually farmed fish, like tilapia or 2) paying a premium for quality fish. Paying a premium is the right answer for me, of course, but when it leads to a seven dollar street taco, you start to hear complaints. A friend of mine once described this kind of fancy dish as a bourgeois insult to the idea of a taco. We’re pretty sure writing that in a review of a major advertiser is what got him fired from the local paper, but he has a point. The core purpose of a taco surely centers on making something delicious out of a tortilla and whatever else is at hand.
In San Diego, many restaurants address the lack of cheap delicious fish by making a grilled fish taco from premium fish such as yellowtail, the end result of which is clearly a high-value item but is something totally different than the Baja, batter-fried, fish taco. As for actual Baja-style fish tacos, the fish conundrum derails most US California fish tacos, from San Diego to San Francisco and beyond, before they even get started.
On top of that, we can pile on the other reasons it’s hard to get a good fish taco outside of Baja:
* Few options for good corn tortillas. In the Bay Area, for instance, the only great ones I’ve had so far are at restaurants that make and grind their own nixtamal. [UPDATE, Summer 2014: I’ve since been introduced to La Finca Tortilleria in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, who make good corn tortillas.] In San Diego, the independent tortillerias are a bit better but they still are forced to trade off some quality for commercial viability.
* A general lack of commitment to high-quality frying in lard. Instead, the US industry standard frying oil is canola oil because it is cheap and industrially produced — despite the distinctive and unpleasant taste it imparts on foods fried in it.
* The fact that not many people, including professional cooks and restauranteurs, have actually tasted a fish taco in Baja they could use as a reference. As someone who has lived most of my life in the San Diego/Tijuana/Ensenada region, it’s easy for me to forget that north Baja is physically and/or mentally remote to most people, whether they be Mexican, American or from countries even further away.
With all that, it really is insane to think that there would be a good Baja style fish taco anywhere outside of Baja. And that’s great; it’s how food should be — about place, the physical and cultural landscape that produces it.
But I confess: it’s just a matter of time before I’ll be in my home kitchen, grinding nixtamal and dunking fancy white fish filets in a kettle of hot lard. Old cravings die hard.