Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
For this country girl, fish tacos were a culinary awakening

This is a story about fish tacos and humble pie, which for me are one and the same.

I think I’ve mentioned, in a previous column, the small town of Hatch, N.M., famous for its good green chile but not really anything else. Also that in high school, my FFA team would drive to Hatch to practice judging meat (yes, meat. Believe it or not, meat judging is a sport).

Well, my first introduction to the concept of fish tacos came in this dusty little hiccup of a town, at a nondescript fast-food joint where my cowboy-jeans-clad classmates and I sat crammed into a window booth. I think we were eating chicken sandwiches, but God only knows what we were discussing—probably prime-grade beef of one form or another.

Anyway, there we were in our insular, backwashy world when what pulled into the parking lot but urbanism itself, i.e., a European car with California plates.

But the real kicker was the bumper sticker: “I (heart) fish tacos!”

This was before the widespread hegemony of Rubio’s, Wahoo’s and Baja Fresh (not that any of these chains has since opened a franchise in Hatch). My classmates and I knew that tacos came in precisely two flavors—greasy ground beef and chicken—and that to suggest otherwise was worse than heresy; it was weird.

So we did what any teenagers would do: we snickered.

Ack, I wince to think of it. Sure, maybe it was a little lame to drive around with an “I (heart) fish tacos” bumper sticker, but come on—we were there judging meat, for crying out loud. Meat judging is not super cool.

I even had the temerity to ask the owners of this bumper sticker something supremely asinine, like, “Are fish tacos good?” And this earnest, yuppie-ish couple assured me that, yes, fish tacos are very good indeed.

You know what? They were right.

I’ve been a fan of fish tacos for a while now, but having just returned from a press trip to the fabulous Esperanza Resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, I’m excited about them all over again.

This Baja specialty makes a lot of sense in a place where fantastic seafood is so gloriously abundant. When you can pluck fish from the sea more readily than feathers from a chicken, why would you wrap a tortilla around anything else?

The classic fish taco is a fresh, warm corn tortilla wrapped around chunks of lightly battered, deep-fried fish (on a previous trip to Cabo, I had them prepared with king mackerel I had caught myself, but any white-fleshed fish will do). It’s garnished with shredded cabbage, salsa and fresh-squeezed lime juice, and generally with a thin, white sauce made from mayonnaise or sour cream (which can be as simple as mayonnaise mixed with a little water).

There are variations on this theme. For example, instead of battering and frying your fish you can prepare it grilled, or you can sauté it with butter and garlic. In addition to or in lieu of cabbage, fish tacos can accommodate thinly sliced radishes, slices of ripe mango, onions and guacamole.

Basically, if you’ve got fish, tortillas and lime juice, you’ve got a fish taco. If you have shrimp, tortillas and lime juice, you have a shrimp taco.

And if you seek out best-quality ingredients, no combination of the above can go wrong. Don’t be afraid to play around with recipes and ingredients.

Because we’re not living in Hatch, it’s possible to get fish tacos locally. For fast fish tacos, you can visit Rubio’s Baja Grill (1712 E. Guadalupe in Tempe, among other locations) or Baja Fresh (multiple locations, including 780 W. Elliot).

On the topic of Mexican seafood, if you’re up for a drive, try the specialties at Mariscos Ensenada. This small chain has multiple Phoenix locations; I frequent the one at 2019 N. 16th St.

For homestyle Mexican seafood closer to home, try the San Diego Bay Restaurant at 9201 S. Avenida del Yaqui in Guadalupe.

And please let me know if you have other recommendations for the Kyrene Corridor—I’ll be happy to report any finds in a future column.

Meanwhile, what can I say?

I (heart) fish tacos!