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Cooking for One: Fish tacos? Don't knock 'em, try 'em

Thursday, May 09, 2002

By Marlene Parrish

When the San Diego Padres play at PNC Park, they look askance at Pittsburgh's deep-fried fish sandwiches. When the Pittsburgh Pirates play at Qualcomm Stadium (you can blame naming rights for that beaut, too), they say "eeeuww" when offered the San Diego signature dish, fish tacos.

But on a primary level, they are much the same thing. Fish on bun equals fish sandwich. Fish on tortilla equals fish taco.

According to a-fish-ionados -- no, make that the cod-noscenti -- the prototypical fish taco is built like this. An oblong chunk of mild white fish is dunked into beer batter and deep fried. The fish fritter is then tucked into the fold of a soft (never crisp) corn tortilla (often two) and topped with plain shredded cabbage, guacamole, mayo-based white sauce, a dollop of salsa fresca, an optional sprinkle of cilantro and the essential finishing spritz of lime.

The sides are both red and green fresh salsas, warm tortilla chips and pickled jalapenos. If it's made right, a fish taco is a mess to eat. The cabbage falls all over the place and your fingers get goopy. But a fish taco is no less than fabulous.

I should know, since I ate a ton of them during a recent stay in San Diego while attending the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference. As part of our "research," a bunch of us bused across the border to spend the day eating with Mexican maven and cookbook author Marilyn Tausend.

We ate a breakfast of fish and shrimp tacos in Rosario and then lunch, the highlight of the eat-o-rama, in the rather grungy seaside village of Puerto Nuevo. With the surf pounding just yards away, we sampled the legendary langostina asada, grilled spiny lobster served with flour (surprise) tortillas as big as a hubcap and so thin you could almost see the ocean through them. During the meetings, I played hooky to sample some San Diego versions around town.

Stay tuned, solo diners, because I deconstructed the components and have a formula for a quick, nutritious and low-calorie version that you can make in a jiffy on a weeknight.

People have likely been eating fish tacos in the coastal areas of Mexico for thousands of years. In Baja, you can imagine a fisherman bringing his catch home to his wife, who had just patted out fresh stone-ground corn tortillas. Bingo, the original fast-food supper.

Then, about 30 or 40 years ago, the fish taco migrated from Baja California, whipped right past Tijuana and into San Diego, about 15 minutes over the border. Thank the surfers, dude.

On their way to Baja's remote beaches, surfers could pick up a cheap and filling lunch, maybe a dozen fish tacos for a dollar, from local markets or pushcart vendors. It was and still is part of the surfing experience.

In 1974, Ralph Rubio, a business major at San Diego State, decided to blow off studying and enjoy surfing over spring break. He and his buddies headed down to San Felipe on the Sea of Cortes. They existed on fish tacos from the many local stands and washed them down with copious quantities of Coronas.

Rubio was particularly taken with the fish tacos made by a vendor named Carlos, a genial guy who didn't bother to mention his last name. Rubio suggested to Carlos that he come to San Diego and open a fish taco stand. Carlos didn't want to leave Mexico, but he was glad to share the recipe ingredients with his good customer.

No dummy, Rubio figured that if Carlos wouldn't open up a stand in San Diego, well, he'd start one himself. Back home, he fiddled around with various batters, toppings and proportions until he got the taste and texture just right. With backing from his father, Rubio opened his first restaurant in 1983 in a defunct hamburger stand in Mission Bay. The business took off big time.

Since he was an honest, appreciative guy, Rubio returned to San Felipe to give Carlos some money as thanks. But Carlos had moved on, and because nobody knew his last name, he couldn't be tracked down.

Today, entrepreneur Ralph Rubio is El Pescado Taco Grande. He owns some 141 Rubio's Baja Grill fish taco eateries. They look like McDonald's clones, complete with walk-up counter and backlighted menu boards. Unfortunately, when fish tacos came north, they lost a little soul. For variety, there are grilled fish or chicken, steak and shrimp tacos. They also have fish quesadillas and fish burritos, too.

So besides being served at the ballpark, just how popular are fish tacos in San Diego? In 1995, when the San Diego Chargers were beaten by the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX, Mayor Susan Golding paid off her bet with her neighboring counterpart in fish tacos. The following year, the Republicans elected the fish taco to be the culinary standard-bearer.

They are everywhere, and especially delicious on the Hawaiian island of Kaui. Surely Pittsburgh is ready to try this dish.

Buy soft corn tortillas at Reyna's Mexican store in the Strip on Penn Avenue or in most supermarkets in the refrigerator case. Steam the tortillas in the microwave for just a minute, between layers of a clean, damp dish cloth. Buy shredded cabbage in the produce department. And grill your fish instead of frying it. Beer is the beverage of choice.

Follow the blueprint recipe below, and try any or all of these toppings: balsamic, malt or cider vinegar, onions, fresh or pickled jalapeno chilies, sliced radishes, red or green salsa fresca or hot sauce.

But if you don't squeeze a spritz of fresh lime on your fish taco, it isn't really a fish taco.

Grilled Fish Taco for One

Here's an easy alternative for solo diners who don't want to eat fried food or mess with deep-frying. Double up and use 6 tortillas if you want more heft to the tacos.

1/2 pound boned, skinned white fish (cod, catfish, halibut)
3 soft corn tortillas, steamed
1 cup shredded cabbage
Mayonnaise or sour cream
Lime wedges

Cut the fish into oblong pieces; season with salt and pepper. Grill or broil the fish, turning once, until fish is opaque but still moist-looking in the thickest part. Transfer fish to a platter. To assemble each taco, hold the tortilla in your palm; add chunks of fish, relishes and mayo or sour cream. Squeeze lime over everything, fold tortillas and eat. Makes 3.

Classic Baja Fried Fish Tacos

Baja street vendors aren't big on written recipes, but these are the key ingredients served from the best fish-taco stands.

1 cup dark beer, about
1 cup all-purpose flour
About 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound boned, skinned white fish (cod, catfish, halibut)
Salad oil
6 warm corn tortillas
About 2 to 3 cups shredded cabbage
Mayonnaise, thinned with a little water
Tomato salsa
Lime wedges

In a bowl, whisk beer, flour and salt, blending well. Rinse fish and pat dry. Cut into six oblong-sized pieces.

In a deep saucepan, heat about 1 inch of salad oil to 360 degrees. Using a fork, coat fish pieces with beer batter and lift out, draining briefly. Slide coated fish into oil, a few pieces at a time. Adjust heat to maintain oil temperature.

When fritters are golden, in about 2 minutes, lift them out with a slotted spoon and drain briefly on paper towels; keep warm. Repeat to fry remaining fish. To assemble, cradle a tortilla in your hand. Add a fish fritter, cabbage, mayonnaise and salsa. Squeeze lime over filling, fold tortillas and eat. Makes 6.

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