Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ensenada-Style Fish Taco Smackdown

The wife and I had been craving the unique fish tacos to be found in Baja, but we haven't been down that way in awhile what with all the murder, carjackings, and other hijinks going on in the border drug cartel wars. Then I had the idea to take my wife on a three-day Carnival cruise to Ensenada. We avoided the border entirely, got dropped off with 800 other people en masse at the dock -- strength in numbers, don'tcha know -- went for a horseback ride in the mountains, stuffed ourselves on tacos, and got out of town before we anyone could kidnap us and melt us in vats of acid.

We've been sampling the fish tacos in Baja for a couple of decades now, and we know where our favorite is. It's here.

On the corner of Lopez Mateos and Alvarado in downtown Ensenada. Out of all the many street stands, and all the competing vendors at the dockside fish market in Ensenada, these are simply the best. The same two women, Bene and Sandra, have been running this cart for years. It's a short walk from the cruise ship dock, and easy to find. There's a giant Mexican flag that flies over the harbor. From that flag, walk straight up the street into town. It's on the southwest corner of the street.

For those of you who don't know what makes an Baja Ensenada style fish taco, it requires: corn tortilla, heated on a grill; battered and deep fried (NOT grilled. Apostasy!) fish fillet, usually halibut or snapper; shredded cabbage; mild or tangy crema, a light sour cream-based sauce; hot salsa; a squeeze of lime; onions, cilantro, and other salsas optional.

What makes this humble stand's offering so superior? Like all tacos, it's an ineffable sum of parts. First, the tortillas are heated on the grill just so, to the point just before firmnessgives way to crunchiness. The cabbage is shredded neither too thickly nor too thinly. You dress your own taco from a condiment bar of excellent, creamy, fresh guacamole, onions, cilantro, pico de gallo, a smoky red and a mild but tangy green salsa. This baby has all the right textures and colors in all the right proportions, and it tastes like it knows exactly what it's talking about. All the flavors, from the delicacy of the fish to the woody guacamole to the tang of citrus, are distinct and yet harmonious. But what really sets this taco apart is the batter in that big pot, and the perfection to which it's cooked. The fried fillets come out light, crisp and perfectly seasoned on the outside, fish tender and flaky on the inside, and not the least bit greasy. It's a marvel, and my benchmark of THE REAL DEAL:

So, we ate about a dozen of these while we watched a thoroughly unexpected parade go by on this very corner, mixing up the fish with an occasional carne asada -- the only other item on their menu.

But then it was time to come back to L.A. Within a week I was craving those tacos again. I decided to try to find the best approximation here in the L.A. area. The good news is that there are several. The bad news is, that for a variety of reasons, they are all just that, approximations.

I did my research, and found that one of the most-approved local pescadorias is right here in Hollywood: the enticingly-named "The Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada" on Hillhurst and Prospect.

This place looks like it should have it right, from the funky beach-style decor to the minimalist menu: they have fish tacos, shrimp tacos, and drinks. That's it. But there are problems.

Do you see what's missing? Hint: red and green. There is no fiery red salsa and no lime. The condiment bar, in addition to a passable crema, and too-finely-shredded cabbage, features a number of salsas, with clever names like "mild mango" and "spicy guacamole." They're just okay on their own, but as condiments for the delicate fish taco, they are all, in various ways, overkill and underwhelming. Mango, too sweet. The spicy guac, too watery, and not spicy enough. Seriously, all a fish taco needs to succeed is a medium green, a hot red, and a simple pico de gallo. And of course, the lime. "Hey, do you guys have any lime squeezes?"

"Oh... um... no."

Now I can SEE, from where I'm standing, a bag of limes on a shelf in the kitchen. "How about those?"

"Those are for the salsa."

Surely you jest. Okay, no lime. Well, since I find even the hottest red salsa among the several at the bar to be too mild, I look around and find a single bottle of Tapatio in the restaurant. At least, that's the case on my first visit. On the second visit, said single bottle is empty. I ask the owner of the joint for another bottle. He says, "Sorry, I'm out. I gotta go up to the liquor store and buy some." Since he shows no intention of doing so immediately, I blandly consume my tacos without it.

This just doesn't make sense. Not providing lime and a simple hot sauce for Baja fish tacos is like running a hamburger stand with no ketchup or mustard. I might even forgive all this; but the fish itself doesn't impress. Although it looks like it should be crispy on the outside, coming straight from the oil and onto a nicely-grilled Guerrero tortilla, it is in fact squishy. No crisp. On the greasy side.

So proximity aside, I had to look farther afield.

The best fish taco in the Southland, by the accounts of many who care about such things, is to be found at Tacos Baja Ensenada, on Whittier Blvd. in East L.A. Sa and I made a pilgrimage there for lunch one day, and we were not alone.

Obviously, word is out about this place. And it's good. But it's still not Baja. First, your fish taco is handed to you fait accompli. They HAVE a condiment bar, from which I had eagerly gathered samples, awaiting my order. But then the tacos came fully dressed, with way too much crema for my taste.

And although slices of avocado are available on the menu for an extra .75, I found myself longing for Bene and Dorotea's delicious guac, which is the more authentically Baja way to present it. And again... I missed the crispy batter. It's tasty, but as Sa pointed out, it's more the consistency of a pancake than it should be.

Still, I suspect that the underlying ingredients here are correct, and that you could do pretty well here by ordering your tacos naked but for the cabbage, and dressing it yourself from the thorough condiment bar and the good choice of bottled table salsas. On the strength of all that, TBE gets the number one spot.

A couple of also-rans should be mentioned, lest you cry foul. First, Rubio's. Not happenin' for me. As fast food Fresh Mex goes, I'm generally well-inclined toward Rubio's, because they brought the Puerto Nuevo-style lobster burrito to SoCal. But now the lobster burrito is but a memory, and sorry to say the fish taco is, to me, just so much fast-food mush.

Second, Siete Mares on Sunset Blvd. in Echo Park (the stand, not the restaurant next door). I like Siete Mares, and I go there on my way to and from Dodger games every now and again. The problem with the fish tacos here? Too big. There's enough stuff on the poor overmatched tortilla for three fish tacos, including a veritable mountain of too-thick cabbage. And although their batter is nicely crispy, there's not much fish under it -- it's a grease bomb.

Finally -- and I know there are a lot of admirers out there -- Señor Fish, one downtown adjacent to Little Tokyo, and one on Figueroa in South Pasadena. There is much to love about Señor Fish. it was the first place I had scallop burritos and potato tacos, and to this day they're two of my favorite things. There's even much to like on their Ensenada Style fish taco. There's a generous amount of fish in a flavorful batter (although again, it's not crispy enough for my taste). There's a generous dose of crema with plenty of cayenne, which is a good thing. There's a generous dollop of delicious guacamole. But all this generosity is beyond the capacity of the poor, undergrilled tortilla underneath to withstand -- especially because the taco is inexplicably constructed with the cream sauce on the bottom, where it instantly turns the tortilla to useless mush. In my book, tacos are street food: one that needs to be eaten with knife and fork is no taco at all.

Which brings me to my last big surprise. Coming in second place after Tacos Baja Ensenada?

Yes, fast food. The Crispy Fish Taco at Del Taco is an absolutely solid iteration of the genre. Somebody did their research -- it's served in classic style: corn tortilla, battered deep-fried fish, shredded cabbage, salsa, crema, even a squeeze of lime (take note, "Best Fish Tacos In Ensenada!"). And note the judicious addition of chopped onion and cilantro.

Compare that snap to THE REAL DEAL photo above, then to the others; see what I mean? And, lo and behold, the fish is good! Crispy on the outside, flaky on the inside, as it should be. Of course, they cheat a bit by using some sort of toasted corn-meal batter, but it works, man, it works. Add a bit of their Del Inferno sauce, and you're very, very damn close to the Real Deal. The only downfall is the tomato salsa, which is on the sugary side. If they could get a real pico de gallo in its place, it just might put it over the top.

The conclusion: for the real deal, you gotta brave the drug lord kidnappers by land, or the pirates by sea, and go to Sandra and Bene's cart in Ensenda. If you're stranded here, these are your best options. Click on the links for Google Maps, reviews, etc.

1. Tacos Baja Ensenada
5385 Whittier Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90022
(323) 887-1980

2. Del Taco
Numerous locations throughout the Southland

3. The Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada
1650 Hillhurst Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 887-1980

4. Señor Fish
422 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 625-2534

5. La Playita Siete Mares
3143 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(323) 664-4604


  1. J-man1:55 PM

    Have you tried Malo? Actually,their best taco is the ground beef & pickle.

  2. I'm not a huge of fan of the Del Taco fish taco - I've had it at least three times and the fish, while having a nice batter, has always been overcooked. But Del Taco's crispy shrimp tacos, which they bring back every few months, have always been outstanding to me.

  3. Better Yeti8:18 PM

    oh i'm so down for the Del Taco fish tacos (#5 meal, i think?). startlingly good for fast food. it's all i ever order there.

  4. At the risk of losing any foodie cred... Yeti, if that's ALL you ever order there you're missing out on what could be a Death Row meal for me: the .99 bean burrito w/green sauce. ohhhh....

  5. Roger T.6:07 PM

    what about Taco Nazo in La Puente

  6. what about it... it's in La Puente!

  7. As Roger T. stated, what about El Taco Nazo? Theirs is definitely best in LA (I've had them all)...

  8. well I agree with Jess Winfield these look fabulous. Well, I know what I want for dinner tonight. These look great. I’m a recent convert to fish tacos. Fish tacos are near the top of my favorite foods list and yet I have never made them at home. after seeing them on a few food blogs lately though, I really must. nice post Jess Winfield! Mmmm fish tacos.

  9. We're starting a brand new gourmet Taco truck called Komodo. Definitely wanted to invite you and your readers to try us out!
    Check us out on twitter @komodofood
    We are also online-

    We are premiering our truck next week, so hope to see some of you soon.