Thursday, March 01, 2012

Can You Stand It? – Ricky's Fish Tacos

Ricky's, from the South. Don't blink.
Ricky's Fish Tacos
1400 N Virgil Ave
Los Angeles, CA 9002
Yelp Info

If you haven't heard of Ricky's Fish Tacos, you're obviously not a foodie (they've been singing its praises for over a year now). You also haven't spent seemingly half your life trying to find a fish taco of Ensenada quality here in Los Angeles. But my friends... you gotta check this out.

A couple of years ago, shortly after the opening of "The Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada" in Los Feliz, I posted a smackdown roundup of Baja-style fish tacos in and around L.A. My gold standard for the comparison was our favorite Ensenada taco stand, a tiny two-woman operation not far from the cruise ship dock.

Stand on Lopez Mateos and Alvarado in Ensenad

As I said in the original post:
"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."
Every place I visited (although I have yet to make it to La Habra for  El Taco Nazo, and probably never will) fell down on some level. The Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada, for their weird salsas; Tacos Baja Ensenada, for a mushy batter massively overfilled and imbalanced concoction; Del Taco (a surprise near-winner) for their sugary tomato salsa.

I'm here to tell you: Ricky's Fish Tacos gets it right.

"Awesome," you say, "I'm there right now, where is it?"

That's the tricky part.

Ricky's, in the best fish taco tradition, is a stand. And it's a stand that isn't even as fancy as the one pictured above. It's merely a couple of folding tables with a deep fryer on top, a bowl each of shredded cabbage and pico de gallo, three squeeze bottles of salsa, one of crema, one cooler for drinks, one cooler for the fish, a cash register, tip jar, and napkins. Three more folding tables and some folding chairs are the dining room. A couple of Easy-Ups for meager shade.

That's it.

As for the location: I guarantee you'll drive by it twice trying to find it. Best I can describe is: it's literally a stone's throw from the Vista Theater. Turn south on Virgil from Sunset Blvd. Immediately start looking to your left. There, in the driveway of an apartment building, across from the Von's loading dock, you'll see Ricky. Don't bother looking for a sign, there isn't one. Park on the street.

Business hours?  Generally, 12:30-4:30 PM Thurs-Sunday. But you'd better check Ricky's Twitter feed, as his operation is subject to vagaries of wind, rain, fish availability, and other obligations, and he sometime sells out early.

Once you've found it, all you need to know is this: Fish tacos. Shrimp tacos. Occasionally, lobster tacos, which sound exciting but aren't as good as the fish and shrimp (lobster is too delicately flavored to hold up well to the deep-frying and the batter). Order (why not one of each to start?), take a number, sit. Ricky or his assistant will prep your taco to order, and add cabbage and pico de gallo for you. You choose your salsa(s): there's a mild green, a medium smoky chipotle, and a hot red. Add a little crema. Sit and eat. (NOTE: Ricky is opposed to squeezes of lemon and lime, see why in an interview here.)

The most difficult element of a fish taco to get right is the batter. Ricky's is just right, crispy without being inimical, perfectly seasoned. The fish is arguably better than what's generally used in Ensenada. He uses swai, a freshwater Southeast Asian staple also known as Iridescent Shark or Striped Catfish. It's a fascinating critter, but all that matters here is that's mild and flaky, similar to cod but with a creamier texture, and less much less fishy than U.S. catfish. It's the perfect fish for the taco: it holds its own texture-wise, but becomes succulent with deep frying, and absorbs the flavor of the batter perfectly.

These are fish tacos as they're meant to be. Each bite is a fugue, as soft, warm tortilla gives way to crunchy, cool cabbage and fresh pico de gallo which gives way to crunchy batter, which gives way to juicy, flaky fish just as the heat from the salsa kicks in. Chew, and the elements blend in an eye-rolling crescendo of deliciousness.

Shrimp tacos nearly as good, offering a little more resistance but slightly less flavor. The shrimp taco, with smaller pieces, highlights the batter more, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

One Shrimp with Salsa Verde; One Fish with Salsa Roja

My one and only gripe, if you can call it that, with Ricky's tacos is that the fish portion per taco is a little too large, leaving not quite enough room for the tortilla to comfortably contain the cabbage and pico de gallo. I'd actually prefer smaller pieces of fish, and a lower price (tacos are $2.50 each). I'd happily order three instead of two, and spend less time scooping up stray cabbage with a fork.

If you've never thought of yourself as a food pilgrim before, the type to drive a half hour or more to scarf tacos from a makeshift shanty just because they serve the best in town... Ricky's might just make you a convert.