Could Baja-in-bondage possibly surpass our own homegrown fresh Mex? The recent arrival on our shores of Baja Fresh, La Salsa, and Rubio's, rapidly growing Southern California chains that specialize in Baja-style fish tacos, sent me to Oakland's International Boulevard for an answer. I wanted to see if the cooks who make the best Mexican food in the entire Bay Area -- and that includes San Francisco's Mission District -- could best the chains tortilla for tortilla.
But first I consulted Ruth Lafler, who offers up her opinions on the local branch of Web foodie community Chowhound (www.chowhound.com/california/boards/sanfrancisco/sanfrancisco.html). Lafler says she's visited every taco truck between 22nd and 48th avenues, and she's published her reports on the Chowhound site.
"Fish tacos are not very common in this area," she writes. "They seem to have been introduced into California not so much by immigrants from Mexico as by (or on behalf of) people who had fallen in love with them on Baja vacations."
Using Lafler's reports as a guide, I set off to see what I could find. And as often happens on these quests of the spirit, fish tacos turned out to be the sideline attraction.
I started with one of my favorites, Taqueria Sinaloa, a spot that draws me frequently to the corner of 22nd and International. This taqueria complex includes a high-profile corner truck (with burritos, tacos, and tortas) that pulls in thick crowds at noontime, a modest sit-down restaurant, and now a second taco truck specializing in mariscos, or seafood. (Sinaloa is a state in the northwest corner of the Mexican mainland whose coastline runs parallel to the Baja peninsula.) Painted on the sides of the new truck is a list of fish tacos, seafood cocktels, raw oysters, and ceviche tostadas.
The whitefish in the fish tacos had been lightly breaded, fried, and then coarsely chopped. It was spooned generously across two griddled tortillas and simply topped with bright salsa fresca and a dab of thin, radiantly hot tomatillo salsa, to which I added a quick squeeze of lime. There were none of the hallmarks of the Baja fish taco: no sour cream, no pickled onion rings, no shredded cabbage. The presence of the tomatillo salsa proved crucial; bites without it -- and there were a few too many -- lacked the fierce, tart assertiveness that electrified the palate.
I supplemented my taco with a mixed ceviche tostada. Ceviche is made by "cooking" raw fish in citrus juices -- the acid firms the flesh and turns it milky. According to famed Mexican cookbook author Rick Bayless, prawn, squid, and octopus ceviches are actually poached first, then marinated in lime. The shrimp, imitation crab, and sliced octopus heaped on top of Sinaloa's tostada all tasted fresh and sweet, and chopped cucumber and tomato gave the colorful mix a cool crunchiness. But the juice of all the extra limes on our plate wasn't enough to give it a spark.
It seemed a shame to just order fish tacos and ceviche tostadas at Tijuana Restaurant, a longtime International Boulevard staple with a massive and none-too-cheap menu. My friend and I tried to ignore the food we had just downed at Sinaloa and ordered a snapper with garlic sauce as well. The giant fish came fried -- more fried than I prefer -- with a creamy, bland white garlic sauce. But the ceviche was phenomenal.
For a couple of bucks more than we spent at the taco truck, Tijuana Restaurant piled twice as much shrimp and octopus ceviche on our tostada. The lime, onion, and cilantro vibrated with intensity, offset only by the sweet shellfish and rich, bland avocado chunks. But the flavor of octopus, like an earthier, chewier calamari, still came through. Our fish taco also dwarfed any of the Baja style tacos I've tried. A thick, knobbly, freshly made tortilla was folded over a mass of sautéed whitefish, avocado, and salsa fresca. Again, the flavor of the fish was so mild that more hot sauce was needed to make the ensemble pop.
Three men at the table across the way were working their way through Tijuana's specialty, a huge platter of chilled crab legs, octopus, shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari, and fish surrounded by tomatoes and avocados. After several rounds of tacos, it seemed unbelievably ambitious.
When I finally spotted the La Costa Mariscos Frescos truck across the street from Goodwill at International and 29th, it looked deserted. The window faced away from the street. But once we rounded the corner, we realized we were going to have to fight for space at the narrow ledge that runs the length of the front. Men stood shoulder to shoulder eating seafood cocktels from plastic bowls. As I stepped up to the window, the man next to me finished his prawns and brought the bowl to his lips to drink the last of the juice.
Turns out La Costa doesn't serve fish tacos. The truck may not even have a griddle in it. Instead, it specializes in ceviche and cocktel, along with raw oysters on the half shell and a few other chilled dishes. The taco truck has been so successful that the owners have opened up a permanent restaurant at International and 37th Avenue.
We picked up a 24-ounce "regular" size Styrofoam container of shrimp and octopus cocktail to eat in the car, along with a fish ceviche tostada, which also came in a cup with six tostada shells on the side. The ceviched fish had dissolved into shreds that coated chopped red onion, tomato, cucumber, and cilantro. The lime here was 100-watt-bulb-bright, and the flavor of the sea retreated to the back, where it became a subtle undertone, like anchovy in a Caesar salad. The ceviche was good. Delicious, actually.
The cocktel resembled a watery tomato soup, with bits of onion and tomato floating on top. But when we stirred the broth, not much more than chilled tomato juice, we dredged up several cups of small boiled shrimp, which burst between our teeth like grapes, along with tender, thinly sliced octopus. After we squeezed an entire lime half and a packet of hot sauce into the broth, its flavor perked up considerably. We piled the crustaceans on Saltines and tostada shells. We did not sip the broth.
Driving up and down International between High Street and Fruitvale, I spotted only one more taco truck serving seafood: Playa Azul, on Fruitvale near the 880 entrance. A cool briny smell wafted out its window. I couldn't decide whether that was a good or bad sign. The two women who ran it smiled at me sweetly, and we stumbled through each other's languages as I negotiated my order.
Playa Azul's selection is wide: not just seafood but chicken, pork, and beef tacos and tortas. Unfortunately, the quality suffers as a result. To their credit, the cooks fried the tortillas for our tostada mixto rather than using the cracker-like prepackaged variety, and the crispy, bubbly base snapped apart easily. But both the shrimp and octopus -- its tentacles peeled off -- in the mixto were combined with chopped tomatoes, cilantro, and onions seconds before we got them. Their flavors barely mixed, and the marinade's acid came from the chopped tomatoes, not lime. Most like Baja tacos, our fish tacos were covered in chopped iceberg lettuce with a summery texture and no discernible taste. The shredded fish underneath had been rubbed with spices, but not enough to compensate for the lackluster salsa.
I'd have to say that Rubio's (the best of the three chains) still has the edge on fish tacos. There are better to be had; we just don't have them yet. However, out of fear of lawsuits, short shelf life, or unmarketability, the chains don't put out the kind of sparkling, catch-of-the-day ceviche we can all find on International Boulevard -- let alone serve perfectly cooked octopus.
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