When it comes to fish tacos, you can go south of the border or stay right here in San Diego to choose from a multitude of variations on the theme. In order to assess the variables and report on some of the top places around, a savvy 16-year-old (with a critical nose for tacos) and I ate our way through some pretty good food.
We wanted only independent places, not chains, so, no, we didn't do Rubio's, even though they supposedly started the fish-taco craze here years ago. We also know that everyone has a favorite place-Rimels Rotisserie (La Jolla), Pelly's (Carlsbad), Juanitas (Encinitas) or Miguel's Cocina (various locations) among others. And we traveled near and far, including out to El Metate and Puerto Nuevo on El Cajon Boulevard to be sure our bases were covered. But we decided to save some places for another column-too many tacos, too little time.
We identified five factors that figured in our fish-taco research: 1. tortillas-flour or corn; 2. the fish-fresh, frozen grilled or fried; 3. the ubiquitous white sauce; 4. the cabbage and other toppings; 5. cheese-where it lands in the taco, melted on the bottom or sprinkled on the top; and 6. price.
What we found is that fish markets have the freshest and best choices for fish-grilled or fried. When it comes to this dish, you'll find partisans for every variation.
Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill offers a fresh seafood selection from their retail case. We liked the feel of place as well as the food. You order at the counter, and the food is brought to you at a table inside or on a covered patio. The space is casual-the smart 16-year-old said it reminded him of a Maine fishing lodge, with its wood accents and pictures on the walls and a small fresh flower on each table.
The slightly warmed El Indio corn tortilla, with cheddar melted on the bottom, is topped with fish of your choice (we had swordfish), cabbage, tomatoes, onions and homemade white sauce. At $3.95 each, it's worth the price. If tacos aren't your thing, they serve plates with 8 ounces of fish, salad and rice, sandwiches and salads. Located on the northbound one-way India Street just before Winder St. and El Indio Mexican Restaurant. 3667 India St., San Diego, 619-497-0914.
Point Loma Seafood's plate with two tacos, each wrapped in two corn tortillas, refried beans, fresh salsa on the side and a slightly vinegary white sauce, at $9.95, is a meal for two. A generous portion of lightly breaded Alaskan cod (though on my visit it was a tad dry) fills the tortillas, topped with crunchy green cabbage and a sprinkle of cheese. You sit outside, near the docked sport-fishing boats, and eat with the gulls staring you down for a crumb. First-timers take note: It's a slightly quirky (and seemingly chaotic) ordering system during the lunch rush hour. Make your way through the crowd (they don't use numbers) for a place in line, and don't be shy about asking if someone is waiting to order or waiting for their food. The retail case is varied and large. Cash only. 2805 Emerson St., Point Loma, 619-223-1109.
South Beach Bar & Grille at the end of Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach serves up excellent fish tacos in a lively, open, beachy bar/restaurant. Here the choice is fried Baja fish (deep-fried Alaskan pollock) or a pineapple/teriyaki-marinated grilled mahi mahi. We had one of each for $2.95 apiece. The flour tortilla has cheddar cheese on the bottom, then fish, shredded red cabbage and a fresh salsa with tomatoes. The visual was as good as the bites, and we liked that the fried fish wasn't overbreaded. The subtle marinade adds a unique dimension to the grilled mahi taco. For first-timers at South Beach, you order food from a server and drinks from the bar. 5059 Newport Ave., Ocean Beach, 619-226-4577.
Over in Bay Park, just off Morena Boulevard, next to Siesel's Market and across from the fire station, is Bay Park Fish Co., a comfy and casual neighborhood place. The retail selection is limited, at least in the case. We were asked if we wanted flour or corn tortillas, and we choose our fish. The tacos, which we liked, are colorful and flavorful with red and green cabbage, a bit of fresh salsa and a roasted small yellow jalapeño (not too spicy). We had a grilled halibut and a fried mahi mahi (lightly panko battered). The double taco order comes with rice and beans for $8, though we ordered Ã la carte. During happy hour, starting at 3 p.m., you can get tacos for $2 to go with a cold beer or glass of wine. They also sell wine by the bottle. 4121 Ashton St., San Diego, 619-276-3474.
The longtime Mission Hills A La Francaise Café & Bakery finally moved and is now a part of Normal Heights in the same historic building as Rosie O'Grady's tavern. 3416 Adams Ave., Normal Heights, 619-294-4425.
In the mood to splurge $55 for an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet? La Jolla's La Valencia Hotel offers it every Friday and Saturday on the patio. Eat yourself silly with everything from oysters and clams on the half shell to paella and lobster tails. 1132 Prospect Ave., La Jolla. For reservations: 858-551-3765, 800-451-0772.
Write to marcie[at]5dollarchef[dot]com and editor[at]SDcitybeat[dot]com.