Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Ultimate Baja Fish Taco Quest

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Ah, there is so much to love about visiting Baja—the gorgeous beaches, the abundant marine life, the world-class water sports, and of course, the always friendly and fun people.  But more than anything, what will make a person crave Baja again and again (even  just a few days of leaving it)?  Two words – fish tacos!

Sure, I had eaten fish tacos before this first trip to Baja.  Mainly, in Southern California at the fast-food chain restaurants known for them: Wahoo’s and Rubio’s.  I also had some surprisingly good and fresh fish tacos last Fall at a chain restaurant up in Utah called Costa Vida.

As good as these were, they were just pale, tasteless imitators compared to the real thing in Baja.

It seems every Baja restaurant and street vendor selling fish tacos has their own unique idea of what a Baja fish taco should be.  Some serve up tiny little rolls of fish inside crispy tortillas (more of a taquito than a taco).  Others serve up their tacos with grilled fish .

But after diligently sampling a number of taco stands in Baja, the very best seem to have the following in common:

  • Ultra-fresh, never ever frozen, fish fillets (“pescado”).  Many offer fresh shrimp (“camarón”) as well.
  • Fillets are dipped in a light batter and fried until delicately crunchy
  • Freshly-made tortillas of flour (“harina”) or corn (“maíz”)
  • A wide array of fresh toppings including shredded cabbage or lettuce, cilantro, and pico de gallo.
  • Some squeezable thin sauces including a white mayo/tartar, a green guacamole, and/or a creamy chipotle.
  • Ample supply of fresh key lime wedges
  • No sides offered!  These tacos are a delicious meal all to themselves and need no rice and beans to help them along.

After diligently sampling various places, two taco stands in Baja rose well above the rest.  One in Loreto, the other in La Paz--

El Rey del Taco – Loreto, BCS:

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I had read about “The King of Tacos” in a few blogs before arriving to Loreto.  This fun little video gives a great idea of what its like to pay Loreto and this restaurant a visit:

"The King of Tacos" El Rey del Taco - Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico from Stark Insider on Vimeo.

But when we arrived to Loreto a few days before Christmas excited to find El Rey just a few blocks away from our RV park, we were disappointed to see it closed each and every day!  This is one of those mystical restaurants that only is open a few short hours mid-day and only on the days the owner seems to feel like cooking!

Fortunately, when I returned to Loreto after Christmas, and happened to be walking Millie down the street at noontime, I discovered El Rey’s doors finally open.  So Millie and I quickly took our place in line at the Carry-Out window.

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As we stood waiting, even though there were only 3 or 4 people ahead of us in line, a bi-lingual woman warned me that the wait might be as long as 45 minutes!   And sure enough it was! Tourists would come and go in the line behind us, but Millie and I were determined to not give up.

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Finally, it was our turn to stand at the window and wait for the cook/owner to decide if and when he would take our order.  It was hard to make sense of their ordering system, but it did seem that preference was being given to the patrons eating inside rather than those of us standing at the window.  I could only think that this “Soup Nazi” guy thrives on generating “scarcity buzz” and there’s surely no better way to do that than showing a line of people waiting outside your restaurant!  Jeez!

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All frustrations aside, once I finally got my 2 pescado tacos to-go (and paid just 27 pesos, US$1.85, each for them), the food was good, and the extra tortillas and toppings were enough to make 3 large tacos.  El Rey included 3 cups of salsas—a white sauce, a guacamole sauce, and a spicy green chile.  Fresh condiments included shredded lettuce, sliced cucumbers, limes, and even a few radishes.  The corn tortillas were freshly made and tasty.

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When Hans, Ursula, and I returned to Loreto at the end of January and found El Rey open, we ate inside.  This time, as suspected, we were served almost right away with minimal wait.

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The tacos and toppings were still as good as before, but now we had something even better to compare them to, so I could now confirm El Rey del Taco as only the “2nd Best” taco stand in Baja.

Who managed to take the top spot?

El Estadio Tacos – La Paz:

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This place is so popular it manages to thrive with no sign over the building, no phone or website, and not even an entry in Yelp or TripAdvisor!  Locals simply call it “the fish taco place behind the Cathedral.”  Our Espiritu Santo tour guide had first told us about this place, and fellow La Paz residents all seemed to agree that it was the very best in town.  But they could never quite tell us exactly where it was! After a few weeks, with some help from Bobby and Wendy, we finally found it.

To help you future tourists of La Paz, here’s a map to show you the exact location (at the corner of Prieto and Indepencia streets) 2 blocks behind the Cathedral.

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El Estadio is a casual, but highly efficient affair.  The owner’s original street cart sits prominently on one corner of the sidewalk, and a large stainless steel cart of all the toppings sits on the other corner sidewalk. 

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Unlike El Rey that also serves a few varieties of beef tacos, El Estadio only serves fish or shrimp.  Since this is predominantly a locals place, the prices are incredibly cheap—just 17 pesos for fish (US$1.17) and 22 pesos for shrimp (US$1.52)!

Also unlike El Rey, service at El Estadio is fast, friendly, and efficient.  No 45 minute “Soup Nazi” kind of game-playing here!

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Rather than bulky Styrofoam plates, El Estadio has an interesting solution to minimize their waste — solid reusable plastic plates covered with a thin, disposable clear plastic bag.

No limonada here, but El Estadio offers a chilled, ruby red Agua de Jamaica (made from brewing dried Jamaica flowers).  Delicious!  While El Estadio had a wide variety of taco toppings, I liked their shredded cabbage and pico de gallo, topped with a generous squirt of creamy chipotle sauce.  Absolute perfection!

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Once you experience these “ultimate” fish taco stands in Baja, it doesn’t take long to start physically craving their handfuls of deliciousness again.  By the time we crossed Baja border and drove back into the U.S. last month, I was nearing withdrawals akin to a heroin addict looking for her “one more fix.” 

Fortunately, with a bit investigating through Yelp and TripAdvisor, I was able to find a few of great States-side Baja taco stands to ease my addiction:

 

Tacos El Cositas – Yuma, AZ:

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In all my previous trips to Yuma, I had never thought to consider outdoor restaurants when looking for a great new lunch or dinner place to dine.  Now that I’ve discovered El Cositas (conveniently located in a gravel parking lot southwest of the big Fry’s supermarket at I-8 and Fortuna Rd), I may never eat indoors again! 

This place is nothing more than a food truck with a growing number of EZ-Up shade shelters, tables and chairs, surrounded by a fence with a wind-break.  It’s in a gravel lot with a few other outdoor food truck-type eateries, but only El Cositas seems to always have the most cars in front of it!

It’s a family-run affair here.  The husband cooks up the tacos--

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and the wife takes the orders and keeps the toppings bar clean and well-stocked--

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Prices were a bit higher here than in Mexico (to be expected), but still quite a bargain compared to other US fast-food joints.  Fish tacos were $1.75, and shrimp tacos were just $2.25 each.  El Cositas also offered a variety of other meat tacos as well. 

They had the standard fare of toppings, but one word of caution—the pico de gallo was much spicier than any others I’d tasted.  Not “burn your tongue off” hot, but best to go easy until you get the right mix of heat to your liking.

While El Cositas sells bottled non-alcoholic beverages, you can also bring your own.  My Shocktop beer was a great pairing for a Friday night dinner feast of 1 fish and 2 shrimp tacos!  I don’t quite know how the owner manages to do it (perhaps he has fishing friends who deliver daily from Mexico to Yuma?), but the shrimp at El Cositas has got to be some of the freshest I’ve ever tasted.  This will now be a “Must-Stop” place whenever I pass through Yuma again!

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Taco Fish – Tucson, AZ:

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With its granite topped tables, and spotlessly clean premises, Taco Fish is decidedly the fanciest Baja taco restaurant of them all.  But, they also still maintain their original food cart and outdoor location on Grant & 6th to remind them of their humble roots.

This newer location, at 12th & Irvington, was so hidden and unassuming that I first missed it and had to turn around and drive back.  But I’m so glad I did!  The limonada here was just like being back in Mexico—refreshing lime juice, sugar, and mineral water.  Sweet, but not too sweet.

Toppings included a cole slaw (that mixed the white sauce with shredded cabbage along with some shredded carrots), a nicely spiced pico de gallo, and guacamole sauce.  The shrimp and fish tacos were $3.00 each, and while the most expensive of the roundup, 2 of them were large enough to make a good-sized 3-taco meal.

If I can’t get back to La Paz anytime soon, and can only make it as far south as Tucson, this place will do just fine to remind my taste buds of the Baja!

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There are likely many more of these delicious, affordable, “Mom-and-Pop” Baja fish taco places around the U.S. just waiting to be discovered.  If you’ve happened to find a favorite, let me know in the Comments section below!  

9 comments:

  1. Great post. I will be checking out Taco Fish in Tucson this coming week. BTW what do you think about driving a 36' MH down the Baja peninsula?
    Thanks, Susan

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  2. Judith is right! Sounds like I need to drive to Yuma for lunch!

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  3. You're killing me here. Oh Lordy these look good. And unfortunately pictures are all I've got for way too long. I won't be back that way until next year this time.

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  4. This is just a yummy post - I was tempted lick my I-pad screen. ;)

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  5. Come to San Miguel! We'll "do" the taco trail in town then head to Delores for the best carnitas on earth.

    How are things? Where are you? How is Millie? Send me a private email, por favor.

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  6. I loved the fish tacos when we were in the Baja. A great post Lynne and even better because we will be in Yuma in about 10 days and first stop will be the fish taco truck off of I8 and Fortuna Road. Mille gracias mi amiga.

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  7. Another great update, thanks Lynne. Just passed thru Yuma, twice this past week. Something to look forward to next time.

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  8. If you find yourself in Albuquerque I suggest Sharky’s on West Central (Old Rt 66) just west of Old Coors Rd. For some place in the middle of the desert they have pretty great fish tacos ($2.25 each). They will satisfy until you get to Baja for the best. They have a fine salsa cart (look for it) that includes roasted jalapenos. The owner takes great pride in his tacos and his business. He has transformed the former drive-in with picnic tables and silk palm trees. It looks like an oasis, well, an oasis in a parking lot on a somewhat down and out section of West Central.

    Kelly (not Kevin) in ABQ

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