Cruising the Coast-San Diego
Posted in California on January 31, 2011 by Victoria Allman
Patrick and I bounced down the string of beach towns from Malibu to San Diego. We both had our own agendas. While Patrick searched for waves to surf, I was on the hunt for the perfect fish taco.
In Huntington Beach, we ate grilled fish smothered in a piquant mango salsa. At Seal Beach, the fish tacos were drizzled with a white sauce called crema that dripped through my fingers and splattered when it hit the wooden picnic table. The wave called Swami’s brought howls of delight from Patrick when it rolled overhead and moans of ecstasy from me when we devoured three crispy, crunchy bundles of tuna tacos.
From beach town to beach town we wound down the costal highway past canyons cut deep into the hills on our left and the perfectly timed rolling sets that Patrick yearned for.
I was finding there were as many different versions of a fish taco as there were waves in the ocean. But, the one thing they all had in common was the lightly charred corn tortillas they were wrapped in.
They weren’t something I’d made before and felt I needed guidance. I headed downtown San Diego, to El Vitral, the 2010 winner of Best Mexican Restaurant award by Riviera Magazine to ask chef Norma Martinez her secret.
“As a native of Tijuana, I grew up eating tortillas.” Norma rolled her r’s making tortillas sound sexy. “Every morning, I eat the first tortilla hot off the press. I spread it with frijoles and taste to make sure they are clean tasting to highlight the fish.”
I took a bite of my fish taco as Norma spoke. It was true. They were clean tasting. The crunch of the beer batter gave way to soft white fish. The crisp cabbage salad cooled and the chipotle cream zigzagged over the top left a luscious feel in my mouth.
“Traditional Mexican food is healthier than the fast food you see in typical taco stands.” Baja California, the home of fish taco is an eight hundred-mile peninsula dividing the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez. It stands to reason that fish features predominately in the cuisine.
According to Norma, Asian fishermen’s wives began deep-frying their husband’s catch in tempura and paired it with local salsas and warm tortillas to sell on the street while their husbands were away. Tacos de Pescado didn’t need the help of a coyote to cross the border into San Diego, they slipped across easily and set-up shop as the city’s favorite dish. Surfers, like Patrick long ago fell in love with the simple, inexpensive ease of the street food.
“There are very few flavors to a good fish taco,” Norma told me. “Just make sure you have good tasting ingredients, fresh canola oil, and fresh beer batter.” Her wide, toothy smile reflected her love of the food she spoke of. “ The rest is all about the cerveza you drink it with.”
Back home on the boat, I wanted to savor that fresh flavorful feeling of sitting in the California sunshine and biting into the warm bundles. But, as I rolled and pressed, my stack of tortillas never grew in size. As fast as I could remove them from the skillet, they were snatched by the crew, smeared with butter and inhaled. It took me doubling the recipe and pressing thirty-six disks to produce enough tortillas for a lunch for six people.Leading me to believe that fish tacos aren’t only a staple for surfers, but one for boaters as well.
1 ¾ cups masa harina
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 1/3 cups hot water
Knead the masa, sea salt, vegetable oil and hot water until thoroughly combined. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes.
Heat a flat-bottomed sauté pan on medium-high.
Test dough, it should feel soft and pliable but not sticky, if not adjust water or masa. Divide into 12 pieces and roll each into a ball.Cover with plastic.
Slice a Ziplock bag in two and use to prevent sticking in the press. Lay dough ball between the plastic in the center of the press and gently flatten it. Close the press.
Open the press and peel away plastic. Gently place on the hot pan. After 30 seconds flip the tortilla with a spatula and repeat.
Transfer to a basket or plate and cover with a damp towel to steam and keep warm.
6 tomatillos, rinsed and halved
1 clove garlic
1 jalepeno, deseeded
¼ cup cilantro
½ small white onion
1 lime, juiced
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ head cabbage, shredded thin
1 teaspoon sea salt
In a heavy-bottomed sauté pan over high heat, place tomatillos, cut side down, onion half and garlic clove in one layer. Sauté for 5 minutes until charred, turn over and repeat. Place tomatillos, garlic, jalepeno, cilantro, onion, lime and olive oil in a food processor and blend to a coarse puree.
Toss with shredded cabbage and sea salt.
2 pounds mahi-mahi, cut in 1” strips
¾ cup flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
18 grinds black pepper
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ cup milk
¾ cup beer
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 quart canola oil for frying
In a large bowl, combine flour, sea salt, black pepper and baking powder. Blend egg and beer, then quickly stir into the flour mixture.
Heat oil in a deep-fryer to 375 degrees.
Dust fish pieces lightly with flour. Dip into beer batter, and fry until crisp and golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
¼ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon cilantro leaves
Build fish tacos out of warm corn tortillas, deep-fried fish, and coleslaw. Drizzle crema over the top and garnish with cilantro leaves.