Hometown Hungers: Best Fish Tacos Outside of San Diego

No need to surf down to San Diego — or Mexico, for that matter — to find perfectly battered fish tacos. These hopping spots across the country offer classic takes on the signature beachside dish.

Photo By: Picasa

Photo By: Picasa

Batter Up

Baja fish tacos might just be the perfect fusion food. Their origin story begins in the Mexican state of Baja California, where locals reportedly learned about tempura-fried fish from Japanese fishermen working in the vicinity. This regional specialty — battered and fried fish served in corn tortillas slathered with a cabbage slaw, crema or mayo — began popping up at many a roadside stand in the 1960s. No one knows for sure exactly where this taco was created, but it’s a classic in Ensenada, San Felipe and other seaside spots. Today it’s a phenomenon that people on both sides of the border crave, having spread from Baja to San Diego and then beyond. Check out these Food Network-approved spots across America serving classic spins on the Baja fish taco.

 

Photo of Hugo's fish tacos courtesy of Penny de los Santos

The Original El Taco, Atlanta

This spot dishes up fresh Tex-Mex eats in a colorful, family-friendly setting with a playful vibe (there’s even a wheel of tacos!). Despite the focus on Tex-Mex fare, the kitchen sticks close to authentic Mexican tradition when it comes to the fish tacos, which are made in the Baja style. This simple yet delicious rendition channels the flavors of Baja with its fried fish and creamy caper mayo. Each taco comes topped with a bright crest of spicy pickled chiles reminiscent of escabeche, that classic Mexican condiment found at most taquerias.

Photo courtesy of The Original El Taco

Go to: The Original El Taco

Little Water Cantina, Seattle

The little fry stands along Baja’s seashore serve as an inspiration for the fish tacos offered at Little Water Cantina, as Chef-Owner Shannon Wilkinson used to surf and camp along that sandy stretch of Mexico. His version of the dish is loaded with Alaska cod dredged in a house beer batter made from a mixture of rice flour, maseca, cornmeal and all-purpose flour, along with a flurry of spices and a generous pour of local Rainier beer. This combination makes for an airy coating that still lends plenty of crunch. Each taco comes adorned with a vibrant mound of toppings: house-pickled red onions, cabbage dressed in an orange juice vinaigrette, a traditional fire-roasted salsa verde and pickled habanero tartar sauce.

Photo courtesy of Amelia Armstrong

Go to: Little Water Cantina

Gran Electrica, Brooklyn

Sampling the dishes at Gran Electrica is like winding your way through Mexico, as the owners of this hip Brooklyn spot wanted to highlight some of the country's more renowned regional dishes, starting with Baja. Chef Robert Stauning believes the secret to a soul-satisfying fish taco lies in the batter; it needs to be bold in flavor and yet delicately crisp in texture. Stauning’s formula has been greeted with much favor, as the Pescado Estilo Ensenada is touted as the most-popular taco option on Gran Electrica’s menu. Each one comes colorfully adorned with a bright flurry of slightly pickled cabbage, along with a healthy squirt of housemade chipotle aioli.

Photo courtesy of Gran Electrica

Go to: Gran Eléctrica

Bartaco, Atlanta

Bartaco taps into the beach cultures of North and South Americas, offering street food-influenced dishes served in seaside-inspired surroundings. The Baja taco is a menu favorite, made with mild, delicate cod that is dipped in a chile-spiked, light and crunchy tempura batter. Once fried, the fish is served on a base of creamy, crunchy lime-forward coleslaw layered on a hot corn tortilla. Don’t be deceived by the simple presentation. This taco smolders with subtle smokiness and heat from the chipotle peppers in the dressing, which is balanced by a surprisingly light acidic finish. The combination of contrasting flavors, textures and temperatures make for a memorable bite.

Photo courtesy of Manny Vargas Photography

Go to: Bartaco

Hugo’s, Houston

As an award-winning ambassador of his native Mexico’s cuisine, Chef Hugo Ortega felt traditional Baja-style fish tacos were a “must have” for his restaurant in Houston. No longer relegated to the beachy shores of Baja, these tacos can also be found in the urban areas of Ortega’s home country — including his birthplace of Mexico City. Ortega’s version combines deep-fried fish with napa cabbage and chipotle mayonnaise. Light-colored beer is used in the batter to ensure that the fish beneath will retain its beautiful white hue. Once fried, the fish is piled into housemade blue or white corn tortillas. 

Photo courtesy of Paula Murphy 

Go to: Hugo's

Big Star, Chicago

Tacos inspired by Mexico’s street food take center stage at this honky-tonk joint in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. A standout in a sea of tempting options is the Taco de Pescado (fish taco). A batter laced with the Mexican beer Tecate makes for a crunchy coating on the tilapia, which comes nestled in a housemade corn tortilla and topped with a generous squirt of spicy chipotle mayonnaise and a mound of lime-marinated cabbage slaw. This combination makes for the perfect balance of spice, acidity and crunch, ideal to pair with margaritas on the patio.

Photography courtesy of Sandy Noto

Go to: Big Star

Loteria! Grill, Los Angeles

Mexico City native Jimmy Shaw opened the first Lotería Grill in 2002 at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles, focusing on the regional specialties that he grew up eating in his homeland. That humble stall has since grown into a multi-locale operation with both casual and more upscale dining spaces throughout Los Angeles. Crowds head to Lotería Grill for a taste of Shaw’s authentic Mexican dishes, including his tacos. The Hauchinango Estilo Ensenada tacos may sound like a mouthful, but they’re named after the beautiful red snapper that’s the star of this dish. Beer-battered red snapper is piled into tortillas, then crowned with green and red shredded cabbage, chipotle-avocado aioli and fresh pico de gallo salsa. 

Photo courtesy of Loteria! Grill

Go to: Loteria Grill

Buena Onda, Philadelphia

Last year, Iron Chef Jose Garces opened Buena Onda — a casual fish-forward taqueria in Philly inspired by the relaxed spirit of Mexico's Baja Peninsula. Not only do Garces and his team source sustainable seafood, but they’ve also developed a flavorful yet airy batter to ensure that each morsel of fish comes coated in a truly crisp crust. Once fried, the fish is piled onto a fresh corn tortilla and finished with simple, fresh taco toppings such as chipotle remoulade, avocado, red cabbage and jicama slaw.

Photo courtesy of Jason Varney

Go to: Buena Onda

Berryhill Baja Grill, Houston

Billed as a “fresh Mex” restaurant chain, Berryhill Baja Grill was started in 1993, but the roots of its menu can be traced back to the 1920s. It was then that the restaurant’s namesake, Walter Berryhill, introduced Houston to his homemade tamales and other Mexican-inspired cuisine, including that Baja staple, the fish taco. Berryhill peddled his dishes through the streets of the city via a pushcart until he retired in the 1960s. The recipes were rediscovered in the 1990s, and the Berryhill taco was revived by the restaurant’s owners, who have garnered much acclaim for the dish. Their tacos feature tempura-fried fish that’s topped with a special sauce, then finished with a bright combination of red cabbage and cilantro.

Photo courtesy of Berryhill Baja Grill

Go to: Berryhill Baja Grill

Lure, Atlanta

The menu at this nautical-themed Midtown restaurant is swimming in American seafood classics, so the Mexican-influenced fish tacos are a definite standout. Executive Chef Brent Banda’s interpretation of the Baja staple is brimming with lightly battered and fried fish punched up with a tangy, sweet and piquant swirl of salsa fresca, crema and pickled onions. The tacos are served individually on the lunch menu only.

Photo courtesy of Lure

Go to: Lure

Tacolicious, San Francisco

The chefs behind Tacolicious believe one of life's biggest pleasures is the perfect balance of crisp, creamy and crunchy, so their Baja-style fish taco doesn’t stray far from the original recipe. This straightforward interpretation brings together Pacific cod, cabbage and cumin crema. The taco can be eaten as is or, for a little piquant heat, topped with a spoonful of the housemade escabeche, a spicy mixture of pickled vegetables that serves as an indispensable condiment at most taquerias.

Photo courtesy of Sara Deseran

Go to: Tacolicious

Tenoch, Medford, Mass.

Brothers Alvaro and Andres Sandoval — the culinary minds behind this Massachusetts-based Mexican chain — may have grown up in Veracruz, Mexico, but their taco de pescado (aka fish taco) channels Baja all the way. Their take on the Mexican seaside staple features battered fried fish that’s colorfully adorned with generous squirts of chipotle mayo, along with a vibrant flurry of cilantro, chipotle and shredded greens. The taco is finished with a bit of cucumber for crunch. Tenoch has three locations plus a food truck.

Photo courtesy of Tenoch

Go to: Tenoch

Seward Brewing Company, Seward, Alaska

A taste of Mexico may be a somewhat unexpected find in the midst of Alaska, but that’s just what you’ll get at this seasonal spot. A highlight of Seward Brewing’s eclectic pub menu is the fish tacos. They’re reminiscent of the ones sold up and down Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, albeit with a few Alaskan-inspired tweaks. Locally sourced seafood is featured prominently in the menu, so it’s fitting that the star of Chef Erik Slater’s tacos is Alaska Rockfish. He batters and fries the fish, then adds pickled corn, bacon relish, and a sweet and spicy tomatillo sauce. The standard cabbage is switched out for local microgreens, but Slater’s decision to double up on the tortillas makes for an authentic Mexican touch.

Photo courtesy of Seward Brewing Company

Go to: Seward Brewing Company (Open Seasonally)

Pedro’s Tacos, Boston

A haven for hungry surfers when it first opened in San Clemente, Calif., back in 1986, Pedro’s brought its beachy vibe and hand-battered fish tacos to shores of a very different sort when the chain expanded with a locale in Boston. Head to this Beantown spot and you’ll find a sea of tempting taco options, but the fish is a definite standout. Order it and you’ll be presented with warm corn tortillas (specially made for the restaurant) brimming with hand-battered cod fillets that have been fried until crisp and golden, then crowned with shredded cabbage, freshly made pico de gallo and Pedro's special sauce.

Photo courtesy of Pedro's

Go to: Pedro's Tacos

Arguello, San Francisco

Though Chef Traci Des Jardins grew up in the United States, the spirit of Mexico courses through her veins, as her mother’s family hailed from the Mexican state of Sonora. The James Beard Award winner opened her first Mexican restaurant, Mijita, in the San Francisco Ferry Building and then her second one, Arguello, in the Presidio. As a fervent fan of fried fish tacos, Des Jardins delivers an impeccable take on the Baja staple. The one offered at Arguello is roughly the same taco that she starting serving at Mijita in 2002. Crispy fish, cabbage slaw and pico de gallo come together to form this San Francisco favorite.

Go to: Arguello

Alma Cocina, Atlanta

With a name that translates to Soul Kitchen, this upscale restaurant is helmed by Executive Chef Chad Clevenger, whose passion for Mexican cuisine shines through in the traditional fish tacos on the menu here. His version stars crispy cod and a creamy cabbage slaw, wrapped up in a corn tortilla. Clevenger adds pickled jalapenos for heat and passion fruit vinegar for a bit of acidity. The tacos can be ordered off the lunch menu as a pair, which come with a side of rice and beans.

Photo courtesy of Alma Cocina

Go to: Alma Cocina

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