Written by Zaynab
I still remember the day I had my first taste of the ultimate culinary experience that is the almighty fish taco. It was 2009 and my bestie and I were road tripping the Pacific Coast Highway (route 101) from San Diego to San Francisco. We had just completed a one year internship in New York and were soon to be heading, begrudgingly, back home to London. This was before we had smart phones, before the concept of booking hotels online was the norm, before the age of reading 17 conflicting reviews of a food establishment ahead of making a supposedly informed decision on where to eat lunch, before avocados took over the world and before functioning adults would take pictures of their food (though I have always been guilty of this – being a fatty before it went mainstream).
And so in this context we set off without a clue where we were heading, stopping by random motels along the way (the good, the bad, and the oh so upsettingly ugly) and eating whatever looked good and en route. Up until earlier that year I had never been a fish and seafood lover, however being limited to Halal and vegetarian options only I found myself quite restricted when out for dinner with colleagues and friends in New York, as well as cooking at home with no nearby Halal butchers and so I ventured into the world of fish – red snapper, mahi mahi, baja fish, prawns, shrimp, mussels and oysters and what a glorious discovery that was.
So…road tripping through San Diego and out of gas we pulled up to a quintessential gas station complex by the side of the highway very close to the Mexican border and Tijuana. It was there that we found a hole in the wall type establishment with Mexican women working furiously in a production chain making corn tortillas, frying battered fish and adding all the trimmings. We ordered some fish tacos and what happened next was the start of a love affair like no other. The crunch of the fish battered to perfection, shredded cabbage, tangy red onions, spicy salsa kick, fresh coriander and so much more hit me over the head like divine revelation and from that day on I would seek out fish tacos wherever I went. I soon found this to be a frustrating endeavour however as it turns out it is really hard to find good fish tacos, especially back home in London. I shudder at the offensive attempts by the likes of Wahaca and others in my home city and reminisce with longing for the fish tacos like those I devoured on the West Coast, especially San Diego.
And so then, when a trip to New York came calling in Spring this year for my friend’s wedding I naturally decided to do a quick detour to the West Coast in search of the ultimate fish tacos in San Diego. In my hunger fuelled haste I did not fully appreciate the practicalities of this. A 10 hour flight from London to LAX. A further 5 hour flight to New York. A three hour time difference between the West and East coast. The fact they are both on opposite sides of the country, a country that is pretty huge to put it mildly. Nonetheless this was a holy pilgrimage for a holy cause and all the tribulations faced along the way will surely pale in the midst of such a worthy venture. I cannot emphasise enough that the purpose of my trip to San Diego was fish tacos and fish tacos alone, and so my itinerary was based around driving to fish taco spots, eating said fish tacos, then driving to the next fish taco spot on my hit list. Everything else was secondary and fitted in around fish tacos.
To choose the fish tacos I would prioritise I asked friends for recommendation, searched online and allowed room to play it by ear when there.
Oscar’s Mexican Seafood, San Diego
In San Diego we stayed in the trendy, central Glasslamp district with it’s fill of cafes and restaurants. As soon as we arrived we wanted to get our first taste for something close, local and highly recommended so we made our way to Oscar’s which everyone in central San Diego knows of. Oscar’s have 4 branches and we hit the East Village branch which was a short walk from where we were staying. It is a casual and trendy kind of place set in a repurposed warehouse and there was already a good number of people when we arrived at 11am. We went for the battered fish taco and the spicy grilled shrimp taco. Lot’s of extra sauces and condiments were available which I always appreciate and the tacos were topped with healthy sized toppings of tomatoes, cabbage, red onion and coriander. The tacos were delicious – fried authentic corn tortilla just how I like it, good battered fish, nice kick. This was a good start to our fish taco tour and got me restless to continue my culinary trip.
Bahia Don Bravo, La Jolla
The next stop was Bahia Don Bravo in the lovely area of La Jolla. We pulled up to your average looking bare boned Mexican restaurant on the side of the street and went in to find a no frills place that is obviously popular with a regular clientele. We ordered the grilled fish tacos which were delicious – very well flavored, beautiful texture, great tortilla and topped with the usual cabbage and tomatoes but with also a great white sauce. Bahia have a self serve station where you can help yourself to limes, coriander, fresh chilli and an array of condiments – always a winner for me. we washed it down with some Mexican cola and were now fully in the groove of our fish taco tour. This is a no nonsense place that just gets it right and I would definitely be a loyal customer if I only lived closer.
Southbeach Bar and Grill, Ocean Beach
Next up on our trip was Southbeach Bar and Grill. This place had been personally recommended to me and was one that kept coming up online. As we wanted to check out Ocean Beach we decided to add this to our list. The restaurant is located right on the beach boardwalk and it’s imposing size makes it impossible to miss. The interior feels like a dated bar that might exist in Brighton, UK but they have an outside balcony area upstairs with amazing views right onto the beach. We sat outside and ordered our tacos which happened to be on the happy hour menu. To say we were disappointed is an understatement – these are fish tacos by name only not by substance. The tortilla was a flimsy, halfhearted tortilla that served no purpose whatsoever as it neither tasted good nor able to carry the weight of the fish and salad. The fish, sauces, and salad were nothing special at all – the batter too thick, the fish did not have the crisp fresh taste that makes fish tacos so good. Unfortunately this was a case of a fish taco that just looks pleasant but was not made with any regard or care for taste. The views are great – but that is about it.
Wahoos, Various Locations
Driving around San Diego we kept coming across Wahoos, a tacos chain that we dismissed immediately. We sneered at the concept however on one of our drives around La Jolla hunger and intrigue got the better of us and we decided a quick try can’t hurt – and I’m so glad we did. Wahoo’s, it turns out, is a Mexican food chain mixed with Brazilian and Asian flavours (yum). It stared in California near the beach in Santa Mesa by three brothers with a love of surfing and tacos. Now there are Wahoo’s across California, Hawaii, Texas and even Japan. The vibe does not feel like a chain at all with a cool distinctly Californian surf atmosphere. The branch we went to was small, quirky with a staff made up of family members and some good menu options – you would never know they had more branches.
We ordered Cajun wild caught Salmon and it was so surprisingly good. Lesson learnt in not judging a food establishment by its chain status. I was skeptical about the salmon but it was so well flavoured and the cabbage slaw was really stand out – it tasted so refreshing, tangy and crisp. The green chilli coriander sauce was also a highlight. Wahoo’s definitely took us by surprise, just thinking of the wild salmon taco has me salivating!
Mariscos German Taco Truck, Beyer Blvd
Of course the quintessential food truck had to feature on our foodie hit list. This cornerstone of American street food is something I fell in love with when I lived in New York and I have had some of the best food from these no nonsense, practical food institutions. I had heard about the Marsiscos food truck, which is located very close to the Mexico border, and off we went. Located in a small –blink and you’ll miss it- driveway by some random shops off the highway it is very easy to miss (case in point). We pulled in and found a mix of soldiers, naval officers, police officers, nurses, doctors, Mexican workmen and others queuing and eating – a very good sign. We ordered spicy grilled fish tacos and waited patiently. By the side of the truck there are the usual self service extras like lime, coriander, pickled red onions and spicy salsas. When our order was ready we went and sat on a nearby brick wall midway between a group of soldiers and a group of police officers all there for one purpose – to eat fish tacos!
One bite in and my sister and I both turned to each other and declared this the best fish taco we had ever eaten, and are likely to ever eat in our lives, and it was the cheapest one of our trip! From the freshness of the fish grilled to perfection, to the spicy seasoning, the amazing slaw, the avocado, and the most amazing slightly pickled red onions mixed with coriander and chilli- everything came together to create the perfect fish taco, or even, the perfect food item imaginable. We devoured our taco and went back to order the battered fish taco which was amazing. I favoured the grilled fish taco and my sister the fried fish so we went back and got a further taco of our respective favourites. Everything here was amazing, the pickled onions were so good that I helped myself to a whole plate worth and just ate them by themselves. When we finished our tacos and ate every last morsel we both knew, instinctively, that this was the end of our fish taco tour – nowhere else could possibly compete, and what would be the point? We had reached a level of fish taco nirvana we were not sure even existed.
Rating: 5/5 (I would give it 10 out of 5 is that was mathematically possible)
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Zaynab is a born and bred Londoner who has a love for all things food and travel. By day a Risk Consultant in the Finance sector, outside of work Zaynab maintains a blog charting her travel and foodie adventures around the world.
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Written by Zaynab