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. In Encinitas, 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 bundlesof 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 on our right. I was finding that 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.
Fish tacos weren't something I'd made before, and I felt I needed guidance. I headed to downtown San Diego to El Vitral, the 2010 winner of Riviera magazine's "Best Mexican Restaurant" award, 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 the flavors are clean 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, Norma said. Baja California, the home of the fish taco, is an eight-hundredmile-long peninsula dividing the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. It stands to reason that fish features prominently in the cuisine. According to Norma, Asian fishermen's wives began deep-frying their husband's catch in tempura and paired it with the 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 fish tacos' simple, inexpensive ease.
There are very few flavors in 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.