Food & Drink

Fish Tacos in San Diego

Searching the Coast


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.

FISH TACOS (serves 6)

  • Corn Tortillas
  • 1 ¾ cups masa harina
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 1 1/3 cups hot water
  1. Knead the masa, sea salt, vegetable oil and hot water until thoroughly combined. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes.
  2. Heat a flat-bottomed sauté pan on medium-high.
  3. Test the dough: It should feel soft and pliable but not sticky; add more water or masa if necessary. Divide the dough into 12 pieces and roll each into a ball. Cover with plastic.
  4. Slice a Ziplock bag in two and use it to prevent sticking in the tortilla press. Lay a dough ball between the two halves of plastic in the center of the press, gently flatten it, and close the press.
  5. Open the press and peel away the plastic. Gently place the tortilla on the hot pan. After 30 seconds, flip the tortilla with a spatula and repeat.
  6. As you make them, transfer each tortilla to a basket or plate, and cover with a damp towel to steam and keep warm.

Mexican Coleslaw

  • 6 tomatillos, rinsed and halved
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 jalapeño, deseeded
  • ¼ cup cilantro
  • ½ small white onion, chopped
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ head cabbage, shredded thin
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  1. In a heavy-bottomed sauté pan over high heat, place the tomatillos (cut side down), onion and garlic clove in one layer. Sauté for 5 minutes until charred, turn over and repeat. Place tomatillos, onion, garlic, jalapeño, cilantro, lime and olive oil in a food processor and blend to a coarse puree.
  2. Toss with shredded cabbage and sea salt.

Beer-Battered Mahi-Mahi

  • 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
  • 1 egg
  • ¾ cup beer
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter
  • 1 quart canola oil for frying
  1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sea salt, black pepper and baking powder. Blend the egg, milk and beer, then quickly stir into the flour mixture.
  2. Heat oil in a deep-fryer to 375 degrees.
  3. 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
  • Garnish
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro leaves
  1. Build fish tacos out of warm corn tortillas, deep-fried fish, and coleslaw. Drizzle crema over the top and garnish with cilantro leaves.

Want to Stay In the Loop?

Stay up to date with the latest articles, news and all things boating with a FREE subscription to Marinalife Magazine!

Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Marinalife articles