I woke up dreaming of fish tacos—or rather, I woke up having just dreamt of fish tacos. Rarely do I spend my sleeping moments eating, although I would probably keep my stomach thinner and my wallet fatter if I did, and in such cases I take it as a sign. Luckily for me, I awoke in San Diego, which happens to be this country’s Mecca for fried fish in a tortilla topped with crema and cabbage. The craving was not completely out of thin air; earlier this month I finished reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s It Must Have Been Something I Ate, a collection of essays from the acclaimed Vogue food writer, and in one of the chapters Steingarten recounts his search for the best fish taco in Baja California. I didn’t feel like crossing the border at Tijuana nor driving out of my way to the much further Tecate Port of Entry, so my fish taco was to be a domestic one.
We are quick to take the advice of others when it comes to food—especially when it comes to food. If someone tells me to check out a new movie or a band, I may remember it or even bother to write it down and hope for the best later, but if I catch wind of a great burger, it better be on a plate in front of me within a few days. As such, we give a lot of credence to food writers and reviewers and trust them to inform our gastronomic habits. So I googled the “best fish taco in San Diego” and looked for the first credible source. While I admittedly often rely on Yelp, this was not the time for crowdsourced reviews plugged into an algorithm that rewards businesses that pay for advertising. This was a time for a culinary guide, and as it turned out, Joe Satran of the Huffington Post would be my Virgil. Satran had fortunately done the hard part for me and visited nearly 20 taquerías and rated them. I chose the one that offered the best blend of quality and proximity and his runner-up taco was the closest to me at a mere five miles away.
The drive to Bahía Don Bravo was a short and pleasant one on this California winter’s day—the kind of 72 degrees and sunny that the Mamas and the Papas sang about. Though a road closure put an extra two minutes between my tacos and me, it was hard to be too broken up about it while driving along the coast. Even the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” was playing on the radio as I found a parking spot. Bahía Don Bravo is an unassuming edifice on the corner of La Jolla Boulevard and Midway Street, just two blocks from the Pacific Ocean. While trying to be objective (and knowing full well that the idea of reviewing food is inherently subjective), I found myself set up to enjoy my meal based on the setting alone. After all, I’m sure the same fish taco tastes better along the California coast than it does in Duluth in February.
I ordered two classic fish tacos, each clocking in at $1.99, and a Negra Modelo on draft. I couldn’t help but notice that even at this little Mexican joint, with its six beer taps, one of them was reserved for Ballast Point’s Sculpin, the world-class IPA that has gone from specialty beer to near-ubiquity in about three years. While in hindsight, the citrus notes of that beer would have paired nicely with the tacos, at the time I was thinking auténtico and went with Mexico’s second best large-scale offering. For the record, they actually had our southern neighbor’s best mass production beer, Bohemia, but I felt inclined towards draft over bottle in this particular instance.
Barely had that first sip of dark lager passed over my tongue when order number 17 was called and my tacos were ready. They certainly looked the part: yellow corn tortillas enveloping the golden beer-battered cod, the milky white crema, and the subtle verdant shades of shredded cabbage. As a bonus, Bahía Don Bravo adds a small dollop of chunky pico de gallo on top of the edible package. I appreciated the slight rigidity of the tortillas which held the tacos upright without human intervention, yet completely retained their softness. I took a bite. In an instant, the craving of my dream was satisfied. The first impact was the textural interplay between the soft tortilla and the crunchy exterior of the fried fish—itself giving way to tender, juicy cod inside. The flavors were exactly what I was expecting in the best way possible. Savory fish, zesty crema, a hint of bitterness from the cabbage, and a host of different sources of sweetness from the tortilla, onions, and tomatoes had my taste buds working hard to catch up with my appetite. And, as if the variation in texture and flavor was not enough, the temperature of the taco’s components ranged from the almost-sizzling cod straight out of the fryer to the cool cabbage and crema, which nicely calmed the heat of the fish.
I find that the most enjoyable meals are ones that either extract a maximum of flavor from three or four ingredients or contain various different elements working in harmony with one another. Although not extremely complex, this was the latter. How can you not enjoy such a commixture of different flavors, textures, and temperatures? The experience was so pleasant that I nearly forgot to enjoy sipping my Negra Modelo between bites, but thankfully, I did not. I finished, craving and hunger both satisfied, and watched the world go by as I basked in the accomplishment of my day’s only goal.
I’ve had other fish tacos at places much more swanky that Bahía Don Bravo in both Los Angeles and San Diego—ones served on a plate rather than on a styrofoam tray—but to me, they don’t compare. And that’s okay. I’m grateful to live in a place where I can extract nearly as much pleasure from a five-dollar meal as from a prix fixe tasting menu, and where such restaurants can exist only blocks apart. It’s a nice reminder that sometimes, dreams come true.
Are there better fish tacos out there? Do you have a family recipe I should know about? If so, PLEASE let me know.