Searching for the Perfect Fish Taco, Baja-Style

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 By Nancy Gerlach — Photos by Jeff Gerlach  

Searching for the Perfect Fish Taco, Baja-Style

Recipe Index:

Fish Taco, Baja-Style

Marinated Guero Chiles

Salsa Verde

Chile Piquin Salsa

Crema Mexicana

Avocado Salsa

Jalapeños en Escabeche

Photo: Anchorage – A shot from
the road on the east coast of the Baja

Late in the spring of 2001, my husband Jeff and I, sorely in need of some R & R, dragged out our battered atlas to see it we could find somewhere to vacation that was both exotic and close to home in Albuquerque. Once we remembered that we had business to attend to in Southern California, the choice became obvious: Baja California. We could simply drive directly south into Baja California and explore that lesser known area of Mexico. From the limited information we could find, the Baja seemed to have just what we were looking for including incredible scenery, crystal clear waters, white sand beaches, loads of sunshine, and an incredible array of seafood, including the legendary Baja seafood taco. So we picked up a map, a tour book, and a book called Cooking with Baja Magic, and set out to find both the perfect seafood taco and a quiet beach to relax on for a few days.

There is a reason that there is little written about this region. For centuries, this land was accessible only to explorers, rugged adventurers, or sports fishermen with access to a small plane or large boat. It was only with the completion of the paved Transpeninsular Highway in 1973, that it has been possible for tourists to travel the 1,000 plus miles to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip, on the Tropic of Cancer. However, even with the highway, much of the Baja still remains isolated and unpopulated, consisting mostly of rugged mountains (up to 10,000 feet tall), along with 800 miles of harsh desert, with few facilities for travelers.

Another shot of the sea from the road on the east coast

Another shot of the sea from
the road on the east coast

 

 

The peninsula is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Sea of Cortez, also called the Gulf of California, to the east. With all the twists, turns, coves, and bays, there are between 2,000 and 3,000 miles of coastline, most of which have undeveloped, unspoiled, deserted beaches. The Sea of Cortez alone is home to over 800 varieties of fish, and when you add in all the marine life found on the Pacific side, the total comes to nearly 3,000. From shrimp to marlin and sailfish, it’s no wonder the Baja boasts some of the some of the best offshore and deep sea fishing in the world.

The history of the Baja is almost as sparse as some of the landscape. When the Spanish explorer Cortez landed near what is now La Paz in 1535, it was so hot that he described the area as a “calida fornax” or hot furnace–which, some say, later became the name California. There is a more romantic version that has the name coming from a novel about a barbaric queen, named Califa, and her band of female warriors who ruled the “Isle of Baja”, which was reportedly covered with gold and pearls. Cortez’s effort to establish a settlement there, as well as those who were lured there by Califa’s treasure, were all defeated by the environment. It was not until the arrival of the Jesuits in 1697 that a settlement was established in Loreto. The Jesuits were expelled from Mexico in 1767 and replaced by the Franciscans, who founded a chain of missions in 1769 that would reach up to and affect the colonization of Alto (upper or U.S.) California.

At the turn of the century, miners searching for deposits of gold, silver, and copper tried to conquer the area, but they too were no match for the environment. During the 1920s and Prohibition in the U.S., the Mexican border towns of Tijuana, Rosarito Beach, and Ensenada prospered from rich Americans and Hollywood stars who came to gamble, drink, and party. Prosperity ended with the repeal of Prohibition and the Mexican government ban on gambling. These boisterous, party towns became quiet, fishing, agricultural towns once again, and the area became a haven to American retirees. Only the hardy and foolhardy, on motorcycles or ATVs, tackled the interior. But the Transpenisnular Highway finally conquered the environment and opened up the area. Big business has moved in, building resorts, restaurants, and golf courses, and portions of the Baja are experiencing the promise of wealth in the form of tourist dollars.

Food stalls in Ensenada featuring fish tacos

Several of the many food stalls
in Ensenada featuring fish tacos

 

 

The first stop in our quest was Ensenada on the Pacific side. The city has had a boom and bust history first as the capital of the region and important shipping center during the gold rush years, and then as a party town during Prohibition. It has since grown into one of the leading seaports in Mexico, and boasts the largest fish market in the Baja. It’s no wonder it is the reputed birthplace of the fish taco. Although I’d made many trips to Ensenada during my college years, I don’t remember fish tacos. But then I never got much further than Hussong’s Cantina. Established in 1892, it’s the oldest bar in both Californias, and is still popular with college students and the thousands of passengers that embark from cruise ships that use Ensenada as a port-of-call.

Fish tacos are advertised at restaurants throughout the city, and many claim that their taco is the original. However, the best place to sample them is at any of the small food stands that line the streets around the Mercado Negro, Ensenada’s incredible fish market. Many of these mini restaurants are accessible from the both sides of the street and you can sit, either indoors or outside, at long tables and order fish tacos, one at a time, until you’ve had your fill. The tacos as served are simply small pieces of batter-coated, fried fish in a hot corn or wheat tortilla. The batter is very light and reminiscent of a tempura, which gives credence to the story that the original recipe came from one of the many Japanese fishermen that work the waters off the coast.

The real treat with these fish tacos comes from the many condiments that line the tables. Large bowls of tomatillo salsa, red chile salsa, Mexican crema, radishes, chopped onions, tomatoes and cilantro, and shredded cabbage to name a few, all grace the table. Yes, cabbage sounds odd, but it is a very popular all over Mexico as it holds up in the heat much better than lettuce. Commercial bottles of salsa are also available, but with all the fresh sauces, who needs them? The tacos were wonderful, but so were the ceviche tosadas, the champancha which is a mixed seafood cocktail, and the spicy fresh fish diablo, or fish cooked with garlic, butter, and chile .

Did we find taco perfection at our first stop? Hard to say as we had many more places to visit and hopefully many more tacos to eat. So we headed further south through the cool, lush, coastal valleys filled with vegetable farms and vineyards, and then inland to the small town of El Rosario, at the gateway to the Vizcaino Desert. It’s here where, for many years, Doña Anita Espinoza has been providing a haven for adventurous travelers in the form of rooms, updates on road conditions, and her famous lobster burritos and omelets, as well as other seafood dishes.

The lobster dinner at the El Candil restaurant in Mulege

The lobster dinner at the
El Candil restaurant in Mulege

 

 

 

Because we had left the coast, fish tacos had disappeared, but since we were staying at Mama Espinoza’s place I was up for trying one of her burritos. We started our meal with an appetizer of shredded crab, which was sweet and tasty with just a hint of crunchiness from celery. When my burrito arrived I was glad I still had a big appetite, because it was a whole meal. Chunks of fresh lobster meat were mixed with a number of ingredients including, I believe, some green chile. However, none of the ingredients overpowered the taste of the lobster, and although it wasn’t hot and spicy, it was wonderfully delicious. The burrito was wrapped in a thin, Sonoran-type wheat tortilla which I love, and fried on a grill. All in all, a memorable meal and highly recommended.

I could have stayed for a few more meals, but we had read several recommendations for a small place in Santa Rosalia that supposedly served the best fish tacos in Baja California. So off we went, across the peninsula to Santa Rosalia on the Sea of Cortez. Before the completion of the Transpeninsular Highway, El Rosario was referred to the last point of civilization before tackling the arduous and often treacherous dirt road south. Although the road is now paved, it can still be a treacherous drive, believe me! I had my eyes closed on more than one of the cliff-hugging, hairpin curves as we climbed up and down the mountains.

Traveling inland from the coast to El Rosario, the terrain had changed from the lush coastal valleys to more rugged and barren vistas that I had associated with the area. But no descriptions could have prepared us for what was to come. Heading inland from El Rosario, we climbed up rugged mountains and traveled through hot, arid valleys literally covered with cactus. We were traveling through virtual forests of cactus, many of which only grow in this area. We found ourselves stopping frequently, simply to wander through and gape at all the incredible cacti.

Cactus along side the road

Cactus along side the road including
both cardon cacti and cirio (boojum) trees

 

 

 

Hundreds of varieties of desert plants grow in the Baja, including the giant cardon, which closely resembles the saguaros of Arizona. The most unusual was clearly the cirio tree, which is found nowhere else in the world. Also called “boojum” trees, they have wide bases and tall barkless trunks that taper to a point, shaped something like an inverted carrot. Some of the larger, older ones have whip-like limbs that wave in the wind. All I could think of was the old black and white horror movie, The Day of the Triffids. Very bizarre. After many hours and many miles, we finally caught our first glimpse of the Sea of Cortez before descending the Cuesta del Infierno, or Road to Hell, the steepest grade on the entire highway, down to the coast and Santa Rosalia.

This very unique town is located on the bay where the ferry from Guaymas on the Mexican mainland docks. Established and built in 1885 by a French copper mining company, it’s the only French presence in the Baja. It’s built in the French colonial architectural style with wood frame buildings and balconies, very similar to New Orleans. Walking around the town, you can easily forget you are in Mexico until you see all the Tecate beer signs.

We were looking for Pepe, a small cart vendor, to try his famous fish and shrimp tacos as well as his ceviche and shrimp cocktails. And there he was, right as we entered town, along the north side of the Parque Morelos. But by the time we had found a room, cleaned up, and bought a couple of cold ones to enjoy with our tacos (Pepe’s is a BYOB), he had closed up for the evening. We were after all, at the end of the tourist season. Our second choice was The El Muelle restaurant near the town plaza where we, of course, ordered fish. (Because seafood tacos require numerous bowls of condiments, they are served almost exclusively at speciality carts and stands, not in restaurants.)

My entree choice was the Pescado Estillo de la Casa figuring you can’t go wrong with the fish speciality of the house. And I didn’t. My triggerfish fillet was marinated with fresh lime juice and sprinkled with a mild chile powder, smothered with chopped green bell pepper and possibly some jalapeños, topped with Mexican asadero cheese, and then wrapped and baked in foil. It was served, hot from the oven in its packet which was opened at the table. Jeff chose the pan-fried triggerfish fillet. It was done perfectly and so large that it literally didn’t fit on the plate. No mouth-burner, but another wonderful, memorable meal, which in Jeff’s words he would go out and buy right now if he could.

The road south from Santa Rosalia follows the coast with absolutely breath taking scenery. Here on the east side of the peninsula where there is little rain along with extreme heat, the view to the west is of many hued mountains and desert cactus and to the east is the warm, clear waters of the Sea of Cortez, with cactus “marching” down to shores. It seemed like we had to stop and take a picture with each twist and turn of the road. And after a short ride, we rounded a bend and there was an incredible palm-lined river valley running out to the sea. Perched next to this tropical paradise was our next destination, Mulege (pronounced moo-la-hey.)

Every year on October 2nd, this small town becomes the capital of Baja California Sur for a day. It was on this date in 1847 that the town successfully defended itself from North American invaders during the Mexican American War. What’s ironic is that the town wasn’t successful with the second wave of North Americans invaders who, after finding their way to Mulege, have made it their permanent home. The river valley, or Gringo Gulch, is lined with the homes of ex-pats and retirees, which range from the very elegant to those that can be hitched to the back of truck. Why they even have an annual chili cookoff here! We had high hopes for muy picante seafood and great fish tacos.

The El Candil restaurant next to Donna Moe’s Pizza had been recommended, so we searched it out. There we had a wonderful, chile-free meal of fresh lobster and fresh fish Mojo Ajo, or smothered with garlic. Afterwards we sat in the patio area by our room relaxing and lamenting over the lack of chiles we had encountered on this trip. In the tiny outdoor market in Santa Rosalia we had seen some serranos, and red and green guero chiles, and we had been served some jalapeños, but we were beginning to wonder about fresh chiles in the Baja. It was then I looked up and noticed a plant across the courtyard. Could it be? Yes, it was a chiltepin chile plant covered in hot, hot red chiles. On closer inspection, there were a number of chile plants growing there and some were obvious mutations, with the chiles hanging down instead of being upright. So, if chiles are growing in the Baja, we figured the locals must eat more than just commercial chile products and salsas, and must like at least some hot food.

Since we had not yet found the white sand beach that we were searching for, we headed south the next day, although leaving huge, $11.00 lobster dinners was hard. I hate to go on and on about the beauty of the Baja, but it seemed that a new incredible vista would emerge every time we went around a corner. Wide, sandy beaches were dotted with campers in tents or travel trailers and yachts of all sizes were anchored in the azure blue waters of the coves. Because, for many years, this area was accessible to only the adventurous traveler or those with planes or boats, outside of the larger towns and cities there were far more places to camp or drop anchor than accommodations for the casual traveler. We decided that we would keep driving and looking for the perfect spot or, until we reached La Paz which would be our final destination. And then in the distance, less than an hour from Mulege, we saw a bay with an assortment of buildings on a wide white beach.

We hoped we had found what we were looking for because it sure looked like paradise! The Hotel San Buenaventura is on the Bay of Conception and sits on a perfect beach with thatch covered umbrellas called palapas. We were in luck, as they had rooms complete with hot water and air conditioning, and since it was getting too hot for the American tourists and not hot enough for the Europeans, we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves. The bay also included a cluster of houses built by Americans as retirement or vacation homes, a few camping sites, and a restaurant and bar.

Since we were really hungry for a fresh grilled fish sandwich for lunch, one item that wasn’t on the menu, we were introduced to Felix, nicknamed “Rocco,” the chef. After hearing our request he said “no problem, I can do that.” He did and it was delicious. So at dinner when I ordered the fresh crab quesadillas, I asked Rocco if he could spice it up with some jalapeños, and again no problem, and again delicious. We talked with Rocco after dinner about hot food and chile and he did say that the locals do eat chiles, but with the exception of condiments, you don’t find hot food in restaurants.

He said his favorite chile was one he called an arbol, and then went to get us some from his personal stash. The chiles were small, very hot, slightly round and almost heart shaped, rather than long and thin like the chiles we call arbols. But then we all know the problems with chile nomenclature. He also liked an habanero-based commercial salsa and the cascabel-based Salsa Huichol, which has been my favorite Mexican salsas for years and is found in most restaurants in the Baja.

We spent the next four days sitting under a palapa on our own “almost private” beach, reading or gazing at the warm, crystal clear, turquoise water. When it got too hot, especially when the wind was blowing off the desert, we went for a swim. The biggest decisions we had to make were: do we go for a swim before or after breakfast, have a beer before or during lunch, and do we take the short ride to Mulege for a lobster dinner or go to the restaurant here for another wonderful meal prepared by Rocco? At night we sat on the beach with a beer or two, star-gazing at the incredible display above us. Life is hard in paradise. But as they say, all things must end. We needed to return home and leave La Paz and points further south for another visit.

We planned on stopping for lunch in Guerrero Negro, the last town of any size before traveling north through the cactus forests of the interior. The town was named after an American whaling ship, the Black Warrior, that sank off the coast in the 1850’s. Whales have played an important part of the town’s history and it’s here that the Laguna Ojo de Liebre, better known as Scammon’s Bay, is located. Scammon was a whaler who discovered that this was the mating and birthing site for California gray whales, and he nearly wiped out the entire population with his whaling. These days crowds of tourists come to watch the whales that travel 6,000 miles from cold waters of the Bering and Chukchi seas to warm waters of Baja. They sure don’t come to see the world’s largest evaporative salt-works, which is also located here.

So we cruised the Blvd. Zapata, the long main street of town lined with wonderful taco stands, looking for the one in which we had enjoyed carne asada sopes on the trip south. We passed it on our first try, and had made a U-turn when we saw Leonelly’s, a stand advertising fish tacos. Since we were still searching for the perfect fish taco, we stopped. It was set up like most others with a counter of condiments and seating at the counter or tables. As usual, the cook takes your order one taco at a time. When finished with the meal, you’re given a ticket which you take to a neighboring building, usually a small grocery store, to pay. These establishments are very sanitation-conscious and don’t want the people that handle food, to handle the money. Leonelly, a friendly, affable lady, as well as great cook, was willing to chat and share recipes with us.

Nancy and Leonelly at Leonelly’s taco stall

Nancy and Leonelly, the cook, at
Leonelly’s taco stall,
in Guerrero Negro,
where we found the perfect fish taco

 

 

On the counter, along with the usual selection of condiments including jalapeños en escabeche, were chiles marinated in a soy sauce. We had developed a taste for these in Puerto Peñasco, anther Baja town, but here the chiles were fresh jalapeños, where previously we’d had them made with fresh arbols. So we sat at the counter and watched while Leonelly whipped-up the batter and prepared the tacos in a traditional disca, a large metal disc resembling a wok, originally used for working soil. The fish was sweet and succulent and the batter light and crunchy. And it was here at this small stand, that we found the perfect fish taco.

We ate these delicious fish tacos until we nearly made ourselves sick, and were so stuffed that we didn’t eat again until the next morning. But for the perfect fish taco, could we do any less? As we crossed back into the U.S. the next day, we realized that we had not only found a beach in paradise along with the perfect fish taco, but we had also met many friendly, helpful people and enjoyed a wide variety of savory seafood meals in a rugged and often desolate, yet breathtakingly beautiful corner of the world.

The following are recipes for you to create a Baja-style fish taco buffet. Be sure to include a bowl of radishes, chopped cucumbers, shredded cabbage, and a mixture of finely diced tomatoes, onions, and cilantro on your buffet table.



Recipes

Fish Taco, Baja-Style

The batter used to coat the fish varied with the cook but the wok-shaped disc seemed to be the pan of choice for frying the fish. This very easy recipe is the one that Leonelly used for fish that was crisp and tasty, with the flavor of the fish not being overpowered by the coating. Some cooks swear that you must use shark fillets, but any firm white fish works well.

  • 1 large lime

  • 4 white fish fillets, cut in strips about 1-inch wide

  • 2 eggs

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour

  • Salt

  • Vegetable oil for frying

  • 8 corn tortillas

Cut the lime in half and squeeze the juice over fish. Allow the fish marinate while preparing the batter.

To make the batter, break the eggs in a bowl and whisk. While mixing with a fork, gradually add only enough flour to form a thin batter. Season with the salt.

Pour the oil to depth of 1 to 2-inches, depending on the thickness of the fish, in a heavy skillet or wok. Heat the oil over medium-high heat to a temperature of 365 degrees.

Dip the fish in the batter and let the excess drip off. Carefully slide the fish in the oil and fry until the fish is done, about 3 minutes and the batter is golden brown, turning once. Remove and drain on paper towels.

Wrap the tortillas in a towel and microwave on high for 30 seconds.

Place the fish in the tortillas and serve. Allow guests to create their own combinations of the following toppings.

Yield: 4 servings



Marinated Guero Chiles

This is Leonelly’s recipe for soy-marinated chiles. She served these made with jalapeños, but said they were best made with guero chiles. Could the use of soy sauce be a further indication of the Japanese influence on the cuisine of the Baja? Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 2 dozen fresh guero chiles or substitute fresh jalapeños or chile de arbols

  • 2 thin slices of onion, separated into rings

  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce

  • 1 tablespoon lime juice, fresh preferred

Pour a little of the oil in a heavy skillet and heat over a medium-high heat until hot. Add the chiles and onion and saute until the chiles start to blister and the onions are soft. Remove the pan from the heat and season the mixture with the garlic salt and pepper..

In a small nonreactive bowl, combine the remaining oil, soy sauce, and lime juice and mix well. Add the chiles and onions and toss to coat well. Cover the bowl and marinate for 24 hours before serving.

Yield: 24 chiles

Heat Scale: Medium to Hot

 



Salsa Verde (Green Tomatillo Sauce)

Tomatillos, also called Mexican husk tomatoes or green tomatoes, aren’t tomatoes and don’t even taste like them. They have a tangy, citrus-like taste that can at times be very tart. This sauce can be used with and on other foods, or can also be served as a salsa with chips.

  • 1 pound tomatillos, husks removed, chopped or substitute one 11-ounce can of tomatillos, drained

  • 1/2 cup diced white onions

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 3 serrano chiles, stems and seeds removed, minced

  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

  • Sugar to taste

  • Salt to taste

Combine the tomatillos, onion, garlic, and chiles in a small, heavy saucepan and heat over medium heat until the tomatillos start to soften. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the mixture for a couple of minutes until the tomatillos are soft, but still colorful. Adjust the seasonings.

Put the mixture in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.

Pour the sauce into a bowl, stir in the cilantro and serve.

Yield: 2 to 2 1/2 cups

Heat Scale: Medium



Chile Piquin Salsa

  • This salsa is served either smooth or as a salsa that has texture. It’s best made with fully ripe tomatoes, but if they aren’t available, canned tomatoes can be substituted. The flavor of the salsa is better made with canned, rather than under-ripe tomatoes.

  • 2 tablespoons crushed chile piquin, including seeds

  • 6 roma tomatoes, chopped or substitute 2 cups canned tomatoes

  • 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce

  • 1 small onion, chopped

  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder

  • 2 teaspoons sugar

  • Pinch ground cumin

  • Pinch oregano, Mexican preferred

  • Salt to taste

In a mixing bowl, cover the chiles with 1 cup of very hot water and let steep for a couple of minutes.

In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the remaining ingredients with the chile, and chile water and simmer for a couple of minutes. If the salsa is too thick, thin with water or broth to desired consistency. Season to taste.

Pour the salsa into a bowl and allow to sit at room temperature for an hour to blend the flavors before serving. For a smooth salsa, put the salsa into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth, adding additional liquid is needed.

Yield: 2 cups

Heat Scale: Hot



Crema Mexicana

This sauce tops all types of dishes in Mexico and is much lighter and tastier than sour cream. Half and half can be substituted for the cream if you desire an even lighter sauce. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

  • ½ pint heavy cream

  • 2 tablespoons buttermilk

  • Put the ingredients into jar and stir to mix. Cover the jar with plastic
    wrap set in warm place, around 70 to 80 degrees, for 6 hours. Then place in the refrigerator for 8 hours or overnight.

  • Stir the cream before serving.

  • Yield: 1 cup



Avocado Salsa

Many of the small stands included this on the condiment table. We found that it complemented both beef and fish tacos.

  • 2 medium avocados, pitted and peeled

  • 3 serrano chiles, stems and seeds removed, chopped

  • 1/4 cup chopped onion

  • 2 tablespoons lime juice, fresh preferred

  • Salt to taste

  • Chopped fresh cilanto

Put all the ingredients, except the cilantro, into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.

Pour the mixture into a bowl, garnish with the cilantro and serve.

Yield: 2 cups

Heat Scale: Medium



Jalapeños en Escabeche

(Pickled Jalapeños)

This is a very traditional condiment all over Mexico and the Southwest. The canned versions of these jalapeños are more commonly served, but these are much tastier. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 small white onion, thinly sliced

  • 8 to 10 jalapeños, left whole

  • 4 cloves garlic

  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced

  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred

  • 2 bay leaves

  • Salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • ½ cup cider vinegar

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat until hot. Add the onion and chiles and saute the mixture until the onions soften and the chiles start to roast. Remove from the heat.

Pour ½ cup water into a saucepan and add the carrots and herbs and salt and pepper to taste. Bring the mixture to just under boiling, reduce the heat and simmer until the carrots are tender but still slightly crisp, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Pour the carrot mixture along with the water into a bowl, add the vinegar and stir to mix. Add the onions and jalapeños and toss to coat. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving.

Yield: 2 cups

Heat Scale: Hot

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