A Trip to California and an unforgettable food discovery.
The first time I had this soft tortilla shell stuffed with crispy, beer-battered cod topped with avocado salsa, pico de gallo, and slaw, I was hooked. The crispiness of the fish was irresistible. The soft flour taco a perfect bed meant to be loaded with creamy avocado, crunchy slaw, and the lime essential to the dish. I was with my son and grandson at Wahoo’s Fish Taco in Costa Mesa, CA. This local institution had been going strong since 1988. In true California fashion, this Mexican restaurant was the brainchild of 3 Chinese brothers who grew up in Brazil. Mingo, Wing, and Ed Lam were surfer dudes who ended up in California and opened up their first Wahoo’s, named for the fish. They now have 49 locations including one in Tokyo, Japan. The Lams may have appropriated the fish taco but they didn’t invent it. For that, you have to go to Baja California.
The Fish Taco made its debut in San Diego in 1983. But it’s likely been eaten for thousands of years.
A man named Ralph Rubio holds the distinction of having introduced the Baja Fish Taco to California itself. As a student on Spring Break from San Diego State, Rubio went surfing in the town of San Felipe on the Sea of Cortes in Baja California. In addition to consuming numerous ‘cervezas’, it turned out that fish tacos, cheap and fast to make, were Rubio’s main sustenance. Rubio was particularly fond of the version made at a hole-in-the-wall taco stand by a man named Carlos. In fact, he was so enamored of Carlos’s fish fried to order that Rubio tried to convince him to move to San Diego. Carlos refused but he did grant Rubio’s request for his recipe. Rubio scribbled it on a piece of paper he pulled from his wallet. A few years later, Rubio opened his eponymous restaurant. And he called it “Home of the Fish Taco”.
With their move north, the Baja Fish Taco went healthier—not necessarily tastier.
From the fryer, some California chefs moved their fish onto the grill. This more heart-friendly version may be healthier and they can taste fine, but really? The batter that the authentic recipe relies on is the flavor carrier here. Garlic, cayenne pepper, mustard powder, and Mexican Oregano are what give the otherwise bland codfish a boost in flavor. In terms of calories, the grilled version wins hands down. But in terms of both flavor and authenticity, the original beer-battered version wins our vote. Make the Avocado salsa first. Cover it with Saran wrap to keep it from going brown. I use store-bought pre-cut slaw tossed in olive oil and lime juice. I also used Trader Joe’s Chunky Salsa in lieu of the Pico de Gallo. Then finally, on to the fish itself. Be sure to have plenty of lime wedges on hand. They’re essential to the recipe. And we like ours with hot sauce for both heat and flavor. ¡Buen provecho! And after the recipe, some other Mexican specialties to try.
Baja Fish Tacos with Avocado Salsa and Slaw
Crispy, beer-battered cod is topped with avocado salsa, pico de gallo, and slaw on a soft flour tortilla.
- For the Avocado Salsa: 2 Hass avocados—halved, pitted and peeled
- 1/4 cup low-fat sour cream or Greek yogurt
- 1 small jalapeño, seeded and thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons minced red onion
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 5 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- For the Slaw:4 cups slaw mix
- 2 tbsp olive or other oil
- 2 tbsp. lime juice
- For the Beer Battered Fish:1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1⁄4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne
- 1⁄2 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1⁄2 teaspoon dried whole Mexican oregano, rubbed to a powder
- kosher salt
- 1⁄2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- 1 (12-ounce) bottle cold beer, plus more to thin the batter if necessary
- 1 lb firm meaty fish (cod, snapper, etc.)
- Freshly squeezed lime juice
- Vegetable oil (for deep frying)
- Step 1 Make the Avocado Salsa: In a medium bowl, mash the avocados, sour cream, jalapeño, red onion, cilantro and 3 tablespoons of the lime juice. Season the guacamole with salt and pepper and press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the guacamole.
- Step 2 Make the Slaw: In a large bowl, toss the cabbage with the 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil and the remaining 2 tablespoons of lime juice. Season with salt and pepper.
- Step 3 Make the batter: Whisk the flour, baking powder, garlic, cayenne, mustard, oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper until well blended. Stir in the beer until there are no lumps. (Batter may be made several hours ahead and refrigerated)
- Step 4 Trim the fish of all bloodlines, skin, and bones. Cut into pieces the size and shape of your index finger. Sprinkle with a few drops of lime juice and a little salt. (If not using immediately, wrap and refrigerate). Pour the oil into a deep, wide pan to a depth of 2 inches and heat over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. I use a thermometer, or you can drop a bit of batter into the oil and it should rise up quickly surrounded by little bubbles
- Step 5 Pat the fish dry with paper towels. Check the thickness of the batter by dipping in one piece of the fish. The batter should be the consistency of medium-thick pancake batter, coating the fish easily but dripping very little. Add a little beer if the batter seems too thick
- Step 6 Add the fish to the batter. Using tongs or chopsticks, swish each piece to make sure it is thoroughly coated, then lift out of the batter, let it drip once, and lay the fish gently into the hot oil. Cook a few pieces at a time until they float and the batter is set but still very light in color. If a piece sticks to the bottom, leave it alone and it will release itself.
- Step 7 Remove the fish to a rack to drain. Serve at once