February 26, 2024

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Fish Taco Origins

There really is no wrong way to make a fish taco. The fish can be grilled, fried, baked, sautéed, broiled, or even served raw. Potential toppings are too many to list. As long as everything is snuggled up inside a warm tortilla, you’ve got yourself a taco.

It’s believed that this culinary masterpiece originated in Baja, Mexico, when Asian traders introduced the tortilla-loving natives to the fine art of deep-frying. The dish became an integral part of the local cuisine, and it remained so for centuries. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Americans began to recognize the brilliance of this versatile preparation.

Meanwhile, surfing had become all the rage in southern California, and in particular, San Diego. The young surfers, often on tight budgets, began traveling south of the border to “chase the best swell.” 

San Felipe, a fishing village in Baja, Mexico, became a popular surf destination due to its warm, crystal-clear water, laid-back regulations, gnarly tubes, and close proximity to San Diego. It was there that a gentleman named Ralph Rubio first realized the fish taco’s potential.  I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ralph, who has since earned himself the title of “Fish Taco King.” He recounted stories from his early years and offered up some game-changing tips to improve my own fish tacos.

The year was 1973. Rubio, a freshman at San Diego State University, was invited to spend spring break surfing in San Felipe.

“San Felipe.  What’s that?” He remembers asking.

“We’re going to camp on the beach in Mexico, drink beer, dance, and party.” 

‘Well, sign me up!” He replied.

Where it all began: Ralph Rubio camping on the beach in San Felipe, Mexico, during spring break.

Rubio became infatuated with the makeshift stands selling beer-battered fried fish served in a warm tortilla topped with diced cabbage, Mexican crema, salsa, and lime. He recalled that the locals all used large woks to fry up the fish, remnants from their Asian influence. He devoured them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After returning to San Felipe for spring break a few years later, it dawned on him.  Why was no one serving fish tacos in San Diego? He asked the chef at his favorite taco stand, a guy named Carlos, if he wanted to move to San Diego and open up a restaurant together. However, Carlos was content running his own seaside taco shack, and politely declined. Not one to give up, Rubio asked Carlos for his fried fish recipe. The toppings, he figured, were easy enough to figure out, but the batter on Carlos’ fish was far superior to the other taco shacks in town.

Surprisingly, Carlos gave him the recipe, which Rubio jotted down on a piece of scrap paper: flour, mustard powder, garlic powder, oregano, black pepper, and beer.

After graduating from college, Rubio worked several different jobs for the following eight years, though he somehow had managed to hang on to that piece of scrap paper. Finally, in 1983, he built up the courage to ask his father for money to open a fish taco restaurant. At first, his father was reluctant. The idea of a fish taco doesn’t seem so strange nowadays, but in 1983, it sounded pretty bizarre to those Americans who hadn’t surfed south of the border.

Rubio’s father, himself a big fan of tasty fish tacos, eventually came around and offered Ralph $70,000 to get the business off the ground; but he had one condition: he would get a 50% stake in the business.

Ralph found a floundering Orange Julius location for sale near one of San Diego’s popular surfing locations. With the help of his family, he spent several months renovating the building. He also worked feverishly to fine-tune his fish taco recipe. He experimented with snapper, sea bass, and even thresher shark, but eventually settled on Alaskan pollock because of its flaky texture, affordable price, and mild flavor.

When he finally opened the doors, he had no idea what to expect.  Things got off to a slow start. The surfers and the college students became regulars, but the business was failing to attract an older, more affluent clientele. Over time, though, the buzz about Rubio’s and its exotic fish tacos grew. It became a surfside destination and people came from as far away as Los Angeles to experience them.

The original Rubio’s, opened in San Diego in 1983, is credited with being the first restaurant in the U.S. to serve fish tacos.

Over the next four years, Rubio’s brought in over $9 million in sales and expanded to 63 locations. By 1999, the number of locations had skyrocketed to 204. Rubio’s made the fish taco a quintessential part of San Diego’s cuisine, and it has become the city’s most iconic dish. Philadelphia has the cheesesteak, Maine has the lobster roll, and now in San Diego, you might see as many people eating fish tacos at a Padres game as those eating hot dogs.

Ralph Rubio, “The Fish Taco King,” with his wife, Dione, at a grand opening for another Rubio’s in 1989.

I’m not quite sure when fish tacos became popular on the East Coast, but it is a relatively new phenomenon. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I tried my first one, and I have been obsessed with them ever since. They are perhaps the most versatile fish recipe out there; you can make them with just about any kind of fish and they work with a diverse array of toppings. (I’m pretty sure I have never prepared them the same way twice.)

Speaking with Ralph Rubio provided me with a wealth of fish taco insight. We spoke of the chain’s highly acclaimed white sauce, which diners still rave about to this day. I asked him for the recipe, and much to my own surprise, he gave it to me.

“It’s just sour cream and mayonnaise, pretty much half and half. We don’t add anything else to it.”

I would never have thought to incorporate mayo in a fish taco. Brilliant. I tried it, and it does add a richness that pairs well with the crispy fish.

He also clued me in on another taco tip. Rubio’s best-selling taco is their Especial. It is served with cheese (a mix of Monterey jack and cheddar). In the past, I had always used Mexican cojita cheese because I somehow believed it was authentic. But to be honest, it doesn’t have much flavor and the texture is kind of rubbery. I am now a big fan of mild cheddar cheese in my fish tacos.

Lastly, Ralph turned me on to salsa picante. He claimed it was his favorite condiment to add to a fish tac, so I tried it. It is magical and adds the perfect amount of heat.

Click to watch Andy make fried fish tacos with homemade tortillas.

Game-Changer: Making Your Own Tortillas

If you want to bring your fish taco skills to a whole new level, make your own tortillas. Homemade tortillas are tender, soft, hearty, flavorful, and they’re not that hard to make. They are also healthier than most store-bought tortillas, many of which are made with lard. My wife prefers corn tortillas, while I like flour. A few years back, I decided to compromise and I now make 50/50 corn/flour tortillas whenever I prepare fish tacos.

50/50 Tortillas

(Makes about 8 tortillas) 

  • 1 cup Masa Harina (corn flour)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons warm water
KooK Cast-iron Tortilla Press $28

In a large bowl, add the dry ingredients and whisk together. Add the water and olive oil, then knead the dough until it’s the consistency of Play-Doh. (It should be moist and clump together when pressed into a ball, not sticky.) Cover the bowl and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Preheat cast-iron skillet on medium heat for about 8 minutes. Pinch off a clump of dough about the size of a golf ball and roll it into a smooth ball.

Cut a gallon zip-close bag around the perimeter to make two sheets. Place one sheet on the bottom of a tortilla press, add the dough ball in the center, and place the second plastic sheet on top. (The plastic keeps the dough from sticking to the press.) Press the lever until the dough is flattened into a tortilla. It might take a few tries to figure out the right amount of pressure needed, but if you mess one up, just roll the dough back into another ball. If you don’t have a tortilla press, you can use a rolling pin, but the press makes things go a lot quicker.

Give the skillet a quick blast of cooking spray, add a tortilla, and spray the top of the tortilla with the cooking spray. Flip after 45 to 60 seconds and cook the second side for the same amount of time. Remove to a plate and cover with a towel to keep warm.

While traditional Baja-style fish tacos are beer-battered and deep-fried, I find that breading the fish and pan-frying it is quicker and easier, and the final result is almost as tasty. However, if you have the time and don’t mind the mess, deep-frying will produce the ultimate fish taco. 

Depending on the fish I have on hand, I’m also a fan of blackened fish tacos, which I believe are better suited for oily fish like bluefish, salmon, tuna, and mahi. Following are recipes for all three styles.

Baja-Style Fish Taco

Baha-Style Fish Tacos

Serves 8

  • 1 pound catch of the day, cut into 4-inch strips
  • 14 ounces beer (lager is ideal)
  • 1 1/2 cup flour (plus more for dusting)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon mustard powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Canola oil for frying

TOPPINGS:

  • Shredded green cabbage
  • Salsa
  • Cheddar cheese (optional)
  • Salsa picanté
  • Rubio’s white sauce (half sour cream, half mayonnaise)
  • Lime wedges

Pour 3 inches of oil into a heavy pot (or even better, an electric deep fryer) and heat it up to 350 degrees.

Whisk together the dry ingredients and then stir in the beer until the batter is smooth. It should be the consistency of pancake batter.  Add an additional 1/2 cup flour to a plate. Lightly salt your fish, roll it around in the plate with the flour, dip the fish in the batter until it’s completely covered, and then gently drop it into the 375° oil. Cook until golden brown, about three minutes. Your eyes and ears are the best way to tell when it’s done, so listen carefully – when the bubbling, hissing, and popping begin to subside, the fish is done. Remove it and let it rest for a minute on a wire rack. Assemble your tacos with toppings of your choice and pig out. 

Super-Crispy Pan-Fried Fish Tacos

Serves 4

  • 1 pound catch of the day
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup regular breadcrumbs
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1 1-ounce packet taco seasoning mix
  • Canola oil
  • Salt and pepper

Cut the fillets into 12 taco-sized strips about 5 inches long by 1 inch wide. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Put the flour on a plate and blend in the taco seasoning with a fork. Beat the eggs in a shallow bowl. Mix the breadcrumbs and panko on another plate.

Dip the fish first into the flour, then coat with egg, and then press into the breadcrumbs until well coated. Now, dip it back into the egg, then back into the breadcrumbs. (Double-dipping will make it super-crispy.) Put the breaded fish on a platter and refrigerate for a half hour (this helps the breading adhere to the fish).

Pour ¼ inch of oil into a skillet or electric frying pan and heat to 360 degrees. Fry the fish for about 2 minutes per side and then remove to a metal drying rack. (If you are using an air fryer, spray the fish on both sides with cooking spray, and air fry for about 12 minutes, flipping halfway through.)

Meanwhile, wrap the tortillas in damp paper towels and heat them up in the microwave on high for 45 seconds.

Assemble your tacos with toppings of your choice and don’t forget to give them a squirt of lime juice. So good! 

Blackened Fish Tacos

Serves 2

  • Thin fish fillets cut into 3-ounce taco-sized strips
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 ounce (1/2 jar)  Chef Prudhomme’s Blackened Redfish Magic, or:
    • 1 tablespoon paprika
    • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
    • 1 teaspoon onion powder
    • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
    • 1 teaspoon cayenne
    • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
    • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Taco toppings of your choice
  • Tortillas, warmed

When the skillet is heated, carefully place the fillets inside, being careful not to crowd them, and then stand back! Now, top each fillet with a spoonful of melted butter, which will really get things crackling. Cook, uncovered, until the underside is blackened (but not burnt!), about 2 minutes. Flip the fillets and again add a bit more butter on top. Cook until done, about 1 to 2 minutes more. Transfer to warmed plates.

If you’re cooking more than one batch, make sure to wipe out the pan before adding more fish.

Serve in a warm tortilla with toppings of your choice.

MAKING SALSA PICANTE

  • 1 cup fresh Roma tomatoes, chopped (canned will work in a pinch)
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeds removed
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • Juice from 1 lime
  • Cayenne pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Toss everything in a food processer and blend until smooth. Give it a taste and add cayenne pepper, a little at a time, until the heat level is where you like it. (Or, add more tomato sauce if it is too spicy.) Next, season it with salt to taste.

Add the sauce to a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Cool and store in sterilized jars or refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

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The post Fish Taco Origins first appeared on On The Water.

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