For the past 11 years whenever someone would ask me what I missed most about California, my instantaneous response was “FISH TACOS!” Seeing a look of confusion and disbelief on many faces, I often would back-pedal and mention how I ached to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean or wax rhapsodic about cloudless skies and endless sunshine; but, in the end, all I wanted were tacos. So, when it came time to decide what I wanted for my first birthday dinner back in San Diego, it was not a hard choice.
My new friends did not let me just choose any fish taco. They strongly suggested that I try Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill, which (as it sounds) allows you to preview and choose from the catch of the day and have it prepared to your liking – marinated and served as an entrée with rice, made into a sandwich or taco-fied. The restaurant is very informal – you order from the counter staff before grabbing one of the few available picnic table seats and anxiously wait for your dinner to be delivered. If you would rather cook at home (or just slice, their sashimi-grade fish was beautiful) whatever seafood is fresh and available is on sale at market prices.
As the birthday girl, I put in my request for two tacos and went to grab our table as the rest of my group discussed appetizers, ordered beer and divvied up the bill. Despite the mellow atmosphere and service (food comes in plastic baskets with plastic utensils), this place definitely takes its food seriously. First up we received our appetizers: housemade ceviche, fried calamari, fries and onion rings.
Growing up in a fishing town on the coast of California gave me the (misguided) impression that I had already tasted the best calamari around. I was just.wrong. Meltingly tender and heavily seasoned, the fried calamari was gobbled up by our table in less than five minutes, at which time a second order was promptly placed. The ceviche was also well done, chock-full of tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro and bay shrimp. The tortilla chips that were served alongside were made in-house and their residual warmth was necessary for enjoying this refreshingly cool appetizer on a cold night.
Two friends ordered their fish in sandwich form, one with tilapia and chipotle mayo, the other with seared ahi tuna. We all oohed and ahhed over the beauty of the seared tuna sandwich as I delayed consumption by taking photos (always good to be the birthday girl). I assume both sandwiches were delicious based on the rate they disappeared. The one ‘review’ I was able to elicit was just words strung together, “biting into buttery fish, ummmm so good.”
Our tacos arrived, steaming in the cold winter air (we were relegated to patio seating due to the size of our party). No matter the fish, the basic fish tacos were all structued the same – large portions of your chosen fish (for me, thresher shark), cooked as requested (in lemon-garlic butter) wrapped in a cheesy flour tortilla and topped with lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, white sauce (sour cream-y secret sauce) and scallions. The garnishes were tasty, but the shark was the star of the show. Tender, moist and well marinated in lemon garlic butter, I was impressed that there were two steaks of fish wrapped in that tortilla for under $5.
My second taco was one of the evening’s specials – a beer battered tilapia (I think) – fried to crispy, spicy, moist perfection served in a tortilla with avocado, white sauce and lettuce. The salsa verde served on the side, once poured all over, elevated this up into my ‘top fish tacos in San Diego’ list (actually they both are – this is now the place to beat). I was a bit envious that some (smarter) people at the table had ordered two. Plus, the ample serving of salsa was a great additional dip for the remaining fries and onion rings making their way around the table.
It was a great way to celebrate my birthday – not at all pretentious, with a fun group of new friends, and local, seasonal and delicious food. After inhaling my dinner, I was squirming around in my picnic chair trying to find a comfortable position that would allow me to inconspicuously let my taco-belly hang out when they surprised me with a red velvet cupcake complete with candles and singing. I made several wishes for the year to come and, filled with gratitude and excitement about the life I am creating here, blew out the candles with gusto. Then I passed the cake around. I was too stuffed with tacos. Just the way I wanted it.
This is the first of a continuing series exploring the tacos of San Diego – both in fine dining establishments and my kitchen. If you have any recommendations of places (or recipes) to try, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at researchingsandiego(at)gmail(dot)com.