Trekking The Fish Taco Trail Along The Baja California Coast

Armida Sanchez stood patiently over the stove as a pan full of vegetable oil came to a gleam. I'd just returned from morning fishing with her husband, Rolando, on the icy lagoon outside the salt mining town of Guerrero Negro halfway down the Baja Peninsula's Pacific Coast. While we were gone, Armida had sliced and battered long strips of shark meat and filled a wheel-shaped dish with pickled onion, shredded cabbage, charred green chilies reclining in a pool of soy sauce, and thick white cream laced with corn and poblanos. Before me was this region's most pleasurable culinary contribution to the world: the mighty fish taco.

Like most that settle in the 800-mile-long Baja California peninsula, Armida and Rolando both come from elsewhere, having crossed the Gulf Of California from the state of Sinaloa some 20 years ago. Armida was 16 at the time and as surprised by the bizarre Pacific shellfish as she was by the poverty of the local cooking ("When I saw my first lobster," she told me, "I thought, 'How am I supposed to eat this?'"). Fish tacos are the only Mexican classic to originate in the peninsula, and were the only dish she went out of her way to learn.

The classic Baja-style fish taco is a basic and beautiful thing. Sand bass, shark, or whatever firm-fleshed fish came from the fishing boat that morning gets battered and fried, nestled in a corn tortilla, then embellished at will with salsas, cabbage, mayo, and a squeeze of lime. Shrimp prepared in the same way make tacos de camarón, but they're very much in the same Ensenada-style fish taco family; other seafood tacos abound, but when you ask for tacos de pescado in Baja, this is what you're asking for. At Armida's table, I armed my tortillas with golden fingers of fried mako shark, a rich bath of cream, lashings of a homemade salsa negra funky with soy, a thatch of slaw, and a squiggle of mayo. Like the best fish tacos, Armida's were both simple and baroque, delicate and sloppy, a local specialty made with flavors from elsewhere.

Though the last few years have seen Baja cooking sweep across mainland Mexico with the force of a storm surge, the cuisine is, with the exception of the fish taco, barely more than a decade or two old. When I met Javier Plascencia, whose restaurant Misión 19 arguably kicked off Tijuana's culinary revolution 15 years back, he put it this way: "Baja cooking has no history, so it has no limits."

Where the culinary traditions of states like Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Puebla have deep roots in sophisticated indigenous civilizations, the tribes that once populated Baja California were largely nomadic, supplementing a diet of fresh seafood with whatever scant vegetation the arid mountains and dusty deserts could provide. The Mediterranean ingredients so essential to modern Baja cooking were introduced by 17th century missionaries, who planted them in the oasis towns that became the peninsula's first permanent settlements. The same missionaries also introduced the foreign plagues that wiped out virtually all the peninsula's indigenous peoples, along with whatever cultural and religious traditions they'd established over the previous millennia. Since then, Baja California has been gradually (and incompletely) colonized by miners from mainland Mexico, Chinese railroad workers, American tourists, and Japanese seafood traders. Fish tacos combined those traditions to create a quintessentially Californian dish: crisp and bright and unembarrassed in its excess, a playful shrug at history wrapped in a sunny round of masa.

The fish taco's putative home is the port city of Ensenada, 60 miles down the coast from Tijuana. If downtown Tijuana is a pounding fever dream, then central Ensenada feels like the southernmost extension of American California, its broad smile of a harbor implacably blue, its pristine center a terra cotta-roofed wonderland, its surrounding hills a more rustic answer to Napa, complete with vineyards and some of the country's most ambitious restaurants.

According to local lore, fish tacos first emerged sometime in the 1950s, shortly after the first Japanese immigrants arrived there, as Baja's answer to tempura. I ate my first taco in Ensenada with Ezequiel Hernandez, a native Oaxacan whose decades working with local seafood producers have made him culinary royalty here. Hernandez has intimate relationships with cooks at every restaurant in the area, but still, he told me, "whenever I leave town, the first thing I eat when I get back is a fish taco."

Hernandez's tacos of choice come from Tacos Corona, a small white kiosk on a nondescript side street just outside the center of town. Across the street from the more famous Tacos Fenix (the owners come from the same family), Tacos Corona attracts a loyal crowd, all of them eager to comment on what makes their four-decade-old taco stand superior.

One woman insisted the difference was in the toppings—brick-red chipotle mayo, blazing hot olive oil infused with chile de árbol (those Mediterranean ingredients turn up in unexpected ways), and a half dozen varieties of salsas made fresh each morning. Hernandez, who has spent much of his professional life working with Japanese colleagues, credited the light and smooth batter, free from the oil-drenched greasiness that can so easily overwhelm fried fish. The ladies behind the counter claimed it came down to the way they cut the vegetables for their bandera—literally "flag"—the pico de gallo-like salsa that apes the Mexican tricolor with its red tomatoes, white onion, and green chiles and cilantro.

Like Armida and Rolando, both women hail from Sinaloa, though decades spent in Ensenada have made them as local as anyone else. The fish taco is to Ensenada what cochinita pibil is to the Yucatan: a touchstone (and important cultural export) of the local culture that's equally popular among natives, culinary tourists, and migrants from elsewhere who've built a new home here. Every fish tacos I ate along the entire length of Baja were made by women, their roots elsewhere but their lives firmly transplanted to this spit of sand between the Pacific and the Gulf.

In the remote fishing village of Bahía De Los Angeles—south of Ensenada, looking east over the Windex-blue water of the Gulf Of California—the only fish tacos in town are made by a woman known as La China. Originally from Cuernavaca, in central Mexico, she came here in 1969 when her father got a job at the now-defunct gold mine outside of town. Decidedly a local in this minuscule village, La China mixes beer into her batter in the style of English settlers who left a trail of Anglophone surnames and clear blue eyes.

In Todos Santos, near the peninsula's southern tip, I ordered my tacos from José Luis Ibarra and María De Los Angeles Navarro Pérez, who, for the last 10 years, have run a simple seafood shop called El Sinaloense, named for their home state. They serve tacos made with smoked marlin and grilled scallops alongside impeccable Sinaloa-style ceviche and Ensenada-style fish tacos made, on the day I visited, from the firm, meaty flesh of triggerfish. The clutter of bottles on their tables includes Chimay-brand habanero salsa from the southern state of Tabasco, plus homemade salsa verde alongside bottles of soy sauce and Maggi seasoning. Here in Baja Sur, where good corn is not as readily available, they'll sometimes substitute flour tortilla, traditional across northern Mexico, and no less delicious.

And in Tijuana, the peninsula's biggest city where I'd begun my trip, I ate fish tacos at Mariscos Rubén, a suggestion from Plascencia, whose ascendancy in the world of fine dining has done nothing to dim his enthusiasm for the street food of his youth. The doyennes of Mariscos Rubén are Mirta Rodriguez and Letitia Barajas, who moved to Tijuana from the vast desert state of Sonora a quarter century ago and have served some of the city's best seafood ever since.

I visited their food truck on a chilly January afternoon, the sun doing its damndest to make its presence known. Below the open window where Rodriguez and Barajas manned their tiny, elevated kitchen was a narrow metal shelf lined with two-dozen homemade salsas and sweet, sour, and spicy preserves made from peaches, peanuts, and figs: unusual ingredients even in Tijuana, a city where the only boundary is marked by a wall.

"What's fresh today?" I asked.

Mirta scoffed through a winking smile: "Everything."

I ordered cahuamanta—a soup of manta ray and cartilaginous tuna fin designed to mimic the now-illegal flesh of sea turtle—and a plateful of tacos: octopus and camarón enchilado (chili-crusted shrimp, a recipe from Sonora), and Ensenada-style fried fish. Letitia held up each raw ingredient with voluptuous care as she pulled it out of a cooler. "Look at these shrimp, so blue and beautiful," she said, showing off the crustacean as though it were a courtesan, "and the octopus, too. See how lovely it is?"

While I waited, I chatted with the guy next to me who lives in San Diego but comes back to Tijuana weekly for two things: to see his parents and to eat at Mariscos Rubén. Next to him, a local couple told me that they'd recently gone home to Mazatlán, the Sinaloan port famous for its seafood, and that even there the ceviches and tacos couldn't compare. People's roots might be shallow in Baja, but their loyalties are not.

After a few minutes, Letitia handed my tacos down over the counter. I spooned a brown smear of peach salsa onto one, black cherry salsa onto another, and fig salsa onto the third; I topped all three with cabbage, chili-spiked olive oil, and salsa verde, a squirt of lime and a rust-red seam of chipotle mayo. Taken together, they might as well have been Baja's own bandera, flavors of the mainland and the Mediterranean, Asia and the U.S., the fruit salsas a whimsical addition from an obscure corner of a wandering imagination. I tried to ignore Mirta's smirk as I angled the overstuffed taco toward my mouth and her chuckle when, with my first explosive bite, half its contents slid out onto the Styrofoam plate.

I'd overdone it, of course. But then, I was in Baja—there were no limits.