When in Rome, eat spaghetti, and when in SoCal, inhale the fish tacos. Outsiders may find the beachside tradition gross or confusing, but it’s home between two corn tortillas for locals. Staple components include: diced green cabbage, grilled or breaded white fish (usually Mahi Mahi) and fresh pico de gallo salsa. Within a five-mile radius of my childhood home, covering such beach towns as Laguna Beach, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Niguel, the fish taco mecca rests. Whether kitschy Mexican restaurant or mini-mall taco chain, the drill is the same. Wrap 'em with foil and love.
Check out the SoCal stops and superlatives below, each with a unique twist on the fishy mainstay. For the record, this is the first "fish taco" mention on Serious Eats. We're making history, kids!
“Most Deliciously Understated”
Two grilled corn tortillas, fish (breaded or grilled), cabbage and medium-caliber salsa verde. That’s it. Straight-forward and honest. A Mexican Cantina, it's SoCal’s idea of “sit down” restaurant. Laminated menus with wooden stools covered in bumper stickers. Wall hangings include florescent Corona signs, up-close Surfer Mag shots and crunchy palm fronds. [Scene: Full of mustached Beach Boys-loving dads, still into the happy hour scene.]
Address: 34195 Pacific Coast Hwy, Dana Point, CA
“Most South of the Border Authentic”
Too often, crunchy fish tacos are just frozen fish stick’s little bro. I'm a skeptic. But this one is juicy and addicting. Two corn tortillas and cabbage—the way it should be—with a hint of lime-spiked creamy Baja sauce, then a slab of battered fish. Grab plastic cutlery and matching plastic tables outside (there’s four at the most). In high school, we called it “Los Gol” and never missed one-buck Taco Tuesdays. [Scene: Full of nearby workers and students who like “down and dirty” Mexican food.]
Address: 34069 Doheny Park Road, Capistrano Beach, CA
“Best Big Fatty Taco”
Follow your server down the line, in typical Chipotle buffet fashion, pointing at salsas (mild to extra hot) and extra gunk (guacamole, shredded cheese, lettuce, cabbage, other veggies). With all the fillings, it’s almost a mini-burrito. Or, giggle, a “fatty,” according to the menu. Choose between “breaded” fish battered in Tecate beer or “grilled,” which is softer and spicier. Either way, they’ll offer you a creamy peach-colored “Baja” sauce (mayo-based). It’s better naked. [Scene: Full of twentysomething hot surfer types]
Address: 34255 Pacific Coast Hwy, Dana Point, CA
Baja Fish Tacos
“Best Tongue Kick”
Grilled fish tacos have a rap for being blah-blah-bland, but this one is blackened with peppers and offers a karate chop-kick. It doesn’t need much else, but the salsa bar is hard to resist. Near the self-service fountain drinks, reach for itty-bitty plastic cups and stuff them with chopped cilantro, jalapeños and tongue-torching salsas. Flour is their default tortilla— slightly defiant since corn is the classic. [Scene: Full of suburbanite families and couples digging the fast casual with sitdown scene.]
Address: 30242 Crown Valley Pkwy, Laguna Niguel, CA
Wahoo's Fish Tacos
“Best All-Around Chain”
It’s the Double Arches for SoCal. A local chain with an iconic long-bodied epinomious mascot. They’ll do blackened, unblackened, in a bowl or hugged by a tortilla. With white rice and beans on the side, or without. It’s fresh, fast and solid at all Cali, Colorado, Nevada and Texas locations. [Scene: Full of anyone who just gets life.]
Address: 1133 Pacific Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA, and various others
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