On our most recent group trip to Mexico, Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet L.A. started discussing his frustrations with L.A. taco blogs and how there has to be better criteria for determining which tacos warrant attention. With that in mind, he recruited me, Matthew Kang (Mattatouille), Javier Cabral (The Glutster) and Cathy Danh (gas•tron•o•my) to form the Taco Task Force. Mattatouille was in Chicago – somehow Alinea held more appeal – but the remaining task forcers set out to find the best Baja-style fried fish taco in L.A.
There were certain factors I was interested in exploring at each stop, including the variety of fish and oil, whether or not the tortillas were house-made, and how much effort went into producing unique condiments. There was wide variation in each area. There’s clearly no formula for producing a superior fish taco, but there are certain choices that can help your cause.
Bill came up with five different categories he was interested in scoring. He wanted each of us to award a possible five points for the Grade of Key Ingredient, Condiment, Authenticity, Overall Flavor and Cooking. The amorphous “Authenticity” category had me and Cathy baffled, especially since Bill and Javier were the only two Taco Task Force Members who had traveled extensively in Mexico. Still, since this was the first time, and the Taco Task Force is a work in progress, we went with the five categories.
Taco Task Force Stop #1: Tacos Baja (fka Tacos Baja Ensenada), a 10-year-old institution on one of East L.A.’s main drags with strung with flair limited to strings of seashells.
For his fish taco ($1.59), owner Martin Martinez decided to fry catfish in vegetable oil, which produced a thin, crisp batter and white fish that separated in moist sheets. The toppings consisted of rough-cut cabbage, house-made crema, diced tomato and hot sauce.
The bar featured delectable gueros (blonde chilies) dusted with chile powder, fresh-cut limes and radishes. The Glutster warned that gueros have the potential to be explosively spicy, but I ate around the seed cluster at the center of the pepper and managed to avoid springing the spice bomb.
Tacos Baja also features the rarely seen (in L.A.) Taco Cahuamanta ($1.99), a taco with crisp rows of manta ray that look like tank treads and taste like albacore. This delectable taco didn’t factor into the scoring, but featured more kick thanks to the tangy salsa and roasted bell peppers.
Here’s the initial scoresheet, with B standing for Bill, J for Javier and C for Cathy and her fiance Vernon. Since I was the scorekeeper, my score is listed first.
Grade of Key Ingredient: 4, B 4, J 3.5, C 3.5 AVERAGE 3.75/5
Condiment: 2.5, B, 2.5, J 3, C 4 AVERAGE 3/5
Authenticity: 3.5, B 3.5, J 2.5, C 2 AVERAGE 2.875/5
Overall Flavor: 3, B 3.5, J 3.5, C 4 AVERAGE 3.5/5
Cooking: 4.5, B, 4, J 4.5, C, 4.5 AVERAGE 4.375/5
OVERALL FISH TACO SCORE: 3.5/5
Taco Task Force Stop #2: El Taco Nazo in South El Monte.
Tony and Telma Garcia operate six Nazos around L.A., and they’ve been in the taco business since 1978, but their fish taco ($1.69) was disappointing and took a drubbing in the post-bite breakdown session.
The pollack taco had an awful batter to fish ratio and on the surface, was completely indistinguishable from the shrimp taco ($1.99). It wasn’t until we parted the cabbage sea and cut through the thick batter with a plastic knife that we learned which was which. The clumpy batter and fish were both bland, and the cabbage, tomato, onion, cilantro and house-made crema completely overpowered the fish. Even the peppery roasted gueros couldn’t offer redemption.
Grade of Key Ingredient: 1.5, C 2.5, J 2.5, B 2.5 AVERAGE 2.25/5
Condiment: 1.5, C 2.5, J 2.5, B 2 AVERAGE 2.125/5
Authenticity: 2.5, C 2, J 2, B 2.5 AVERAGE 2.25/5
Overall Flavor: 1.5, C 3.5, J 2.5, B 1.5 AVERAGE = 2.25/5
Cooking: 1.5, C 2.5, J 2, B 2 AVERAGE 2/5
OVERALL FISH TACO SCORE: 2.175/5
Taco Task Force Stop #3: the flagship outpost of Señor Fish in Eagle Rock.
Señor Fish started on Figueroa in 1988, but the original location was supplanted by Via Mar. Alicia Ramirez opened the Eagle Rock branch in 1995, near Occidental College. You’ll now find branches in South Pasadena, downtown, Alhambra and Duarte.
Señor Fish hosts a board with eight different varieties of fish, which vary from day to day. For their fish taco ($2.50), they fry cod in vegetable oil. The oversized taco featured clumpy batter, but supported a finely chopped salsa and fresh condiments. The salsa bar was the day’s most impressive, hosting chilled bins of crema and five styles of salsa, including tangy tomatillo and smoky burnt-orange chile de arbol.
Grade of Key Ingredient: 3.5 C 4, J 3.5, B 3 AVERAGE 3.5/5
Condiment: 4, C 4, J 4.5, B 4 AVERAGE 4.125/5
Authenticity: 2.5, C 2, J 2, B 2 AVERAGE 2.125/5
Overall Flavor: 3.5, C 3, B 2, J 3 AVERAGE 2.875/5
Cooking: 3, C 2.5, B 2.5, J 3 AVERAGE 2.75/5
OVERALL FISH TACO SCORE: 3.075/5