A Brief History Of Fish Tacos In Southern California.
Living in California means having access to so many great foods. Most of the time, these tastes originate from a particular ethnic group residing in a certain area (Vietnamese pho in Westminster, for example). An exception to this rule would be the fish taco—that tasty melding of fried or grilled seafood, shredded cabbage, salsa, creamy sauce and hint of citrus tucked in a tortilla. Popularized in both San Diego and Orange County, its true starting point is found in Mexico.
We can thank a trio of quick service brands for bringing a surfer’s favorite meal north: Rubio’s, Baja Fresh and Wahoo’s Fish Tacos. Mexican food authority Gustavo Arellano states in his book, Taco USA, “For years, surfers such as (Ralph) Rubio had enjoyed fish tacos in Baja California from seaside posts that grilled freshly caught catches.” Brothers and co-founders Wing Lam, Ed Lee and Mingo Lee began Wahoo’s in Costa Mesa in the late 80s. Born in Brazil, but raised in Orange County, spending time at the beach is their favorite pastime.
According to Wing, “Do something different if you want to succeed in business. So why not open an Asian/Brazilian inspired Mexican restaurant? We were the first Asians making fish tacos in SoCal that I know of.” Only in Orange County, right? Ed’s version of the story is a bit different, “The reason we did fish tacos: Wing and I are not chefs! We saw tacos in Baja, and it looked easy to cook. The customers were surprised how good charbroiled fish tasted in a tortilla; how simple it is!” He’s known to frequent their local Chefs’ Toys for refrigerator units, fryers and bar supplies to outfit Wahoo’s outposts.
Restaurant operators have caught on to the demand for fish tacos by adding creative spins with premium prices. Simmzy’s (another Chefs’ Toys customer) second outpost at Pacific City in Huntington Beach serves one with a kick. Tame those taste buds with a craft beer flight, presented in their custom surfboard-shaped carrier. Simmzy’s menu describes their Grilled Fish Tacos like this: “fresh wild-caught Oregon rock cod, Diana’s soft corn tortillas, avocado, charred tomato salsa, lime, lettuce, pickled relish, fried Fresno chile rings, and spiced sour cream. Este taco de pescado es muy picante! (This fish taco is very spicy) …and delicious.
Foodservice trends show millennials have an interest beyond exceptional food and service. They want to frequent places that commit to concepts like farm-to-table and sustainability. Jim Wendt of Chefs’ Toys agrees, after dining at his local Slapfish for the first time, “Chef Andrew Gruel is a pioneer in seafood sustainability. Their fish options vary, based upon availability, always sourcing wild-caught fish. His Ultimate Fish Taco is a work of art. It’s a great portion size, with homemade condiments and garnishes. One of the best fish tacos I’ve tasted. At Slapfish, you get excellent seafood in a fast casual environment; the bonus is you feel good knowing Slapfish cares.”
These days the fish taco has evolved from Mexican-themed concepts to include sustainable options, and can be ordered mild to wild, from fast food shacks to full-service dining rooms. It’s as much a part of Southern California culture as Disneyland and the Orange Crush.