Monday, November 8, 2010

The Ultimate Guide to the Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada : Baja California Dreamin' About Tacos de Pescado Estilo Baja

The Baja fish taco is adored in the Californias and beyond. It's required eating in Ensenada by guys on fishing trips, the three day cruise ship crowd, overnighters , Baja wine country visitors, frat boys, cholos, girl's weekend outings, and those kindred souls of mine seeking out the riches of Baja cuisine, culture, wine, and lifestyle.

It's quite a lovely proposition, a tempura batter fried filet of dogfish, angel shark, mako shark, or a variety of other firm white fish in a warm tortilla with fresh and pickled vegetables,salsa, crema agria(mayo with 2% milk), maybe some guacamole salsa?

It is a popular belief that Japanese fishermen brought tempura technique to Baja, which they acquired from the Portuguese, but make no such careless culinary revisionism, the Baja fish taco,or taco de pescado, is a 100% Mexican creation. All cuisines evolve from outside influences, and no cuisine is pure. Why isn't Italian cuisine called a fusion when it relies on tomatoes from the Americas, and pasta from Asia? Is Italian really Chinese-Mexican?No, it's Italian. Cuisine is the expression of a culture or people, not cooking devices, techniques, or ingredients.

These fish tacos are available all throughout the Baja peninsula, from Tijuana to Cabo, but Ensenada is the epicenter, and considered the birthplace of this iconic food. It's one of the first things one thinks of when planning a trip to Baja. "Fish tacos, dude!"(high fives)

Surprisingly, there hasn't been a thorough investigation of Ensenada's fish taco stands, with just a handful of places receiving any mention. Chris Cognac hit up Puesto El Fenix and Don Zefe in November of 2006, relying on predictable sources, El Fenix always comes up, and many would consider it the best. Don Zefe rated very poorly on my run, one of the worst,and not worth revisiting. Others have written about El Fenix, but didn't even go to the stand, which is the best of the two El Fenix fish taco establishments, just a block away from each other.

Over the course of four years with multiple visits to a total of ten stands, I have compiled a Baja fish taco guide that ranges from the tourist trap stalls next to the Black Market(fish market) to what I call the Holy Trinity of Ensenada fish tacos. This list focuses on the traditional stands, or shacks that serve fish and shrimp tacos, although two taquerias are included due to their reputations. Fish tacos are found everywhere in Ensenada, restaurants, cafes, stands, and taquerias, but they are done best in a stand using a comal de acero, a stainless steel disc shaped comal with a concave well for frying. All ten locations listed here use the comal de acero, use a similar type of corn tortilla, and have the same basic condiments.

I considered the quality of the fish, cooking technique, condiments, and overall flavor. The stands are ranked in order from least to greatest. This is not a top ten list, but an ordering of the range of fish taco options and the most well known stands to tourists and locals.

For most short stays in Ensenada, a fish taco at the various stalls next to the fish market is your first encounter with this Baja temptation. It was the same for me a decade ago. The barkers stand outside and yell for you to come to their stand, and insist that they are the best.

#10-Mariscos El Norteno
Located across from the Black Market

These places are identical, all stocking the same tarros(large beer glasses) filled with the same salsas and condiments and covered in plastic. So, I randomly selected Mariscos El Norteno.

It's certainly a turn off when everybody has the same stuff. These glasses actually depress me.

The weako de gallo looked awful, a medley of out of season fruit and vegetables devoid of color or nutrition.

The taco itself was compromised by the poor condiments, a lack of flavor that even salt couldn't revive. The cooking was good, a crunchy outside, and a token of tenderness, but a lack of seasoning on batter and fish.

Curvina was used, a type of croaker fish, which allows El Norteno to offer this taco for $10MXP, about $.86USD, but it's just not the right fish for the Baja fish taco.

The other nuisance at the stalls is the smell of fish runoff from the market and the nearby docks. One time, many years ago, a fetid odor accompanied my every bite, jamming my senses with cursed air. Well, I hadn't returned until I decided to do this report, so, don't say I never did anything for you. It's a lame fish taco with a side of ass.

Even without the smell, I wouldn't recommend any of the stalls near the fish market. Let the amateurs have at these. You're quest lies elsewhere.

#9-Tacos Corona
just north of Juarez on Espinoza
Tacos Corona, while being better than a Back Market experience, falls in the category of below average. Like most of the stands, it is a family run operation, mothers and daughters, cousins, and grandmothers. They've been around for 40 years, and the current family member that owns the stand has had this place for 17 years.

All of the stands use their oil a couple of times, which I don't mind. A seasoned oil of lard, yes, all these tacos are cooked in lard. But, it must be strained and filtered, and changed when needed.

While the condiments were acceptable here.....

the batter was very dark, not the golden brown crispy outside you crave. The flavor and texture damaging bits were visibly floating around the comal, resulting in a coarse, oily crust.
Mako shark was used, a quality fish, but the flavor was an upfront saltiness with no substance on the back end. The problem here is in the frying.

#8-Tacos Don Zefe
on the corner of Riveroll and Mutualismo

Tacos Don Zefe is a taqueria, and one of the well known destinations thanks to a story by Chris Cognac.

There's a very pleasant seating area, and a formal stand that seems more California than Baja, like a hot dog stand.

The taco was made with angelito, Angel Shark, on a fresh tortilla. It's served traditionally, a warmed tortilla with the fried fish is given to the customer to indulge his/her inner taquero. Standard condiments are available, nothing that stands out though.

The seasoning is rather dull here, and a few bites leaves you wanting less, as in why did I order this. Also, the frying technique needs to improve in order for this stand to hang with the big boys.

#7-Tacos "Nemo"
on the corner of 6th and Gastellum

Like most of the stands here, Tacos Nemo is a family run joint. They've got a cute name and mascot. Can you say copyright infringement?

There appears to be a pattern here. Second tier fish taco stands use the less expensive angelito. There's no difference in price, so I think angelito, a slighty more affordable fish perhaps allows for a greater profit margin.

Only slightly better than Don Zefe's, Tacos Nemo also suffers from the same deficits in flavor, and fry technique. Finding Nemo? Nah, I don't think so.

#6-Tacos Lulu
on the corner of Juarez and Floresta

Oh how I wanted to love Tacos Lulu. A family run stand, mother and daughter working alongside another family member. A family recipe, that luxurious dogfish, and just a great group of people.

This is a much more engaging fish taco than the previous ones, but just didn't inspire. They have some friendly regular customers, as I'm sure all these stands enjoy.

The balance of crispy outside, tender inside, and seasoning here are so crucial to the fish taco. This was clearly a superior taco to numbers 10 through 7, but the only achievment here is mediocrity.

#5-Tacos Castillo
On the corner of Juarez and Castillo

The big surprise of all the places I went to was Tacos Castillo, a stand I had never heard of anywhere.

This is a tasty fish taco, well seasoned, and the frying here is competent. The condiments here were solid, and a fine roasted chiles salsa added a little character.

This is the kind of stand that would be outstanding here in Los Angeles, if they could work out the sourcing issues, of course. This stand uses angelito.

#4-Tacos Mi Ranchito El Fenix
on the corner of Espinosa and 6th

Tacos Mi Ranchito El Fenix is the stand everyone talks about. It is more inviting than the original down the street because it has seating, and a taqueria style structure.

The frying here is consistent and expert. This is the benchmark fish taco in Ensenada, that solid workhorse that always brings it.

Fine condiments, and just a brilliant red and a tangy green pair of salsas allow for a pure Baja fish taco expression. Cazon, of course, is used at Tacos Mi Ranchito El Fenix.

But, Puesto El Fenix is better than Mi Ranchito El Fenix.

And now for the fish taco Holy Trinity. These stands are all worthy of your attention, and a crawl of these three traditional stands should be included in your Ensenada itinerary along with falling off the bar drunk and hitting your face on the floor boards of Hussong's Cantina, and getting your name engraved on a grain of rice. Who does that?

#3-Tacos La Floresta
on the corner of Floresta and Juarez

Tacos La Floresta is a no name stand located on Av. Floresta . It is truly a shacky shack. When I arrived there was a flock of hungry fish taco fiends gathered 'round.

This is excellence, perfect frying of the rare mako shark. The owner Rica, is a sweet lady, who sweetly smiles and calmy directs her crew as she facilely cranks out stellar fish tacos. The flavors are subtle, but that crust, and clean fish flavor meld into a refined cooperation of textures and savors. Crunchy, hot, cold,tender, fruity, creamy, and wet satisfaction.

All products used to finish your tacos are exceptional.

These are the kind of fish tacos that Baja dreams are made of. Fish taco worshippers concentrate about this stand eating in silence, only intermittent conversation interrupts the feeding frenzy of shark eating man!

#2-Puesto Fenix
the corner of Juarez and Espinosa
Puesto Fenix would be my last stop on this fish taco odyssey. Having found three gems, I took time out to celebrate, by ordering another fish taco, carefree, sans camera. I just kicked back and actually felt a huge burden had been lifted off of my shoulders. OK, not really.

I hung out for awhile at the end of the fish taco portion of the day. By 5pm, most fish taco stands are giving way to the night time tacos, carne asada, al pastor, or suadero.

When I asked the team at Puesto Fenix what kind of fish they used, a very serious gentleman responded," filete de cazon." I like that. Yes, give it its proper due, dogfish filet homes!

Here, the same green salsa from Mi Ranchito El Fenix, but the difference between the small chain in taste is substantial.
This taco is more boldly flavored, a noteworthy taco. If this stand is why you're praising El Fenix, then you are justified, if not, just walk one block north on Av. Espinosa and your perspective shall improve by leaps and bounds. I never saw the reason in plugging El Fenix until I stopped here.
As all of the top three stands, an expert balance of all the components of cooking, quality of ingredients,and condiments is key. While I love Tacos Floresta and could easily spend an afternoon there, Puesto Fenix has a more robust flavor in the batter.
#1-Fish Tacos Ensenada
on the corner of Juarez and Gastellum

My number one fish taco stand in Ensenada has been close to my heart for many years. It's definitely not because of the name, Fish Tacos Ensenada. I was reluctant to share this stand back in my chowhound days, always referring people to Mi Ranchito El Fenix. When I brought a large group of bloggers, chefs, restaurateurs and writers down in the summer of 2009, we went to Mi Ranchito El Fenix. I hadn't finished putting my favorite stand to the Pepsi challenge.

I only shared this place with small groups, and close friends. A recent e-mail from a reader inspired me to finish this run down, so I could without hesitation, share this special stand.

The stand is, well, of course, a family run operation. A woman from El Salvador moved to Ensenada, got married and in time opened a fish taco stand with her husband. These days, Yasmin, the cute young lady pictured here, works alongside her sisters, and their mom.

This is the only stand that has such a mob of killer salsas. Everything from standard creations to the creative little numbers crafted by the owner and her daughters. The salsas are always changing, colorful, and vibrant.

The freshly fried cazon here is a sight to behold. Fish Tacos Ensenada is oldschool, just a tortilla with a comely piece of plump fish are given to the lucky diners. As much as you want to race to condiment while the fish is at its peak, you are likely to give this baby the once over, just for a second though.

They've got everything here:fresh cabbage, pickled cabbage, six to eight salsas, toasted chile de arbol, mayo, and crema agria. Consistently, the fish sings with virtuosity. I would drive here just for a fish taco, and I have.

Like Puesto Fenix, the seasoning here in upfront, the cooking is sublime, but the difference is in the condiments, and the overall flavor of this fish taco. It's good enough to make a frat boy moon his buddies and lose himself in base hyperbole. "Oh my god, dude, this taco is like.....SO awesome."

It's the end of a day glorious day tasting wine in the Valle de Guadalupe, and I appoach Highway 1. Do I head north, or do I head into town? Perhaps, just one taco before I hit the road. I'm not really hungry, but my craving can't be denied.

Fish tacos, or tacos de pescado, as they are known in Mexico, are a universal pleasure. You're not wrong to want to hit up the best while in town. Your expectations are high, so allow me to take you to the promised land of milk and honey. Set your sights on my beloved Fish Tacos Ensenada, the famed Puesto Fenix, and the local favorite Tacos La Floresta, and experience the best fish tacos Ensenada has to offer.

Ensenada, B.C., Mexico


A. said...

Thank you for creating this guide, Bill!

Anonymous said...

Tacos Floresta are the best tacos in Ensenada, my mami used to take me almost every weekend.. I wish I could find algo tan bueno aqui en LA.

streetgourmetla said...

LA Taco-de que?

Anonoymous-I think La Floresta is outstanding, and all of the top three are world class fish tacos. Have you tried Ricky's Fish Tacos? He is from Ensenada and does the best tacos de pescado here in LA. No trae cazon pero bueno, son tremendos!

Anonymous said...

Love it!! You're taking me down memory lane. Can't wait to go home and see you and relive Baja again. :)


Anonymous said...


streetgourmetla said...

anonymous-Pooop on you.No really, could you elaborate?

freakyfritters said...

you know you dont have to go all the way to Baja California for this.
All you have to do is go to Los Feliz for the best fish tacos. I lived in Los Feliz since 2002 and didn't notice this place until 2006. Seriously. Their finely slice/diced cabbage and their awesome salsa's make the tacos and the "cooked to order" tacos. The best. Im telling you.

streetgourmetla said...

Freaky Fritters-BFTIE does a great job of cooking the fish, but their tortillas are cheap store bought, and the salsas are awful.It's goofy mango madness at their salsa bar.

Not to mention there is a noticable difference between the flavors of local fosh used here, and dogfish, or other shark used in fish tacos in Ensenada.

I prefer Ricky's here in LA, or Mariscos El Teto's for fish tacos.

Ensenada is another ballgame all together.Report back when you make it down.

Unknown said...

OMG! I'm so excited to come across this list. I've been going to la taqueria La Floresta for years since i was little and so far they are the Best fish tacos I've ever had in my life. Great blog, Thanks! Jess :)

streetgourmetla said...

Jessica-La Floresta,huh?Well, you've got amazing taste. Glad you found us, and hope your fish taco explorations continue in Ensenada.

Dante said...

Duuddee, man oh man, you have no idea the big ol' smile you just put on my face! I just found this guide today and I'm glad you put so much effort into it, it's very informative and well detailed!

My mom and I just came back from Ensenada this past weekend, and sure enough, we had fish tacos on Sunday before making our way back. Where, you ask? Puesto El Fénix on Juárez y Espinoza! Why, you ask? Because we've been eating those tacos for 20+ years :)

I was born in Ensenada, and we've been eating these tacos and the ones from La Floresta since the 80's, my family probably since the 70's. I moved to LA in 1992, and never have I tasted anything like it over here.

To freakyfritters: I've been living in Silver Lake for 19 years now, right next to Los Feliz, and I've tried 'The Best Fish Taco in Ensenada' on Hillhurst, they also have another stand in East LA. But please don't think that these tacos taste ANYTHING like the ones from Ensenada, not at all.

The funny thing is, the first time I walked in I asked the lady at the register, who looked white but spoke perfect Spanish, "Are you guys from Ensenada?" To my surprise she answered "no", and I told her that I was born there, so she said to give them my input on how the tacos were. They're OK, but nothing special, I wanted to be polite and told here they were better than OK.

Anyway, the tacos from "El Fénix" taste just as delicious as they tasted 20+ years ago! Thanks for the guide!

PS - Have you ever heard of Tacos El Chopipo? I wonder what happened to that place, it might still be there, a few years back when they first opened they were the big talk, I think I tried them but they weren't too inspirational.

Anonymous said...

I'm likely going to be moving to Ensenada in August, and I cannot wait to try the top spots on your list! I am so hungry right now. Thanks for posting this!

Anonymous said...

last time i was down in ensenada was probably 10-15 years ago. back then my family was there all the time. we always went to a stand right outside of a hardware store. it was definitely what we considered the best! i am thinking about heading to ensenada soon and i was wondering if anyone knows what stand this was and if they are still around.

4eieio said...

let us not forget the guisados(simmered/stew)style of fish tacos and for this Sr. Marcos (1st street y reforma) is simply the best

Jon Baker said...

Right across the street from El Fenix is a great little joint run by a group of lady's. I'm not sure the name of it, but it is cleaner and I think the tacos are really good...maybe better than El Fenix. El Fenix was my first fish taco and I love them (was there this weekend actually). But Las Senoras as we call them is extremely good.

streetgourmetla said...

El Fenix, the stand, or the taqueria?

Anonymous said...

Great article! I'm from Ensenada but currently living in Mexico City. I've made fish tacos using Pacific Sierra, which is quite common here, with great results. Any suggestions regarding other fish besides cazón, mako or angelito?

streetgourmetla said...

Halibut, or any other tasty, medium flavored white fish. Sea bream, haddock, bass or any white fish that's good for frying.

Anonymous said...

We just did a crawl and have not tried the smaller El Fenix stand. But we did back to back Mi Ranchita and your number one pick. Have to say the ranch had them hands down. Original fish taco Ensenada was oily and not cooked properly. The place was a mess and you get hammered by people on the sidewalk while you eat. Whereas el Fenix was awesome all 8 times I've been there. I will try the smaller stand which looks busier but we assumed it was all the same. I will head over there for breakfast today and see how it is. Side note if you want carne asada any time of the day or night walk 2 blocks north from the big Sariana Supermarket. Literally 6-8 block north of Mi Ranchita and there is a place that is amazing. You have to add a bit of salt but big deal. You know you are in the right place because its set into a building with a tongue place right next to it and you can see the Elektra yellow building and a park just beyond it. Thanks for writing, love Ranchita because of you!

streetgourmetla said...

Anonymous--You had me confused for a second, you mean Mi Ranchito, which is the larger El Fenix. All are in agreement that puesto (stand) El Fenix is better than Mi Ranchito, but hands down over Originales?--That's a stretch. El Felix, La Floresta and Original Fish Tacos are all top notch and you aren't wrong to prefer any of those three over the other, Mi Ranchito is right up there two. Glad you found your fish taco. Enjoy.

Karelys said...

We were frantically looking for Fish Tacos Ensenada. Finally found it.

Worth it!

I just wish they had a sitting area to linger a bit.

streetgourmetla said...

Karelys--So glad you found it and you're right, absolutely worth it.