My most memorable fish tacos was had off the main drag in Laguna Beach, Calif. It is entirely possible that it was my first fish tacos simply because it is the first one I remember having. I don’t recall the name of the place. It was nearly a shack. Just a long high counter with a few guys in white caps working behind it. Over head was one of those plain menu boards, the kind that you find at concession stands at ballgames.
“Fish Taco $5” it read. I ordered one.
I wanted it badly, I remember, because this was my first time in Southern California and for some reason I had convinced myself that I hadn’t fully arrived in California until I ate a fish taco.
I was with a photographer from the Monitor. We were on one of those assignments that a desk editor like me gets to do about once a decade. My mission was to tackle three kinds of surfing in 24 hours, skim boarding, boogie boarding, and long board. Yes, that was my job. I was getting paid to to do this. And we were going to film it. I hid my dread as best I could.
But the adventure was still a day away. First things first, meaning, a fish taco. We sat on bar stools at a counter than ran the length of the front window and ate in silence, just kind of recovering from the traffic and being in awe of the April sunshine. I was enchanted. I wondered if I would move here.
I was surprised at how simple the taco was. I didn’t have a food epiphany or anything. After all, we have fish in Boston. But the corn tortilla, the salsa, the fresh avocado, the sour cream … tasted different. “We are from here,” they seemed to say, “and you aren’t.” The tortilla was loose, I had to work to keep everything together, it was messy and hot. And good.
I left California and returned to Boston with skinned knees and eventually forgot about fish tacos. Until a neighbor and friend invited me over for dinner almost a year and half later. She belonged to a “fish CSA” and had more flounder than she knew what to do with. “Come over for fish taco?” she asked. Be right over.
This included a brief, gory demonstration on how to skin a whole fish. I watched from a safe distance and thought of the kitchen scene from “The Little Mermaid.”
By the time Angela was finished and we sat at her table under the dim dining room light on a fall evening, that day at Laguna Beach came back to me. It’s funny how food does that, it collapses time and puts you somewhere else. A warm, sunny California day felt good to remember about then. The night was cool and wet, soggy leaves gathered on the sidewalk outside.
I felt sad, like I was missing something, or missing out on something. Deep down, though, I knew it was OK. A damp New England autumn evening may not be a bright California day in the spring, but I was right where I was supposed to be – fish taco in hand.
1/4 cup brown mustard
1/2 cup honey
Juice of one lime
1 head of red cabbage, shredded
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 bag frozen corn
1 bunch scallions, chopped
2 15 oz. can black beans, rinsed
1/2 daikon radish, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
Avocado and limes, quartered to garnish
For the fish
Mix bread crumbs, salt, corn meal, chili powder, and cumin to form a breading (adjust portions to your liking). Cut a steaky fish into small chunks, dip them in the breading mix, and fry them in olive oil in a large pan.
For the slaw
Make a marinade with the brown mustard, honey, lime juice, and chili powder. Pour marinade over red cabbage and cilantro.
For the corn salsa
Serve with warmed corn tortillas, quartered avocado and limes, and sour cream.
And because I know you are wondering, here is my surf story.