What makes a good fish taco? In San Diego, where Robert and I went last weekend, craving sun on our pale skin and warmth in our winter-chilled bones, people debate this question seriously. And so the two of us did some not-so-serious sampling. In each case, the local fish taco seemed a bastard child of a traditional Mexican taco and a plate of fish sticks. The tortilla was made from either corn masa or refined wheat. The filling was a chunk of unnamed white fish, breaded or not and fried, and then sauced with thinned mayonnaise (often called “white sauce”) and topped with sliced head cabbage and yellow and white cheese shreds. The cook might provide a sprinkle of diced tomatoes or a side of tomato salsa or both, but if we wanted chiles we had to reach for the bottle of hot sauce.
I enjoyed the two fish tacos I tried, especially the one scattered with black beans, though both tacos would have been better without the industrial cheese. But the dearth of traditional Mexican food in a city less than twenty miles from the border struck me as a little sad. The soldiers, sailors, and retirees from Wherever USA seem to spread white sauce all over their adopted city. We witnessed this at the outdoor Little Italy Mercato, where we heard no Italian spoken but watched vendors make filled crêpes that bore a striking resemblance to San Diego’s second-most-popular pseudo-Mexican menu item, the breakfast burrito, a big wheat tortilla rolled around fried potatoes, eggs, and cheese.
Still, we found excellent food in San Diego. We were duly impressed by the Mercato, with its lovely summer vegetables (even tomatoes and strawberries!), dozens of varieties of citrus, local olive oils, and fermented pickles.
In restaurants, the seafood always tasted fresh, though none on the menus we saw was local. We especially liked Café Secret, a Peruvian restaurant in Del Mar that specializes in ceviche from sustainably harvested seafood, served on platters complete with choclo (tender hominy-like corn kernels) and canchitas (crunchy roasted and salted corn kernels). At Café Secret, the pale sauce on the fried potatoes and yuca was cheese-based huancaína, not runny mayonnaise. Though mayonnaise sauce would have been good, too, come to think of it.