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Dining out

Catch the wave

From Baja California and its US neighbor comes a flurry of fish tacos authentic enough to take you there

(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / September 9, 2009

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There’s an emotion travelers bring home from vacation as an unintended souvenir. Call it schaden-food: pleasure derived from the misfortune of having eaten something wonderful, then being unable to replicate the experience. Symptoms include sighing, poking halfheartedly at lesser versions of the dish, and saying things like: “This doesn’t hold a candle to the sushi at Tsukiji market,’’ “The French would never call this bouillabaisse,’’ and “Now if only [your hometown here] could produce a good fish taco.’’

Boston, at least, can produce a good fish taco. Originating in Baja California, with Ensenada as its arguable epicenter, the dish is also a particular specialty of San Diego; it’s something East Coasters eat on sun-dappled, surf-sprayed West Coast vacations, then long for forever after. Whether it’s the food or the weather they miss is unclear. Probably it’s the whole package, for fish tacos are a simple pleasure. Once hard to come by locally, they are now available all around town.

In their traditional, most basic, and nearly addictive form, they consist of white fish, beer-battered, fried, and folded into corn tortillas with shredded cabbage, a squirt of lime, and a drizzle of crema, Mexico’s version of sour cream. (Some believe they owe their creation to Japanese fishermen who brought tempura-frying techniques to Baja.) Pico de gallo, fresh salsa, fruit salsa, sliced radishes, jalapenos, chopped cilantro, and avocado are among countless other possible toppings, some of these scorned by purists along with grilled fish rather than fried, raw fish rather than cooked, and flour tortillas rather than corn.

Ralph Rubio could be considered the fish taco’s Johnny Appleseed. As a student, he spent spring breaks in San Felipe, Mexico, where he first tried the dish. “I was so surprised when I took my first bite,’’ he says by phone. “I didn’t know what to expect, but when I bit into it, I fell in love. There’s something special about the fish taco.’’ In 1983 he took over an old Orange Julius stand on San Diego’s Mission Bay and began serving up his own. Now there are nearly 200 branches of Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill, with 80 million to 90 million fish tacos sold, Rubio estimates.

Fenway taqueria El Pelon was among the first to offer a really good fish taco in Boston. Sadly, its version is currently unavailable. Destroyed by a January fire, El Pelon is rebuilding, with another branch reportedly in the works for Brookline. (Where else would a new taqueria open?) But plenty of others have picked up the mantle.

The South End’s Picco, known for pizza, serves up a mean if untraditional fish taco with black beans. Several restaurants - Green Street, Tremont 647, and Neptune Oyster among them - offer fish tacos occasionally, the first two as part of a weekly Taco Night, Neptune as a Sunday special. East Coast Grill offers a nuevo version featuring seared tuna; Angela’s Cafe serves up fish tacos even though Mexican chef-owner Angela Atenco Lopez would have been unlikely to encounter them in her native, landlocked Puebla. And at the end of July, Dorado Tacos & Cemitas opened - yes, in Brookline. The brainchild of Douglas Organ, whose former restaurant Cafe D had fish tacos on the menu, Dorado offers four different takes on the dish.

Boston is hungry for fish tacos, and fish tacos make perfect sense in Boston: a flavorful take on that New England favorite, fried seafood. Here’s how some of our local versions stack up.

Angela’s Cafe
Fried tilapia is served on corn tortillas with shredded lettuce, chipotle-tinged crema, avocado, and wedges of lime, three tacos per order. The tortillas are on the sweet side, and the fish is nicely fried. The avocado is what elevates these tacos. It is ripe, buttery, and rich. Angela’s fish tacos are good, but nowhere near as revelatory as some of the other dishes here, particularly the moles that are the chef’s forte.

131 Lexington St., East Boston. 617-567-4972. www.angelascaferestaurant.com. $9.

Dorado Tacos & Cemitas
There are four fish tacos on offer here. Three include beer-battered fish: the traditional Ensenada, with green cabbage, fresh salsa, pickled onions, crema, and lime; the Dorado, which substitutes radishes and cilantro for the pickled onions and includes chipotle-flavored crema; and the Asiatico, topped with an Asian-inflected salsa, daikon, cilantro, and something called dynamite crema, which looks a lot like the chipotle crema. The first two taste very similar and are excellent. The salsa in the Asiatico has an odd musty taste we can’t quite place, and the taco could use a punch-up of straight sriracha along with the crema. Our favorite of the lot is a grilled swordfish taco. The fish is meaty and steak-like with lovely charred flavor, and it’s topped with cabbage, crema, and a dark green, tangy tomatillo-avocado salsa that makes the dish. A few tortillas are oddly stiff and crunchy at the edges, but we barely notice. The fish tacos are gone too quickly.

401 Harvard St., Brookline. 617-566-2100. www.doradotacos.com. $2.49-$2.89.

East Coast Grill
East Coast Grill ignores tradition. Its fish taco appetizer features squares of tuna seared at the edges, crusted in cumin, cayenne, and other spices, and drizzled with orange-chipotle glaze. They’re accompanied by a salad of arugula, avocado, jicama, and red onion in a zippy citrus dressing. The fish and salad are piled on top of two flour tortillas. The menu calls these “roll your own’’ tacos, but if you actually want to do so, you’ll have to shove the fillings to the side to get at the wrappers. We eat the fish and salad with a fork and knife. They’re mighty tasty. They’re just not tacos.

1271 Cambridge St., Cambridge. 617-491-6568. www.eastcoastgrill.net. $10.50.

Green Street
Wednesdays are taco night at Green Street. The current menu includes two fish tacos. The first is local striped bass fried in golden beer batter and topped with tartar sauce and a shaved fennel salad. The contrast between the crispy batter, crunchy salad, creamy tartar sauce, and soft tortillas makes this pleasurable eating, though the flavors aren’t particularly pronounced. There’s also a grilled swordfish taco with red cabbage slaw and guacamole; again, the textures are good but the flavors are mild. Some of the other tacos we try - such as chimichurri skirt steak or braised oxtail with radishes, basically a stew in a tortilla - are bolder. Also good, a sort of cousin to fish tacos: the lobster pupusa, a twist on Salvadoran cornmeal cakes. 280 Green St., Cambridge. 617-876-1655. www.greenstreetgrill.com. $4.

La Verdad
La Verdad’s pescado tacos have an instant advantage: handmade tortillas. When we arrive at the taqueria, a woman is scooping up dough, patting it out, and cooking it on the griddle. This makes for delicious and fragrant wrappings, but delicate ones. La Verdad’s tacos are served in a single tortilla, rather than the double many places offer, and it’s a mistake. The filling is drippy, and the tortilla quickly begins to disintegrate. Other than that, this may currently be the best fish taco in town. The fish is battered and fried till it’s golden and puffy and crisp. It’s served with avocado puree, puckery pickled cabbage, excellent fresh salsa, crema, chipotle mayonnaise, and lime. All the flavors and textures come together perfectly. If you close your eyes while eating it, you can practically hear the waves.

1 Lansdowne St., Boston. 617-351-2580. www.laverdadtaqueria.com. $2.75.

Ole
Mexican cuisine is highly regional, and tuna tacos seem to be particular to Inman Square. Like East Coast Grill down the street, Ole serves seared fish in its tacos. Tortillas are handmade, and the tuna comes with tomatillo-avocado sauce, onions, cilantro, radish, and jicama slaw. It’s good, but the fish is more cooked than it ought to be, and it’s hard to taste over the other elements. Also, at $21 for a large serving, these are the most expensive fish tacos we found. Ole also offers shrimp tacos, a smaller plate featuring beer-battered shrimp, pickled cabbage, chipotle mayonnaise, and cilantro pesto. With an easier-to-swallow $12 price tag, it’s also the tastier dish.

11 Springfield St., Cambridge. 617-492-4495. www.olegrill.com. $12-$21.

Picco
Can a pizza place make good fish tacos? Yes, though the fish is really the least of the dish here. The haddock is nicely fried, but it doesn’t taste as fresh as the fish we sampled at, say, Dorado or La Verdad. It has a slightly freezer-y flavor. I’ve had these tacos in the past, however, and haven’t experienced this problem. Plus, the rest of the dish is really tasty, with black beans, plenty of slaw, crema, and bright green cilantro. It looks pretty, too. The fish tacos are technically a special, but they seem to always be available.

513 Tremont St., Boston. 617-927-0066. www.piccorestaurant.com. $13.50.

Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake
Yes, the Rattlesnake. The place has a new chef, Brian Poe, and its name has been tweaked. His menu looks fun, and we have quiet hopes for his fish tacos. Cod served on a flour tortilla with an apple-and-Anaheim chili slaw and chipotle crema, the dish almost - almost - lives up to these hopes. The fish itself tastes great, little popcorn nuggets with good, fresh flavor. But the slaw is so sloppily prepared it’s barely a slaw. There are a few batons of what appear to be Red Delicious apples. There’s no heat from chilies. Green flecks of something - parsley? cilantro? - are soggy and have absolutely zero flavor. It’s too bad - if the slaw described on the menu were realized, this would be a good combination of flavors.

384 Boylston St., Boston. 617-859-8555. www.rattlesnakebar.com. $11.

Though we found our favorite fish tacos at La Verdad and Dorado Tacos & Cemitas, we couldn’t try every version in town. We missed the ones at Channel Cafe, La Siesta, Neptune Oyster, and Zocalo, to name a few; we also missed East Coast Grill’s fried fish tacos, served at brunch. Even the Cheesecake Factory has fish tacos. Try them where you will, they’ll never be as good as the ones you might sample on the beaches of Baja California. But if you close your eyes as you chew - and block out the increasingly autumnal breeze - your fish taco can conjure up a bit of Baja in Boston.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.