The History of the Perfect Dish—The Fish Taco

Australis Barramundi - The History of the Fish Taco

There’s just something about fish tacos that conjure up images of summer days in small Baja beach towns…

Where the air is scented with the combination of the sea and steaming masa, and the sounds of sizzling flat tops and fry baskets from street vendor trucks intermingle with Latin music and boardwalk chatter.

Fish tacos are humble in their basic makeup—cooked fish wrapped in a corn tortilla (though some prefer flour)—but it’s the preparation and accoutrements that take this simple street food to a whole other level.

Whether battered and crispy or smoky from the grill, spicy mayo or avocado chutney adds creamy texture, salsa verde adds spice and vibrancy, and together, the completed package is a savory delight.

People have been eating fish tacos in the coastal areas of Mexico for as long as fisherman have worked the seas and have had stone-ground tortillas to wrap their fire-roasted bounty in—we’re talking hundreds of years. Most people point to Baja California, Mexico and its 800-mile stretch of Pacific coastline as the fish taco’s place of origin—though you’ll find just as many versions served up along the Gulf Coast side of Mexico as well. In both regions of the country, seafood features prominently in the cuisine, influenced heavily by native ingredients such as chiles, herbs, and corn and Spanish culinary traditions from the early missions of the 17th century. Coastal fare from fresh ceviches and aguachiles to whole grilled fish and octopus with escabeche all derived from these regions. But in the Baja townships of Ensenada and San Felipe in particular, it was the fish taco that took hold, later proliferating north into California.

Perhaps it was with northern immigration, but it’s more likely the case that Southern California surfers found the fast, fresh, easy-to-eat fish taco from local street vendors a satiating snack while hunting for the perfect waves and brought the idea back home with them. Indeed the modern day fish taco owes much of its popularity in America to the likes of entrepreneurs like Ralph Rubio, a San Diego native who fell hard for the fish taco upon his first encounter in Baja in the late 1970s. The experience prompted him to launch Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill in 1983, an endeavor that now has 160 locations in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah, each serving up hundreds of thousands of fish tacos every year.

Rubios - The History of the Fish Taco
Photo courtesy of Matt Howry

Today you’ll find fish tacos served throughout the United States in coastal beach shacks and restaurant chains as well as in posh dining establishments. Traditionally, the Southern California style of the fish taco included fried fish wrapped with a spicy mayo in a corn tortilla, but over the years the recipe has evolved to include an array of combinations. With choices ranging from grilled mahi-mahi or blackened tilapia with tomatillo salsa or avocado-mango chutney, to seared tuna or wood-fired shrimp with chipotle mayo or jalapeño coleslaw, there really is something for everyone.

Convinced that you need more fish tacos in your life? Good. Try out Easy Chile Lime Fish Tacos and Barramundi Tacos with Shishito and Meyer Lemon.

Next, learn how to throw an epic fish taco party!