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Fish Tacos Worth
Gasping Over

  by Lucian K. Truscott IV

  Los Angeles - Sunset Boulevard east of Hollywood doesn't look like much of a culinary destination as it winds through rolling hills on the way downtown. Passing through the terminally hip zones of Silver Lake and Echo Park, the boulevard is crowded with thrift shops full of 1950's muumuus and quaint little boutiques featuring leather bustiers, nestled against auto body repair shops and open-front garages that install car alarms.

  Perched in the blazing sun on asphalt parking lots and tucked into narrow mini-mall storefronts here is a secret world of taco stands and 12-table restaurants featuring the inexpensive and harrowingly spicy fish taco, a Mexican fast-food delight not often found north of Los Angeles or east of San Bernardino.

  The fish taco is a transplant from beach-side places in Baja California, where the bounty of the sea is cheaper and more readily available than the carne asada and carnitas — grilled beef and roasted pork — common to tacos elsewhere in Mexico. Down on the beach in Ensenada, Mexico, a fish taco from a curbside stand costs the equivalent of an American dollar. At La Playita Siete Mares ("the Little Beach of the Seven Seas"), a colorful taco stand in the middle of a parking lot on Sunset Boulevard, a couple of dollars will get you the same basic thing: a flash-fried soft corn tortilla piled high with deep-fried breaded chunks of red snapper slathered red with hot sauce and buried under a mountain of shredded cabbage, chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro, with a dollop of runny crema, a light cream sauce. Thick slices of lime are usually served too, and the sagacious eater will douse the pile liberally with their juice before trying a bite.

  It would seem that eating a fish taco is about the same as eating a carne asada taco, but the glacier of icy shredded vegetables atop the spiced fish presents a special challenge. My personal solution is like so: sitting at the picnic table common to all taco stands, position your mouth directly above the paper plate and next to the taco, roll the taco and its fixings loosely, open wide and shove. There is an immediate detonation of insanely spicy seafood, eased somewhat by the cooling crunch of cabbage and onion and tweaked by the acid twang of tomato and lime juice. (The munched taco will ooze fish and hot sauce and cabbage onto the plate, there to be collected and rerolled in a second tortilla, handily provided.)

  Once your eyes have stopped watering enough for you to see a fuzzy outline of what remains of your taco, roll everything tightly and shove again. With luck and enough cold beer or frozen fruit juice, you will be able to come close to replacing the bodily fluids lost to perspiration and tears — and a couple of bucks more will buy you another one.

  All the fish tacos I tasted were made with "trimmings" from red snapper, cod or mahi-mahi. These are chunks of meat from around the tails, gills or bellies of fish that have been filleted to sell to restaurants or supermarkets. I spoke to one restaurateur who put fish tacos on her American menu because the fish trimmings were inexpensive and she was happy to use scraps that would have otherwise gone for chicken feed.

  A short distance from La Playita is Alegria on Sunset, in a run-down strip mall. There is nothing run down about Alegria, however. It is owned by a woman and her two daughters, who serve Mexican home cooking to pierced and tattooed rockers, production assistants and grips who live in Silver Lake and Echo Park. The fish tacos at Alegria are made with cod marinated in orange, lime and lemon juices, along with onions and peppers, then quickly sautéed in a hot skillet. You get two tacos piled high with fish, lettuce, red cabbage, onions, cilantro and crema and served with pico de gallo, rice and black beans on the side, for $6.95 at lunch, $8.95 at dinner. This is a slightly more upscale fish taco, and while spicy, it doesn't launch quite as brutal an assault on the taste buds as the ones down the street.

  On the west side of Los Angeles, just east of the 405 freeway on West Pico Boulevard, is La Serenata Gourmet restaurant, a branch of the main Serenata in East Los Angeles. It specializes in moderately priced Mexican seafood dishes and is popular with movie industry people who have offices a short distance away in Santa Monica. The fish and shrimp tacos here are in a class by themselves. Mahi-mahi or shrimp are dusted with salt, pepper and spices and quickly sautéed with onions and garlic. At $3, not at all spicy and bursting with the flavors of fresh seafood and creamy avocado, both the fish and the shrimp tacos are a treat for those who don't fancy Mexican food that torches the palate like a flamethrower.

  Several local chains also feature fish tacos. Rubio's Baja Grill has outlets scattered around town, including one at the food court of the upscale Beverly Center mall. They serve fish tacos with different toppings starting at $2.05. Baja Fresh, a chain that has spread into Washington State, Arizona, Colorado and Texas, has deep-fried fish tacos for $2.10, served with pico de gallo and a "special sauce," and a charcoal-grilled mahi-mahi taco for $2.95, served with an avocado-jalapeño-tomatillo salsa. The tacos at these chains are a giant leap above the mass-produced fare shoved over the counter at places like Taco Bell, but they lack the distinctive kick in the teeth you get at street-side taco stands or the homemade subtleties of tacos served at places like La Serenata or Alegria.

  Of course, nothing beats eating a fish taco at the beach with a noseful of salt air and an ice-cold beer. You can come close to approximating the Ensenada fish taco experience at the Reel Inn, a seafood restaurant in Malibu. It has semi-Americanized fish tacos, served with fresh salsa, cheese, lettuce and tomato. They are a little pricey at dinner, but there is a lunch special on Tuesdays: two fish tacos for $3.50. And as they say out here at the edge of the earth, If it's Tuesday, I'm there, dude.

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