Lent may be the season of sacrifice, but it brings a once-a-year treat for Santa Feans: the tacos de pescado at El Chile Toreado.
On Lenten Fridays, the popular food stand on Early Street offers a feast of four fish tacos for $9.95. Spicy tilapia, seared on a grill that might just have magical flavor powers, is tucked into corn tortillas, scattered with corn kernels and heaped with pico de gallo and El Chile Toreado’s potent salsa verde. It might be difficult to remember Jesus wandering and starving in the desert while you’re scarfing down such a meal.
Eating fish on Fridays, or any other day, turns out to be no problem in Santa Fe, which boasts a wealth of year-round fish taco options. As I made a recent survey to track down the best, I was heartened to sample several different – and mostly delicious – takes on the Baja California export.
Fish tacos made their way into the U.S. in 1983, when San Diego surfer Ralph Rubio opened a stand based on a recipe he’d picked up on a trip to San Felipe, Mexico. At La Piña Loka, the recently opened taco-and-burrito shack on Cerrillos Road, owner Luis Ortiz is churning out hefty tacos ($8.50 for four) that adhere closely to the classic Baja recipe.
Ortiz batters and fries substantial fillets of cod, which are slathered with a tangy chipotle crema and cradled by soft corn tortillas from nearby Alicia’s Tortilleria. (Many of the fish taco faithful swear by flour tortillas, but corn dominates around these parts.)
La Piña Loka’s addictively crunchy fish is topped with shredded green cabbage, flecks of cilantro and ample wedges of ripe avocado. Alongside lime slices and a whole roasted jalapeño, Ortiz supplies two knockout salsas: a herby tomatillo and a fiery chile de arból with complex spices. Was it the nutty flavor of pepitas that lingered on my singed tongue? Ortiz is keeping silent on his recipes, and rightfully so – no other tacos around town approach his distinctive flavors.
A stretch of North Guadalupe Street could be called “the fish taco corridor,” what with stalwart Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill and relative newcomer Taco Fundación on the same block.
When longtime Santa Feans think fish tacos, they usually think Bumble Bee’s, and for good reason. Their mahi-mahi or salmon tacos ($4.50 each) are ideal for those who prefer their fish grilled, not fried. The charcoal-kissed fish is layered with a jalapeño-cilantro-green onion-lime mayo, slivered cabbage and juicy pico de gallo over two corn tortillas. The two tortillas are strategically key: You’ll need one tortilla to cradle the taco filling and the other to catch what falls out. With a side of cilantro-lime rice ($1), one taco makes for a satisfying light lunch.
Taco Fundación, in comparison, may need to up its fish taco game. We were less than impressed with the Fundación’s $3.50 battered fish (the counter person couldn’t tell us what kind), which tasted more like fryer than fish. It came with a gloopy avocado crema, as well as limp iceberg lettuce instead of cabbage.
Over in the Railyard, Paloma’s sophisticated fish taco ($6) uses a large house-made blue corn tortilla to wrap a crispy chunk of excellent Baja sea bass. In addition to a chipotle mayo, and sweet green and purple cabbage, we loved the zingy cilantro crema.
El Sabor at the Alley Lanes & Lounge in the DeVargas Center offers the most unusual venue for standout fish tacos. Post up at a round table beside a picture window facing the lanes and take notes on each bowler’s form while you await chef Ever Paz’s signature fish tacos ($14 for four). Lumps of cod are cooked in a spicy red sauce, set off by a lightly pickled cabbage and cilantro slaw, and garnished with semicircles of avocado. A side of smooth tomatoey salsa is deceptively fiery at its finish and the salty fish makes a simpatico companion to a draft of Bell’s Hazy IPA, with its tropical fruit and peach notes.
Here’s a little (fish) food for thought: The relative freshness of seafood in the 505 gets a bad rap. Local wholesalers such as Above Sea Level make it possible for Santa Fe chefs to get fish shipments less than a day behind the coasts. And the FDA recommends that even fish eaten raw should be frozen first, so there is little call for snobby hand-wringing about eating fish in the high desert. Jesus should have been so lucky.