The Beachcomber

Balance of Flavor: Fish Taco Gets Its Day in the Summer Sun

Celebrated Mexican Street Food, Creative or Traditional, Is All Over the Island
By JON COEN | Jul 17, 2015
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

It is said that fish tacos predated the conquistadores. Native peoples of Mexico used to wrap small bits of fish in stone-ground corn tortillas (well, they wrapped everything in corn tortillas…). But the first place to become known for the fish taco is said to be Ensenada, a coastal town on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. The traditional street food is generally a fried, flaky white fish in a tortilla with a salsa and shredded cabbage. Basic variations include avocado and a cream-based sauce. The lime is a constant.

Budget travelers from the West Coast in Baja loved them. They became a staple in California, and then spread around the country, synonymous with beach culture. They were easy, affordable and tasty – much like pizza, the taco’s East Coast counterpart.

“Fish tacos are reminiscent of the summertime ideal, travel to exotic places – eating under a palm tree and watching the waves. It’s the good vibe and the relaxed feel,” said Kevin Sparks, owner of El Swell Taqueria in Beach Haven Gardens. “It’s got the warmth of the deep fried fish and the crunch of the cabbage, but then you have the fresh, lighter flavors of the pico de gallo and the lime, all in that earthy, soft corn tortilla.”

In the mid 2000’s, they became all the culinary rage with celebrity chefs, foodies and bloggers gushing about them. They could be found up and down the Jersey Shore. It only took another decade for them to reach LBI… sometimes we’re a little slow to catch on.

There were a few early adopters on Long Beach Island who did their own version of the fish taco. Among the first were Lex Mex, which opened in 2001, and the longstanding Ship Bottom Shellfish, which added the fish taco to their lunch menu 15 years ago.

“We had fish tacos first in Mexico, and then all over Central America, and in Hawaii at my favorite little restaurant where our partner, Eric Magaziner, used to work,” said Bob Nugent of Ship Bottom Shellfish. “We use mahi or cod, and people love them.”

Shellfish deep fries the whole thing – tortilla and all. While neither is the traditional Baja style, they are both amazing and satisfied the Island’s cravings, at least for the summer.

The Lex Mex version is a large grilled tortilla with blackened fish and honey jalapeño tarter. According to owner Greg Luker, it’s the top selling item on the menu year in and year out.

There were a few others, including Off the Hook, Pinky Shrimps, Kubel’s and the Chicken or the Egg’s fish burrito. And for about the last six years, Barry’s Do Me A Flavor has been the go-to fish taco on the South End.

“Basically, my wife, Nicole, had spent time in California and always said what a popular item it was out there. I knew of them, but had probably never had one,” admitted Barry Baxter, who bought Do Me A Flavor in 1987. “Using her as my sampler, I played around with some different fish and came up with beer-battered cod about six years ago.”

It’s been a hit ever since.

“I was more about the cheese steaks, burgers, pizza and flounder sandwiches,” he remarked. “But now fish tacos are about our most popular item. It used to be that of every party, at least one person had a cheese steak. But now at least half the people in every group have tacos. So now we’re trying to switch it up to keep it interesting. Now we do fish tacos with grilled mahi, or shrimp tacos.”

The Baxters, however, will tell you they didn’t bring fish tacos to LBI.

“We can’t take credit. Other people had tried it. We just figured out how to make it manageable for us and affordable for customers,” smiled Baxter.

It used to be that you had to search out places like Barry’s, but last year, BAM! They were everywhere. We may have been slow to the game but we made up for lost time.

In 2014, Kevin and Lara Sparks of the Howard’s Restaurant family opened El Swell. It was a vision that they’d had for years, put on hold by Superstorm Sandy. But everything about it celebrated the fish taco and where it came from, authentic right down to the double corn tortilla, the interior creatively done with Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) skulls, serving Jarritos soda and Mexican street corn.

“When we were planning El Swell, Lara and I took a trip to San Diego. We’d be walking around Pacific Beach hitting every fish taco stand. She’d be shopping in a store and I’d see a taco place across the street. By the time she came out, I’d just had another taco. They were all good,” Kevin recalled.

And the very month they opened, Surf Taco, the Jersey surf-themed eatery, came to Ship Bottom with their namesake fish taco. After opening in Point Pleasant 15 years ago and having wildly successful locations in Manasquan, Long Branch, Lacey, Jackson, Seaside Park, Red Bank and Belmar, they opened on Long Beach Island in the former Captain John’s Mr. Breakfast.

Also in 2014, Port Hole Café had fish tacos on the specials board as a way to use up the cabbage from St. Patrick’s Day; by summer, they were a fixture on the menu. The acclaimed Old Causeway Steak and Oyster House in Manahawkin put a fish taco on the a la carte menu when it opened its doors last summer. And halfway through the summer, La Bamba, the thriving Mexican restaurant that opened on the mainland at Manahawkin Mart, opened a second location in Brant Beach. It was the first taco conceived and made by people of actual Mexican roots on the Island.

“I grew up eating them in Puebla, Mexico,” said Valentin Madrid. “We make them a traditional way, with fresco cheese.”

It was then that all tortilla-wrapped hell broke loose. Drive-ins, burger joints, upscale restaurants, and even pizza parlors suddenly had a sign out front advertising fish tacos!

“I think when Kevin and Lara opened El Swell, with the reputation of Howard’s behind them, it opened the eyes of a lot of businesses. They focused on it and exposed the demand. Then people started jumping on the bandwagon. And now it’s going strong for everyone,” opined Baxter.

Of the new places, La Bamba and Old Causeway survived staying open all winter, so you could even get a fish taco on the mainland in the coldest weeknights of February. This summer, you can also find fish tacos at the new Shore Fire Grill in Surf City and Biggie’s Beach Grill in Beach Haven.

“There are so many varieties of the fish taco. You can go traditional or get into blackened fish with a tropical salsa,” added Sparks, who used the Howard’s signature French fried lobster to create a taco that blended an LBI tradition with the new trend. “There’s so much room to wiggle, as long as the end result is delicious.”

(Photo by: Ryan Morrill)
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