On bright, sunny, San Diego days, I often crave a crisp, Ensenada-style fish taco. With apologies to Ralph Rubio — and the popular bar-and-grill that tops their fish tacos with a concoction that includes ranch dressing — the first places that come to mind are the loncheras (food trucks) serving up mariscos (seafood) around San Diego County. Tacos de pescado handed to you out of a window of one of these trucks are better, both for your wallet and your taste buds, than what you’d get at any sit-down establishment.
I’m glad folks are warming up to food trucks, although sometimes it strikes me as more hype than hope. I grew up eating at food trucks in Hawaii; we called them lunch wagons. Tsukenjo and Kewalo’s were regular stops on our daily lunch rotation, so initially I had a hard time understanding what the big deal was about the food-truck movement. Especially since some excellent mariscos trucks, like Mariscos German, have been serving up tasty cócteles, tacos, and tostadas for some time. I’ll take that over the latest iteration of con-fusioned beef bulgogi tacos topped with canned mandarin oranges and sriracha-based sauce any day of the week.
When it comes to fish tacos, two of my favorite trucks are located in Chula Vista, a mere two miles from one another. On visits, I’ve noticed that each has a loyal following. The trucks are easy to find. Look for lines of customers waiting under a hastily set-up tarp, sipping on steaming Styrofoam cups of seafood consommé, the standard prelude to a mariscos meal. The hours are also the same, starting at about 10:00 a.m. and closing later in the afternoon.
I’ve been eating at Mariscos el Pescador for almost two years. The truck is located in the parking lot of the Toys “R” Us off the I-5 L Street exit in Chula Vista. You can’t miss it. The drill is simple: first, get in line at the order window. It used to be that the folks here didn’t speak much English, but things have changed. You order your fish taco, maybe throw in a gobernador (sautéed shrimp-onion-bell-pepper taco) or perhaps a taco de marlin (smoked fish). Then you give them your name. For some reason, they often get mine wrong, but they can call me whatever they want as long as I get my tacos.
Out of another window, a few cups of consommé will appear. One of them has your name on it, figuratively, of course. Eventually, tacos appear in a little tray on the sill. I’ve never seen the system fail. You either pay up front or wait and order some more. The fish tacos here will set you back a buck-and-a-quarter. Each has a generous piece of whitefish, battered and fried to a golden brown. There’s a nice flavor to the batter, and the fish is always moist; occasionally, there’s a mild sweetness, to boot. The fish is topped with shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, cilantro, and onions. Then there’s the all-important crema Mexicana on top. I like the version at El Pescador. It isn’t too heavy, or mayonnaise-y, nor is it a faux ranch-dressing topping. The proportion of toppings to tortilla and fish is perfect for my taste; this isn’t a fried filet lost in a sea of cabbage, pico de gallo, and crema. If you visit Mariscos el Pescador, I encourage you to try the cócteles. As for aguachile (where acid cooks the fish rather than heat), I think Mariscos German has them beat on that one.
A two-mile drive from Mariscos el Pescador, at the corner of Main and Fourth Avenue, is the Maricscos el Prieto truck. Residing in one of those warehouse-shopping complexes, I knew el Prieto was doing some serious business from the minute I drove into the lot. I’d never seen a lonchera with its own designated parking spaces.
To get a fish taco here, you’ll have to part with a buck. That’s it, one dollar. The procedure is the same, except that where el Pescador has a few plastic patio chairs, there’s nothing to sit on here. You’ll still get the consommé, and you’ll get some great fish tacos. The first time I had the tacos de pescado at el Prieto, I recall how wonderfully fried they were. The batter here is crisp, similar to a lacquered tempura batter. On that visit, I thought the fish a bit dry. But on two subsequent visits (easy to do, when the food costs a buck), the fish was moist and tender. It’s smaller than el Pescador, but I really enjoy the batter. There’s a bit more cabbage and pico de gallo in these tacos, and the crema has more of a mayo flavor. The combination of textures overcomes any balance-of-flavor issues.
As I was finishing up my tacos from el Prieto, elbows propped on the hood of my car; a breeze blew over the strawberry fields across the street. It was the perfect dessert for a satisfying meal. ■