Vegetables should not be the most flavorful items in this photo. Baja Fish Tacos and Grilled Asparagus. Fish 101.
1468 North Coast Highway 101, Encinitas
I'll make the effort for a good fish taco, even if it means hustling up to Leucadia from Golden Hill and standing in line out on the sidewalk along PCH. That's where you find Fish 101, a fresh seafood shack with communal bench seating and an earnest interest in healthy — if sometimes fried — cuisine.
I guess the place recently started serving lunch, but I got there for dinner, just around the time dusk took hold of the coast. It's the the sort of order-at-the-counter situation that seems to be the norm for local fresh-fish spots – hence the line.
A quick glance at this line tells you all you really need to know about what drives the success of this restaurant. You'll see lot of tan faces on guys with lean frames and muscled shoulders. This is surfer country, and it's not tough to imagine the same line-up waiting in the same order, just a few blocks away and a half-hour earlier, to hit a sunset break.
The line-up comes ashore to the Fish 101.
I didn't need the wait to know what I was going to order. I could have opted for grilled fish tacos, shrimp tacos or fish and chips, but a trio of fried Baja fish tacos runs 11 bucks with a mash of avocado on the side, and there's no way I wasn't getting it. Better yet, my favorite — halibut — was on the menu, edging out other choices including yellowtail, white sea bass and mahi mahi.
The fish selection changes depending on what's available fresh, though there do seem to be some staples. With a little more appetite I might have started with oysters, and one of these days I'll really need to check out their poke salad.
Now I mentioned the health-consciousness of the place, and it extends beyond the grilled asparagus I picked up as a side dish. The place uses rice-bran oil to fry their fish. I didn't think much about this as I ordered, because in my head, fried is fried, and that crispy battered Baja style is a guilty pleasure I'll never stop loving. But the oil makes a difference. Well, two differences really.
One is the beauty of the fry. These were great pieces of fish, and fantastically cooked. They were crispy, they were light and flaky, neither too dry nor too greasy. Just about perfect. Just about.
The second difference was flavor. As in, rice bran oil has a very mild one. Really almost no flavor at all. Great as it is, halibut has a mild flavor as well. The cabbage topping? That's not going to do it either. The avocado helped, and the squeeze of lime. But neither the red or green salsa added much, and the only hot sauce on the table was Tabasco, which just doesn't seem right. I mean, this is a San Diego area taco spot, couldn't they at least sport some Tapatío or Valentina?
I wanted more heat. Or complexity. Or a little something from the oil to savor. I've never felt so good about eating during or after a fried taco meal, but ultimately I'd have preferred something dirty and flavorful that my stomach would argue with me about for the next hour. I would recommend Fish 101 for a number of reasons, but when I go back, I'm bringing some Cholula with me.