The 2nd place winner, fried mahi mahi and mango salsa by Cardiff's Tower 13.
2816 Historic Decatur Road #116, San Diego
1026 Wall Street, San Diego
639 J Street, San Diego
4346 Bonita Road, Bonita, CA
The Blind Burro booth serves its crispy fish tacos to TKO contest attendees.
A day later, I'm still reeling from the number of fish tacos I attempted to eat at the San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival's Fish Taco TKO Competition. Thirteen restaurants participated, some well known, some seeking to make a name for themselves. Three went home winners, with Sandbar, Tower 13 and Tequila Bar voted one, two and three, respectively, by the esteemed judges — as detailed in Part 1.
Of course, the judges were all of those of us lucky enough to attend. Everybody got a vote — two, actually — and diligently spent a beautiful evening sucking down tacos. So you have to believe the results were more accurate than the national mid-terms. At worst, some restaurants did a better job convincing their customer bases to show up.
However, Stone Brewing hosted the thing, and their fish taco didn't even place, although I believe it could have. Featuring grilled monkfish on corn tortillas with poblano bacon jam and pickled nopales (cactus), this taco exists mostly in the spirit of competition, throwing a bunch of creative ingredients into it with gusto. The monkfish grilled really well, tasting great with a steak-like consistency. The jam may've come off a little sweet, though if anything kept people from voting for it, it could be that some people are turned off by the texture of nopales. Not me — I dug it.
A few other tacos failed to place that I think deserve notice. La Jolla's Puesto showed up with its trademark crispy melted cheese to go with braised rockfish al pastor on a corn tortilla. Presentation played a role, as each taco was delicately assembled with avocado slices and pineapple habanero pico, anchored by savory chipotle hibiscus sauce. It came off a little wet, but looked and tasted fantastic, and complementary to the whole Puesto menu.
A photo provided by Puesto of its TKO entry: braised rockfish al pastor.
Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro, from Bonita, brought shark on a corn tortilla, topped by cabbage, bayo beans, carrot confit, the Mexican sour cream jocoque, escabeche onions and pork skin chicharrones. As you might gather, there was a lot going on with this one. My first bite into this taco, a rather big chicharrone dominated, but once I got past that the shark and other fixings got into the mix — tough to define, but unquestionably tasty.
Finally, one of my votes went to Blind Burro. They presented a grilled chipotle butterfish served with habanero slaw and pumpkin seeds within a crispy corn tortilla dusted with what they referred to as tajin guajillo ash. I'm not sure what they do to the guajillo pepper to acquire ash, but it coated the shell with a smokey, savory flavor that I could only compare to a Dorito Loco taco. Okay, much better than that.
I'd actually like to be dismissive of a crispy taco shell altogether. That's what you use to make gringo tacos, and should have no place in a SoCal taco competition. I'd also call the inclusion of pumpkin seeds as a seasonal ploy meant to impress the hoards of latte drinkers who blather on about pumpkin spice every autumn. But I did eat this taco. The crispiness worked with the soft meaty texture of the fish, and the seeds added an unexpected and pleasant crunch, with a nuttiness that offset the taco's mild heat. This was a strange brand of taco for sure, but it stuck with me, which says something, considering a dozen other tacos tried to do just that.