On September 20, 2007 I was sitting at a lunch table at work, reading the Chicago Tribune. Steve Dahl, long-time columnist and radio-personality, most famously known for the Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, wrote an article that appeared in the paper that day concerning one of his favorite childhood comfort foods: the Baja Fish Taco.
"There was a family by the roadside with two 55-gallon oil drums overturned and converted to stoves. One was pounded concave like a steel drum and the other was left flat. The concave drum was filled with hot lard. After the father and son filleted a Baja rock cod right before our eyes, they tossed it into the lard. The other drum served as a griddle for the handmade tortillas that the women were making. The Baja fish tacos were 5 cents that day, and I'm sure I ate a dollar's worth. No breading, no cabbage, no sauce. Just fresh fish cooked on the spot in a fresh corn tortilla. It was heaven on earth, quite possibly my best childhood memory..."
In the same edition of the paper, columnist Kevin Pang wrote an accompanying article in the At Play section, lamenting the scarcity of the Baja Fish Taco in Chicagoland,
"It is a travesty that Chicago, America's third-largest metropolis, lags so far in per capita fish taco consumption. True, you can find it, as I did at about a dozen restaurants, under the "fish taco" umbrella. Both fish and taco components are present. But often the fish comes grilled and topped with foreign accouterments -- mango salsa, citrus slaw and the like -- and that, to me, is a fish taco phony. A lie."
"For a true fish taco, certain conditions must exist...It begins with warm corn tortillas (flour is too heavy), typically two almost-translucent thin rounds. The fish is white-fleshed and neutral tasting: Rockfish, cod or tilapia are popular, as are mahi-mahi and shark. The finger-length fish pieces are beer-battered -- the carbonation giving the batter a light tempura crunch. On top goes cabbage, pico de gallo, then a thin, mayonnaise-based cream sauce, approximating tartar sauce without the pickled tang. A squeeze of lime is mandatory.That's it. Simple and abundantly available ingredients, and its construction couldn't be easier. But it is not to be found in Chicago."
I was very, very intrigued by these articles, which should be read in their entirety. They discuss the merits of the perfect Baja Fish Taco, conflicting stories of its hazy origins, and how it came to the United States.
Kevin Pang insisted that since the restaurant Tacos del Pacifico on the far South Side departed (in 2005) no establishment could boast a true Baja-sytle fish taco. Pang therefore proclaimed,
"The Chicago Fish Taco Revolution begins now. If you haven't tried a Baja fish taco, try one. With your newfound appreciation, tell three friends about fish tacos. Talk about them. Embrace them. If your favorite Mexican restaurant (or non-Mexican, for that matter) doesn't serve fish tacos, ask for them. No, demand them. But be nice about it, and promise to return if they do. Restaurateurs: Put Baja fish tacos on your menu. Show your support. We printed a couple hundred "FISH TACOS" bracelets. If you pledge allegiance to fish tacos, I'll send you a bracelet."
Now, I am not a political man. When campaigning and debate comes on the television or radio I usually turn it off. But after reading these articles I was ready to march down to my local polling office and declare my party affiliation: YES for Fish Tacos!
Kevin Pangs cry did not go unanswered, he received nearly 600 requests for FISH TACOS bracelets before noon that day. A few weeks later, I received my blue-green silicone bracelet in the mail and wore "FISH TACO" on my wrist with pride. But the restaurants that were cited in the article were in the city and I never got around to any of them. I did not find any fish tacos in any of the restaurants that I ate at in the following months. My appetite had been whetted but went unfulfilled.
Fortunately on November 1, 2007, Kevin Pang proclaimed that his campaign was over! Over 2,500 requests, including mine, were received. A few restaurants wrote it to inform Pang that they added fish tacos to their menu. Readers wrote in about fish taco spots that were missed in the original article. Best of all, the article said that they "confidently found their favorite Baja-style fish taco in Chicagoland" right in my childhood hometown of Glen Ellyn, Illinois at a place called Chick N' Salsa!
"While their cumin, apple and pineapple juice-marinated chicken -- grilled whole over an open flame -- was fantastic, it should be fish tacos that make them famous. A light and craggy batter cocoons a thick strip of tilapia, topped with green and red cabbage, julienne carrots, diced cucumbers, cilantro and a piquant chipotle-adobo cream sauce. Crunchy, fragrant, fresh and bright -- stick 'em in a taste test with fish tacos from San Diego, and we wouldn't be able to tell the difference."
With high expectations, I made a stop over at Chick N' Salsa that weekend before band practice for my first Baja Fish Taco experience. I received three tacos: white corn tortilla; tilapia in what can be best described as a beer batter; moist, crunchy, everything good about a proper traditional fish fry; topped with a red cabbage coleslaw that had a good blend of tang and a bit of spicy heat as well. The slaw was the perfect counterbalance to the savoriness of the fish. And it was piping hot. As I savored the tacos I tried to cool them in mid-chew with my breath. They were indeed, delicious. The bar had been set for all other fish tacos to come!
After this first Baja Fish Taco experience, I have steadily found them with increasing frequency on other menus in Chicago. It seems that Kevin Pang's and Steve Dahl's revolution has been successful. The only place that I have found that has rivaling the fish tacos at Chick N' Salsa is at Bien Trucha in Geneva Illinois. Their tacos are little guys, 4 per order, and a bit more simplistic that that at Chick N' Salsa. But both tacos share the battered and deep fried unmami goodness and the counterbalancing spicy, tangy red slaw that is the essence of the Baja Fish Taco.