In Search of Fish Tacos in the Twin Cities
In my short stint as an Angelino, I grew a hefty appetite for fish tacos. On Sundays, I would roll out of bed, walk a few blocks to my local farmer’s market and enjoy two fish tacos, and cold press coffee while people watching on a nearby stoop. Eating fish tacos on Sunday mornings became a ritual I couldn’t live without, it was my unique version of Sunday brunch. In Minneapolis, this ritual has been replaced by other unique rituals, but I still crave fish tacos every now and again. This craving for fish tacos has only increased since the summer started. I have found myself dipping my feet into Minneapolis’s soothing lakes and thinking, where are all the fish and how can I eat them lightly battered, fried, and wrapped in a corn tortilla with cabbage, creme, and squirt of lime? But nearly everywhere I look, all I find is lifeless grilled fish, carelessly shoved inside a bland flour tortilla. Sure, this grilled version is undoubtedly healthier, but never fails to leave me horribly unsatisfied.
Before we continue, let’s take a little step backward for a quick history lesson on Mexico’s multicultural past. The battered and deep fried fish tacos I crave are often referred to as Ensenada or Baja Style fish tacos. This is because, not surprisingly, they originate from Ensenada, Mexico. Ensenada is a coastal town in Mexico’s Baja California, about 80 miles south of San Diego. Sitting on San Miguel Bay, Ensenada is a cruise ship destination known for their famous fish market and fish taco stands. But, with hundreds of other towns lining the beautiful coastal beaches of Mexico, and thousands of fisherman setting traps along these pristine beaches, why then did Ensenada become the fish taco mecca? The answer is, surprisingly, the Japanese.
At the beginning of the 20th century there was large influx of Japanese immigrants to Mexico both as contracted labors and as free individuals. A number of these Japanese immigrants ended up in Baja California, where they worked in the farming and fishing industries. This influx of immigrants was so significant that in 1930 the Asociaion Japonesa de Ensenada (Japanese Association of Ensenada) was established. Although today the Japanese population in Ensenada has dwindled, the Asociaion Japonesa de Ensenada continues to provide services and cultural activities to Japanese-Mexicans in the area.
When cultures mix, so do their foods. The story of Ensendada-style fish tacos is one of my favorite multicultural tales, whether fictional or true. Mark Miller explains, “Batter-fried fish tacos as we know them in the United States originated in the 1930’s in Ensenada, Mexico, home to a large Japanese immigrant population who worked in the fish industry there. Along with their skills as fisherman, the Japanese also brought with them the technique for tempura—deep frying fish in batter. The Mexicans adapted this technique to make tacos, using young shark, a very inexpensive local catch that held up beautifully when fried.” Essentially, the Japanese brought their light, airy tempera batter to Mexico where it was slathered on some delicious coastal shark, fried, placed in between a corn tortilla and lathered with toppings. What’s more, the Portuguese likely introduce the tempura technique to the Japanese—but we won’t get into that here. Suffice it to say Ensenada style fish tacos are multiculturalism at its best.
As for my craving, it has been a long two weeks searching out and eating every fried fish taco I could get my hands on. When push comes to shove, Tiki Tim’s Food Truck gets my vote for the best Ensenada style fish tacos in the Twin Cities (pictured above). Their batter is light and airy with the necessary crunch, the fish is moist, mild and unintimidating, and all the necessary toppings have found their way inside the soft flour tortilla. It’s not surprising Tiki Tim’s comes the closest to meeting my demands, as owners Shannon & Tim are also former Californians. Although it may be difficult to look at Tiki Tim’s fish tacos and see all of the history and intercultural relationships at work, it is easy to look at Tiki Tim’s fish tacos and not wait another second before eating up their multicultural goodness.
For what’s its worth, I also hit up Vellee Deli Food Truck, Muddy Waters, Sea Salt Eatery, and Adelita’s Mexican Restaurant. All of their fish tacos were good but they weren’t exactly what I was looking for. At least, they didn’t send nostalgic memories of Sunday mornings rushing back to me. Adelita’s had all the right topping but the fish was battered in cornmeal as opposed to tempura style. Vellee Deli’s fish tacos, which are beer-battered and include shredded cabbage and pico de gallo definitely take second billing but I am inclined to stick to their burritos and baguettes, which are phenomenal.
Muddy water’s fish tacos (pictured above) are fired in lager tempura batter and topped with a large handful of creamy cabbage coleslaw. With two of them to a plate, it is quiet a meal for only $8.
Sea Salt Eatery’s fish tacos (picture above) are enormous and come with a generous portion of cilantro and salsa. Tasty, but I think their fired crawfish po’boy is really where it’s at.
I understand that making Ensenada style fish tacos isn’t particularly easy, that it requires more effort than just grilling fish, and that it takes away from the flavor and purity of the fish. But dammit, Ensenada style fish tacos are tastier and with a history that nearly circumnavigates the world, they are way more interesting too.
 The Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego. September 24, 2009. Ensenada Japanese Association. http://jahssd.org/ensenada-japanese-association/.
 Miller, Mark. 2009. Tacos. Berkeley, CA:Ted Speed Press. Pg. 68.
 Morieda, Takashi. n.d. Tracking Down Tempura. The World of Kikkoman. http://www.kikkoman.com/foodforum/thejapanesetablebackissues/06.shtml