In America’s culinary landscape, San Diego stands apart for its fish taco, a beach-friendly feast that’s more magical than a dolphin leaping over a sunset: a chunk of fried or grilled fish cocooned by warm tortillas, crowned with crunchy shredded cabbage, luscious cream sauce and perhaps a sprinkle of zippy salsa and a fresh-lime shower. Done right, the filling fish taco is a concert of contrasts — hot and cold, crunchy and soft, spicy and soothing.
Legend has it that the handheld meal was born in Baja California. San Diego surfers, returning from chasing the Mexican state’s tasty waves, brought an appetite for this surfside sustenance back across the border. The taco swept the city like a tidal wave, and now there are hundreds of humble shacks and white-tablecloth restaurants alike serving the signature Southern California dish.
If I had my druthers and a thousand dollars, I’d book a flight to the West Coast and fill my gut with fistfuls of fish tacos. It’d be a perfect summertime splurge. But I’m a freelance writer. My three-digit bank account nixes spur-of-the-moment indulgences — well, at least till I sell a kidney. Thus, my pilgrimages must remain closer to my Brooklyn apartment. Luckily, there’s a bit of the West Coast fish tacos in an unlikely part of the Big Apple.
During the early 20th century, Rockaway, Queens, was an accessible beach escape for middle-class New Yorkers. Here, the fresh waves crashed into the peninsula’s white sands, providing a cooling refuge from the concrete jungle. Post–World War II, the neighborhood plunged into disrepair, as buildings were razed, bungalows crumbled and sandy land sat fallow. Yet in recent years, the Rockaways has regained its cachet thanks to, first and foremost, surfers.
Don’t scoff. While New York City’s waves can’t compete with California’s liquid skyscrapers, the swells are, well, swell enough to ride. Finding a great place to eat after frolicking in the breakers? Not so simple. That’s why, a few summers back, NYC restaurateur David Selig and chef Andrew Field had the notion to bring San Diego–style sustenance to the city’s surfers. The twosome transformed a weather-whipped shack into the scruffy, lovably ramshackle Rockaway Taco. It was as if a penguin had toddled onto Venice Beach.
Replicating the look is simple. But the outdoor taco shack has also created a fish taco that can stand toe-to-toe with San Diego’s finest. Field coats long logs of tilapia in a beer batter, then deep-fries ’em till they’re as crunchy as carrots and as a golden as a beach sunset. The fish is nestled atop chewy, griddle-warmed corn tortillas then finished with paper-thin radish slices, shredded cabbage a creamy sauce and fresh guacamole.
Come summer, I ride the subway to Rockaway Taco weekly, too weak to resist the fish taco. I bring two to the beach, take a bite and cinch my eyes. It’s the quickest trip to San Diego a New Yorker will ever take.