Spring Break, Girls Gone Wild and Fish Tacos--Go Figure

How appropriate that fish tacos, the perfect beachside snack, were first introduced to the States by an American college student who became obsessed with them while on Spring Break at a Mexican beach. So says Barry Popik, eminent etymologist and Austin guru of word origins.

Although most historians trace the innovation of fish tacos to Baja California, there is some debate as to whether the town of Ensanada or San Felipe is the true source of their birth. Popik points to the latter, citing the tale of college student Ralph Rubio, who traveled every spring to San Felipe to surf, soak up rays, and camp for free on the beach.

One night, a hungry Ralph spotted a tiny taco stand advertising the fishy treat, ordered one, and promptly became obsessed. Popik adds: "Over time, Ralph became pals with Carlos, the man behind the counter."

Carlos showed Ralph how his fish tacos were made. Ralph went back to San Diego and perfected a recipe of his own. Several years later, with his father Ray as partner, he opened his first restaurant - a walk-up stand in Mission Beach. Since that day back in 1983, Ralph, with the help of a lot of great people, has sold more than 50 million fish tacos."

Today, Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill sells his "Beach-Mex" at over 100 locations in five Western states. Gee, most guys try to pick up girls on Spring Break, not entire business empires.

While San Felipe is a tiny village on the Gulf of California, the much larger Pacific port of Ensanada also claims to have spawned the fish taco. In an article entitled "History of Tortilla, History of Taco," What's Cooking America Web site writer Linda Stradley notes that while fish tacos have been popular there since the 1958 opening of the Mercado Negro, Ensenada's incredible fish market, they doubtless have been around for much longer:

"People in the coastal areas of Mexico have been eating fish tacos for a long time.The history of fish tacos could seemly go back thousands of years to when indigenous North American peoples first wrapped the plentiful offshore catch into stone-ground corn tortillas...(Today), the best place to sample them is at any of the small food stands that line the streets around the Mercado Negro. The fish tacos served are simply small pieces of batter-coated, fried fish in a hot corn or wheat tortilla."

What kind of fish is used in fish tacos? Anything that swims, apparently. The classic Rubio's fish taco recipe calls for whitefish, while Food Network gurus Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray offer versions featuring mahi mahi and halibut, respectively. In any case, New York Times writer Sam Sifton says, "For tacos, something fresh and white and firm. Emphasis on the fresh. Out in the cold waters off Montauk (Long Island), the cod bite is on and the flatties are coming soon: Big, doormat flounder, caught on hooks and line."

Unfortunately, our Addison neighbors and residents of The Colony can't just put on their waders and walk out into Long Island Sound for their daily catch. Instead, they must rely on places like Zen Bar, where the beer-battered white fish is combined with tomato, lettuce, fresh cilantro, and jack cheese, then drizzled with chipotle ranch for an almost creamy taste. More delicately textured than crunchy, Zen Bar's tacos are still good enough to keep you from making the long drive to Baja, either Ensanada or San Felipe. Plus, they will no doubt take you back to carefree days on the beach at Spring Break.