On Sunday afternoon, Luis Villalva gently slipped two battered pieces of tilapia into the deep fryer at his restaurant El Come Taco. Minutes later they emerged, like fish sticks entombed in a blistered golden brown. Villalva placed the two pieces of fish on honest, double-stacked tortillas, added coarsely chopped cabbage, pickled onions, tomatoes and a drizzle of thick, white crema, and an employee shuttled the plate to my table.
The fish taco -- it's a very good one, by the way, reminding me of the versions served in southern California, on the coast -- is a new addition to Villalva's menu, but that's not all that's changed at his taqueria recently: the wedges cut from Persian limes that are religiously served alongside his tacos, have been switched out for Mexican or Key Limes.
Villalva told me prices influenced the recent decision. Since opening his taqueria on Fitzhugh Avenue last year, the costs of a case of Persian limes have gone from $25 to nearly $120, the number Villalva says was his pinch point. (National prices are hovering around an average of $100 a case.) The smaller Mexican limes are now more affordable, he says.
Across the country, restaurateurs are feeling this sting like lime juice in the eye, and looking for new ways to make lime-intensive recipes like margaritas. Media outlets from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times are publishing stories claiming that the recent price run-up could quickly become the new normal. If this sounds a little like the bacon shortage that turned out to be a non-event, you should note that prices have already increased by 400 percent. The lime shortage is here right now, and some predict that it could be forever. Here's why:
Heavy rains knocked blossoms from trees before they could set this spring, combined with the same greening disease that has wreaked havoc on domestic citrus farmers, cutting lime production in Mexico by two-thirds.The decreased supply lead to an unprecedented increase in prices that is causing other farmers to harvest early. Premature harvests result in smaller limes that only decrease the supply further.
Making matters worse, criminals have seen an opportunity in the ramped up prices and are hijacking trucks that are headed the border. And the problem will only escalate as greenling disease continues to spread and affects groves that are even more important to supply in future years.
This means your margarita just got more expensive to make, and Mexican restaurants that use real lime juice will be scrambling to find a solution before Cico De Mayo.
One strategy? The key lime may be one good substitute. Those considering the smaller, more seedy, more aromatic fruit should know it's the citrus of choice in Mexico. Other restaurants like Cool & Hot, pictured below, are embracing the lemon for its tartness and superior juiciness. Still other restaurants are using the same old limes at four times the cost, which will likely be passed on to customers if nothing changes soon.
However local restaurants handle the shortage, there are at least two lessons to be learned from this whole mess. First, we should all go out and get drunk on margaritas immediately, because while the iconic drink will likely not disappear completely, they could get more expensive, soon. Second, the tale of the lime tells a lesson about the importance of biodiversity in our food change. The reliance on one specific species of fruit, seed or animal increases its sensitivity to price swings when the unexpected comes.