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Fish Tacos Swimming in Popularity, Cali-Style

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Fish tacos had a banner year in 2010, but California-style tacos made with beer-battered tilapia and chipotle mayonnaise are still outpacing the grilled fish variety more commonly served in Mexico.

According to a survey from industry research firm Technomic, the number of fish tacos on restaurant menus surged 22 percent in the first half of 2010. The trend was led by corporate chains, including Long John Silver's, California Pizza Kitchen, Chuy's, Marie Callender's and Uncle Julio's, all of which debuted fish tacos this year.

But the study, reported by Nation's Restaurant News, also showed more than half of fish tacos feature fried fish, variously described as "crisp," "battered" and "breaded."

Urban Taco owner Markus Pineyro, who grew up in Mexico City, didn't discover fried fish tacos until he moved to Orange County, California, where chains including Rubio's and Wahoo's did a steady business in Mexican-ish fish finger wraps. When Pineyro three years ago designed the menu for his Mockingbird Station eatery, he decided to forgo frying, instead riffing on fresh red snapper entrees he recalled from Acapulco.

"We didn't do any batter or anything," he says.

Pineyro positions his tacos somewhere between the tacos developed in SoCal and the plain grilled fish bundled in flour tortillas he sometimes sees for sale at Central Market. He says there's been a steady increase in demand for fish tacos, a phenomenon he attributes to growing interest in healthy foods and authentic Mexican cooking.

"I think now people are more receptive," Pineyro says. "We've created something of a culture where that food is more accepted now. The fish taco is definitely growing in popularity, and maybe it's not just California style."

Still, Pineyro says, a fish taco can be a harder sell on a cold, wintry day.

"A beer, fish taco and the patio is better in 80-degree weather," he says.

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