My first encounter with the dish at the center of this investigation—tacos pescados, a lovely Spanish phrase demoted in English to the snickerworthy "fish taco"—occurred on a night I'll never forget: November 4, 2008. While making my way from the election-night party at Tini Bigs to the one at the downtown Westin—soon after Pennsylvania was called for Obama, with Ohio on the horizon—I realized the type of drinking the night demanded required some food. I ventured into Flying Fish, where there were no TVs, no wireless connection, and little acknowledgement of the sea change under way in the nation. Instead, I found a nice Tuesday-night crowd, seats still available for walk-ins, and a platter of grilled fish tacos so good and satisfying they rank as one of the highlights of a night that would prove to be one monolithic highlight.
Some context: I am not a lifelong fish eater. After 20 years of ovo-lacto vegetarianism, I started eating seafood a couple of years ago and discovered that well-cooked fish (or, as PETA is currently calling it, sea kitten) was what the best tofu aspired to be. I still have little affinity for most seafood—the wet, the shelled, the fishy—but I am a freshly minted connoisseur of a particular brand of whitefish: thoroughly cooked, on the drier side of moist, and thoroughly, wonderfully mellow. The fish at the center of Flying Fish's grilled fish tacos platter ($19.95 small/$24.95 large, both meant to be shared) is a perfect model of the form, served in inch-wide cubes charred deliciously in spots, with crispy outer streaks covering tender inner streaks—all of the perfectly firm flakiness that fuels those tofu-apotheosis rhapsodies. Accompanying the fish are two well-selected garnishes (tangy charred-tomato salsa, cool and creamy guacamole) and, most importantly, handmade corn tortillas.
More context: I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, where I learned to love New Mexico–style Mexican food and hate corn tortillas. Maybe it was my unsophisticated palate, but as a kid, corn tortillas were the sickly cousins of far-superior flour tortillas and seemingly designed to be as rough and flavorless as possible. If flour tortillas were chocolate, corn tortillas were carob. But all my corn-tortilla biases were upended by the tortillas on the Flying Fish taco platter, which came from a different galaxy than the thin, bland sandpaper discs I learned to dread as a kid. The Flying Fish's corn tortillas, with their moist thickness and near-sponginess, were closer in texture to an Ethiopian flat bread. (I might've credited the whole thing to a usually successful yuppie-fusion experiment if I hadn't encountered an almost identical tortilla at another restaurant—Broadway's short-lived El Tajin, an authentic Mexican joint whose homemade corn tortillas I ate once and never forgot.) The right corn tortilla—substantial, quietly flavorful—is a beautiful thing. Live and learn!
My guy Jake shared both the platter and my love for the platter on election night, and he urged immediate comparison with what he hailed as equally amazing fish tacos at La Carta de Oaxaca. Only recently did I follow through, sitting myself down in the stylish and charming Ballard Avenue room for a plate of halibut tacos (three for $10 at lunch). The good-sized chunks of grilled halibut came with nicely crispy bits drizzled in smoked-chipotle sauce, to be augmented at will with offerings from the self-serve salsa bar. (Among many other delights here: a perfectly contentious pico de gallo—the jalapeño kicking the ass of the onion, which takes out its anger on the tomato.)
But again, the most remarkable component of the meal was the corn tortillas, which trounced the dry beige punishments of my youth in an entirely different way than Flying Fish's meaty corn sponges. Instead, La Carta de Oaxaca offered up thin tortillas (made before your eyes behind the counter), flash-fried to chiplike crispiness around the edges while retaining a sturdy softness on the insides. In their own way, the La Carta de Oaxaca fish tacos were exactly as satisfying as those at Flying Fish, but the experience of eating at the latter easily trumped the experience of eating at the former. Flying Fish's build-'em-yourself fish tacos allow trial-and-error experimentation that brings you, leisurely, eventually, to your own ultimate fish taco. It's a goddamn revelation.
If you're now craving tacos pescados, but the economy's got you hurting, Taco Del Mar sells a perfectly good fish taco for $2. The whitefish is breaded and lightly fried (bad for healthiness, good for deliciousness) and laced with fresh cabbage, tomatoes, and salsa, as well as Taco Del Mar's signature mysterious white sauce (optional according to them, mandatory according to your mouth). It is cheap, and it is good.