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In Love with the Fish Taco and Its Hometown

Having moved seven times in the past 12 years, I have two pieces of advice: (1.) Don't move seven times in 12 years. (2.) If you must, then make the seventh move to San Diego.

San Diego is America's finest city (so says our web site). It certainly has glorious weather and gorgeous beaches. It also has the fish taco.

The fish taco is to San Diego what the Philly cheese steak is to Philadelphia or the lobster roll is to Maine. In fact, if you go to a Padres game here, you are likely to see as many people eating fish tacos as hot dogs.

Like most street food, a fish taco is paradoxical: Its humble appearance belies its bliss-inducing capabilities. That's because like San Diego, the fish taco has it all: It's crispy and creamy; it's spicy and salty. It's got that elusive umami (a savoriness from the protein) that satisfies your taste buds and quells your worst hunger.

The fish taco is made by placing hot, crispy fried fish on a lightly charred corn tortilla then topping it with a symphony of sauces. A silky mayo sauce clings to the fish and contrasts delightfully with a fiery chilies de arbol sauce and a cooling avocado sauce. Then it's topped off with crunchy shredded green cabbage and a zippy pico de gallo. It's a gustatory experience as beautiful and eclectic as the place from which it originated, Baja California, Mexico.

A mere 15 miles from downtown San Diego, Baja California is an 800-mile-long peninsula renowned for its remarkably varied geography and its singular cuisine.

Though rooted in Mexican tradition, Baja cuisine is distinct from mainland Mexican cooking. Since virtually all points on the peninsula are no more than 50 miles from a body of water, seafood plays a starring role in many dishes. Also, its physical separation from mainland Mexico has allowed Baja cuisine to evolve independently.

Indeed, over centuries, many ethnic influences helped shape Baja's culinary character. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers were enticed to colonize Baja because they believed it was an island of earthbound paradise replete with jewels. When they found neither an idyll nor a treasure, they largely abandoned it, leaving their Spanish culinary traditions to marinate with indigenous practices for the next 150 years.

In this interim, both Asian and European seafarers visited Baja on fishing and trading expeditions between the Orient and the West. What emerged was a splendid mix of Mexican, Spanish and Asian cuisines, the consummate example of which is the fish taco.

In its simplest form, a taco is a tortilla wrapped around a filling, and tortillas have been a staple of the Mesoamerican diet for centuries. Most gastronomes speculate that the fish taco emerged when Asians introduced Baja natives to the practice of deep-frying fish. When this battered fried fish was combined with traditional Mexican toppings, the fish taco was born.

Modern fish tacos emerged in the 1950s in the Baja city of either Ensenada or San Felipe; it's an ongoing debate, with both cities claiming to be the "home" of the fish taco. From their tiny stands, street vendors in these cities produced simple, inexpensive fare fast. The fish taco was hot, fresh and delicious — the perfect combination for hungry workers and market goers.

It's no surprise then that San Diego surfers heading across the border to chase the best "swell" (a word I heard countless times before I realized they were talking about waves) were some of the first people from the States to appreciate fish tacos.

Among them was Ralph Rubio, a San Diegan so smitten after his first taste, that in 1983 he opened a restaurant in Mission Beach, Calif., that specialized in fish tacos. Defying skeptics who thought Americans would find fish in a tortilla unappetizing, Rubio has now sold more than 50 million fish tacos at his 160 Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill restaurants in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah.

Fish tacos are ubiquitous here. They're served at beach shacks as well as posh dining establishments, and the recipe continues to evolve. With choices ranging from grilled mahi mahi with tomatillo salsa to boiled lobster with chipotle lime butter, there really is something for everyone. The one thing that San Diegans agree on is that the best fish tacos are the ones eaten hot as you drip dry in the sun waiting for the next swell.

You don't have to move to San Diego, though, to enjoy fish tacos; heck, you don't even have to visit here (although I would highly recommend it). No matter where you live, the ingredients are easy to come by and the preparation is the same.

Keep in mind that like the cheese steak and the lobster roll, fish tacos are best enjoyed with good company and a cold beer. So invite a bunch of friends over for Baja tacos; you do the frying, they do the assembling. No china plates, no silverware, just lots of napkins.

For the record, I don't foresee an eighth move. Although I could make fish tacos anywhere, I know I'd miss the sand between my toes too much. Plus, there's something to be said for wearing flip-flops in February.

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Susan Russo