From Santa Barbara to San Diego, California, visit the seafood dives serving the best fish tacos.
The beauty of the fish taco is that, if done well, it doesn't require much to blow your mind: a soft tortilla, golden-brown fish hot from the fryer, a drizzle of tangy white crema, and a squeeze of lime. Is there any food which better evokes that laid-back, hazy euphoria so often associated with Southern California beach culture? No way, José.
The fish taco's origin story goes something like this: Tempura-loving Japanese fishermen trawled the waters off the Ensenada coast, passing along their culinary know-how to locals and giving way to a beer-battered style traditionally topped with chopped cabbage, salsa, and little else. But the crispy creation really took off north of the border thanks to California surfer Ralph Rubio, who opened one of San Diego's first fish taco stands in the 1980s, later expanding his namesake chain to more than 200 locations across six states.
Despite its national popularity, the spiritual home of the fish taco remains that sandy stretch from Santa Barbara to San Diego, a length of coast where surfers and sunbathers gather over a few sauce-dripping beauties scarfed off the hood of a car or a weathered picnic table. You could drive this iconic section of highway for the scenery alone, and many do, but it wouldn't be complete without savoring the countless interpretations of what is SoCal's unoffical official dish. As you cruise with the windows down, think of these fish tacos as edible mile markers, leading you southward to where the magic began.
Related: How to Make Chicken Wonton Tacos
Santa Barbara's East Beach Tacos, a few blocks from the surf, is a true diamond in the rough. Order the ahi poke tacos in a crisp wonton shell from the fusion-friendly menu, and buy tokens to take a few swings at the batting cages afterward; eastbeachtacos.com.
A self-described "boutique surf hotel," the '70s-chic Kimpton Goodland in nearby Goleta equips each room with vintage vinyl, plus a long list of Central Coast wines to sip on the patio. Rates start at $221; thegoodland.com.
Head down the 101 to Ventura's famed Spencer Makenzie's, a neon-lit, teal-colored diner on downtown's main drag where locals order tempura-fried tacos "Brooklyn Style," which adds a dollop of sweet chili sauce and the creamy house Spencer sauce. Wash it down with one of the many beers on draft, including the hoppy Chief Peak IPA from Topa Topa Brewing, which has its brewpub a short walk away; spencermakenzies.com.
Wind down the Pacific Coast Highway through the heart of SoCal and stop for lunch at chef David LeFevre's Fishing with Dynamite, perched on a steep hill overlooking Manhattan Beach. At his bright, new-school raw bar, LeFevre pairs grilled yellowtail with red cabbage, spicy crema, and guacamole from local avocados. The corn tortillas are made in-house, but it's the crunchy furl of chicharrón balanced on top that really gets your attention; eatfwd.com.
Make a brief detour inland and grab a sunny patio seat at chef Carlos Salgado's upscale prix fixe–menu restaurant Taco María, which mercifully turns à la carte during lunch hours. Salgado, a veteran of the Bay Area gastronomy scene, reimagines the humble fish taco in virtuosic ways. For his pescado frito taco, local black cod is beer battered and fried to a delicate crisp. Shaved cabbage, seasonal fruit, and smoky charred-scallion aïoli complete what might as well be a piece of art presented on a handmade blue corn tortilla; tacomaria.com.
After sampling the high-end taco offerings, it's time to get a little down and dirty deep in the heart of surfer-dude territory. Head to beach bum–beloved Normitas Surf City Taco in Huntington Beach, a walk-up taco stand next to a liquor store and a short drive from the shoreline. (Flip-flops and board shorts welcome.) Here, thick strips of white mahi mahi are fried to a deep bronze, stacked with shredded cabbage on double corn tortillas, and then slathered with white sauce and peppery pico de gallo; 714/960-8730.
If you can pry yourself away from the beachview hot tub, The Paséa Hotel & Spa is a few steps from Huntington Beach's Pacific City, a fashion-forward shopping center with its own food hall. Rates start at $200; meritagecollection.com/paseahotel.
The ranch- and Cheddar-topped fish tacos at brunch spot Brigantine might not scream authenticity, but there's a reason that these hearty, extra-crunchy versions have landed on local "best of" lists many years running: They're excellent. Brigantine has seven San Diego locations to choose from (the oldest has been open since 1969), but the one in Del Mar boasts a stunning view of the racetrack at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club; brigantine.com.
The secluded Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa offers mellow cabana vibes in a cool Spanish Colonial hideaway—you'll feel like a silent-film starlet escaping for a weekend retreat. Rates start at $179; meritagecollection.com/estancialajolla.
As much a fish market as a taco spot, Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill near the San Diego airport is one of the few places in town where you can pick out your fillet before it's cooked. A dizzying array of local seafood—from wahoo to snapper to shark—fills the long, refrigerated case, just waiting to be brushed with smoky chipotle butter and grilled to order. If you prefer your fish cooked to medium-rare, try the seared ahi tuna dressed with a few slivers of avocado, shredded cabbage, and the house sauce; bluewaterseafoodsandiego.com.
A good rule of thumb: the fish taco game only gets better as you head closer to Baja California. And you don't get much closer than the quaint, family-run Mariscos El Pescador, a canopied food truck parked just 10 minutes from the Mexico border. You might be tempted to sample the spicy seafood cocktails or the sautéed garlic shrimp, but whatever you do, don't leave without trying one of the puffy Ensenada-style tacos, set off with a chile de arbol salsa and a squeeze of lime. It's the best fish taco you'll find without a passport; mariscoselpescadorsd.com.
Best Time to Go
Summertime, when marlin, yellowtail, and bigeye tuna are migrating through the warm coastal waters, is the obvious option. But given Southern California's ubiquitous sunshine, making the drive in late spring or early fall is smart if you want to avoid the crowds.