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Friday, February 24, 2012

In Search of a Signature

Happy Birthday Venus

          Last weekend, I was smitten with the urge to investigate the fish taco.  Several publications I am aware of have described the fish taco as San Diego's signature dish, so bundling Lady Bonnie into the pickup, I set out on a safari to bag the best one in town.  What I discovered included a couple of rather nasty surprises.  The first was cost.  Fish tacos evoke a sense of the southern California beach culture, surfers chowing down as they lounge on the tailgates of their woodies, and vagabond beachcombers stopping for a snack at the bait shop on the pier.  Alas, like so many other things, I discovered that big money has moved into this field, and is ruining it for everybody.  The local beach bum is going to have to pick up cans and bottles for a month of Sundays to indulge in some of these particular treats.

           Our first stop was El Pollo Loco (sp: The Crazy Chicken).  This chain has been running a series of ads for a fish taco over the last couple of weeks, and as I am a big aficionado of both fish and tacos, I found no problem with dropping in to sample the wares. 
          We pulled up in front of our local franchise, and the fish tacos were advertised in the window, $1.99 each.  Without having seen them, my first thought was that Jack in the Box sells two ground beef tacos for $1.00.  First impression:  Seems a little steep.  As we stepped up to the counter, we were confronted with a sign offering a combo meal, two fish tacos, a medium drink, and a "classic side," meaning a small bowl of Spanish rice, pinto beans, or mashed potatoes with gravy, all for $5.00.  Purchased as part of this package, the price suddenly becomes more of a bargain.  So we placed our order for two combos. The taco comes in two flavors, the Classic Baja, and the Spicy Chipotle, and given that my intention was to do a review, I ordered one of each.

          The two tacos are visually identical, being a fried fish patty with traditional Mexican chopped veggies, a white sauce, and a wedge of lime.  It is served on two soft taco shells, which is really quite a good idea.  Fast food tacos can be pretty messy propositions, as anyone who has ever had one come apart on him or her, especially while they're driving, will attest.  Two layers of taco shell don't create an inordinate amount of dough, but still keep the innards in.  The Classic Baja has a decent Mexican food flavor, yet is almost devoid of the peppery bite one associates with south-of-the-border cuisine.  The Spicy Chipotle is virtually the same taco, but with the peppery bite, and I use the word "bite" loosely, because it isn't challenging to the palate, nor does it have the least bit of kick.  Now, El Pollo Loco has an extensive salsa bar with a range of various flavors that can be used to power these dishes up, but, being very familiar with the taste of salsa, I ate mine plain for the purposes of this report.

          Well, I've described the presentation, and I've eaten the food, and now I suppose it's time to deliver the report.  The flavors of both these tacos were quite good, though I found it surprisingly bland for anyone born and raised in the land of Mexican border food.  I should mention that I am way past the age where I enjoy having my mouth set on fire by pepper sauce, and neither of these tacos threatened to assault my taste buds in any way.  As I mentioned, there is a salsa bar to deal with this, and to play devil's advocate, there are fast food shops and taco stands alike around here that serve food items that are flatly inedible due to overspicing, so given the choice of extremes, I'd rather have this one.  The texture, well, it's fish.  They are fried in a batter that has a smoky flavor, adding to the total appeal, and the edges and corners are nicely crisped and add a crunch that the veggies can't pull off alone.  They are the same size as the aforementioned Jack in the Box tacos, so they pretty much have to be purchased in the combo meal to be considered a good value.  I found these to be a very decent food item, and as I've stopped eating so heavily in my old age, the quantity was quite adequate; if you're in the habit of eating two or three Big Macs with large fries, a shake, and a couple of fruit pies, this isn't going to be enough for you.  As a footnote, the rice was very tasty, though a little drier than I prefer it.  That isn't a big problem; I'm sure there are many customers who will find it done to perfection.

          Next stop (not on the same day) was Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill.  There was no ambiguity here; if the fish taco isn't San Diego's signature dish, it certainly is Rubio's.  Opening his first restaurant in 1983, Ralph Rubio brought the fish taco, a Baja finger food, to a delighted southern California audience, and apparently somebody likes it, because he has gone on to open over 150 more in places as distant as Hawaii.

          Appearance-wise, Rubio's offering is almost identical to El Pollo Loco's, right down to the lime wedge.  In taste, I found Rubio's Original fish taco to be almost indistinguishable from El Pollo Loco's Spicy Chipotle.  Almost, because Rubio's breads their fish in a house beer batter that is not as well-done (in cooking terms) as EPL's.  Also, the fish from EPL was a fillet of uniform thickness, sized to fit a taco shell.  Rubio's offered a more natural-feeling cut, being of irregular shape and thickness of approximately the proper size.  In terms of price, Rubio's offered a very similar combo plate, two tacos with two sides but no drink, for $6.49.  Given that the drink had to be purchased separately, El Pollo Loco arrives at the bottom line with a much better value.  Ultimately, at Rubio's, you're going to finish up with an extra side dish and a price tag of at least $8.00, compared with $5.00 at El Pollo Loco.  These were served on a single soft taco that had some thickness to it, and the problem of them coming apart never arose.

          The side dishes were Spanish rice, and a small bowl of pinto beans.  The rice was, again, traditionally flavored, and quite good, though even drier than EPL's.  That, again, is a matter of personal taste, and some folks are going to love it that way.  The beans had a rich, smokey flavor, with a dash of grated cheese on top, and worked well on their own, though they were improved (after my initial taste test) with a shot of green salsa from the salsa bar.  The flavor here was richer than EPL's, though still not possessing any Mexican "kick" at all, and was greatly improved by adding the diner's choice of the several excellent salsas offered at no extra cost, an action I recommend.

          The third and final stop I made (I'll explain why shortly) was at Del Taco.  Del Taco is one of the original Mexican fast food joints, being founded in 1964 (Taco Bell edges them out with a date of 1962), and the only one offering a fish taco.  They call it the Crispy Fish Taco, which means that the batter is crispy; like EPL, Del Taco serves their product on a double soft taco.  There is a combo on the menu of two fish tacos, an order of fries, and a medium drink for $6.29.  One taco by itself sells for $1.89, so that makes this a decent value.

          I expected this to be the cheapest offering, but it's actually the medium-priced meal.  The French Fries were a surprise.  Tasty, mind you, and I'm a big fan, but they sort of put a damper on the, you know, Mexican ambiance of the whole experience.  The drinks with all these meals came out of a soda machine, and are what they are.  The point of it is the tacos, and the immediately obvious difference is that Del Taco's fish tacos come wrapped with a tangy red salsa already on the fish.  The fish is fried to a crispy golden state in a batter that is tasty, though not particularly distinctive.  There is also a lime wedge in the wrapper, which you can apply or not as you wish.  Extra sauces and condiments are of the plastic packet variety in bins by the register.  Despite the unavoidable feel that this is an "Oh, by the way" dish from a burger joint, it was still quite good, and a decent value.

          These were the only three items that I sampled, though I researched a good many more.  I found that Carl's Jr., Jack in the Box, McDonalds, Wendy's, and their ilk don't offer a fish taco, though most of them do offer a beef taco of some sort.  Not a huge surprise, since these places all made their names as burger shacks, and haven't chosen to diversify in this particular direction.  More surprisingly, neither Chili's nor Taco Bell offers one either.  I mean, come on, if the word "Taco" is in your name, doesn't that obligate you to at least cover the whole range of tacos, if nothing else?  Apparently not.  Alberto's Mexican Restaurant offers a single fish taco for $2.20, but the only two locations around here are down at the beach, and I'm not making a fifty mile round trip for a couple of tacos.  Once we get clear of these four chains, we arrive at some upscale Mexican eateries, such as El Torito, On The Border, and a few others which offer a full size meal, of which fish tacos are a part, for $12.00 to $15.00 a person, and you can go up quite a bit from there; I chose not to.

          So, the moment has come for the comparisons.  These fish tacos have a range of quality and presentation that tends to make one or the other superior, depending on how you plan to eat.  If you are going to go into the restaurant, sit at a table, and eat off a plate, the choice lies between Rubio's and El Pollo Loco.  EPL, at $5.00 for a combo, is by far the best value for your dollar.  The dining area, at least where we went, was clean, spacious, well lit with lots of windows, and had plenty of booths and tables.  Rubio's two sides with the lack of a drink drives the price up into the $8.00 range, but means that you're going to get a more rounded, and more filling meal.  It may have the edge in taste as well, as their fish is breaded in a proprietary beer batter that browns up to a perfect crunch and mellow flavor.  Their dining room was even larger, with high, tile-inlaid tables with bar stools to sit on, with the booths in the middle and these high tables around the windows.  Both are clearly designed to support the eat-in experience.  Del Taco's dining area is nothing to write home about, being a rung below McDonald's on the plastic furniture evolutionary scale, BUT, if your situation places you in a position where you need to get your food in a sack (maybe handed to you out the window) and take it home, or eat in the car, then Del Taco starts looking much more favorable.  With their pre-applied salsa, and easy to handle French Fries, they are obviously catering to the food-on-the-go set, and are head-and-shoulders in the lead when it comes to that area.

          In summary, these three tacos are similar enough in taste and texture that the final decision will be made based on individual preference, and influenced by the choice of sides.  Personally, I kind of lean toward the Rubio's, not surprising given that they are the most expensive, and give you the most food, but that's just me; there's hardly anything to choose between the actual tacos.  What was most heartening to me was to verify for myself that the scrumptious fish taco, San Diego's signature dish, is still alive and well in its home city (at least domestically) at an affordable price in its original form; the discouraging part is that there are only four I could find, and who knows for how long?  Anyway, Philly got its cheese steak, N'awlins got jambalaya, San Diego got fish tacos.  If you come for a visit, you can get fish tacos prepared by a master chef for $35.00 a plate if you want to.  A word of advice:  Don't.  If you want the genuine San Diego experience that the locals have enjoyed for years, buy from one of these guys.  I'm comfortable recommending Alberto's, even though I didn't make it down there; the price tells me that you're going to get the real deal.  Then you can go home and tell them that you had the west coast's version of Jambalaya, and it's like nothing else out there.

          As a footnote, I mentioned a second reason I cut this short.  I got my lab results back shortly after we visited the first restaurant.  I have elevated blood sugar levels, and my sawbones is sending me to a pre-diabetic class to learn what it is that I can never eat again, so this was sort of a grand farewell to Junk Food Nation.  I enjoyed it immensely.  It is possible I may do another one of these "crawls" at some point, but if I do, it will be conducted at salad bars and yogurt shops.  The old gray dude, he ain't what he used to be...

Hideout Happenings

          I'll begin this issue of the newscast with a story about books. As many of you know, I have read R. A. Salvatore almost exclusively for the past five years. I have run through, I think, twenty two novels of Drizzt Do'Urden, the renegade dark elf who left his diabolically evil underground society to take his chances in the world of men. These are tales of the acceptance of an outcast, told from the viewpoint of the outcast, and that is a story with appeal for almost everyone; don't we all at least secretly believe that we're the outcast? Well, I've tracked them all down and read them, the early ones twice. I located a spinoff series (5 books) about a priest with a mission, and that was a good read. I thought I was done until next October, when the last book of the current trilogy comes out, but I located The Sellswords, another spinoff that is very interesting concerning what two ambiguous characters, sometimes reluctant allies, sometimes deadly foes, have been doing since they disappeared from the narrative early on. I'm wrapping up Book II, and have one to go, but I'm pretty sure that's it. What will fill the void? Well, thanks to some of my fellow travelers, I believe I have located some nice material to fill the empty space.
          Peter of suggests the Mistborn fantasy trilogy.
          Arabella of has raised the spectre of visiting the ancient Roman occupiers of Britannia in the Ruso series.
          Jennifer of thinks the classic Siddhartha by Hermann Hess would be right up my alley.
          Finally, Richard of believes that Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana will stoke my furnace.

          I intend to try them all, and whether any of them finally rise to defeat the ghost of Drizzt that lives in my psyche, I thank you all for taking the time to reach out to offer these fine works. All will be tackled, and I'll let everyone know how they fared on my rather juvenile palate.

          I told everyone a while back about all my game machines taking a dump within two weeks of each other. Well, check this out: My oldest grandchild, Brian Jr., arrived at the door with his own PlayStation 2 and a stack of games under his arm, and gave them to me. That is an impressive young man, and is going to be a great catch for some young lady one day. Ultimately, I'm not sure whether he's done me a favor or not, but if I can hold the gaming to the end of the day, and make it a pre-bedtime activity, I should be able to continue to have that enjoyment without giving up the rest of my life for it. Thanks, Brian, you da bomb!

          I solved a mystery while I was gone. I tracked down Wil Branca, my newest follower, and he sure didn't make it easy! In fact, it never would have happened if I hadn't had Feedjit. I backtracked a random hit to its originating site, and found There is still no information about him, but he is obviously a cartoonist and an animator who does brilliant work; maybe there's more information there than I think. Anyway, his stuff is a lot edgier than anything you'll find here, being sort of up the same alley as Heavy Metal, but it is also technically brilliant, and I recommend a visit. Fair warning: If you don't like what you find there, don't start with me. We're all thinking adults here, and my best suggestion is if you find any of his material offensive, don't look at it.

          Here's some excitement for your entertainment. There are apparently a group of raccoons living in the space under my house, and they are under siege by another group who wants the real estate. The fights are great, but if one of 'em dies under there, our complex manager is going to have to learn a new trade...

          From the Keystone Kops department (or maybe the John Cleese Police), last Valentine's day, our local gendarmes closed down THE major east-west artery out of San Diego, Interstate 8, serving El Cajon and points east, at the height of the rush hour to have a standoff with an empty car! Bonnie and I saw this on the way to the concert. We were going the other way (thank God!), and I have to tell you, if the west end of that freeway was a bridge to Hawaii, there would have been traffic backed up to Honolulu! San Diego's finest surrounded this car parked on the shoulder, closed off traffic, and took turns barking orders for it to disgorge its passengers. They tired of the game after three hours of the car stubbornly refusing to respond. Approaching behind a wall of riot shields, one intrepid ossifer rose from behind the wall to break the window with his baton, and they chucked a big police dog in. A couple of seconds later, said dog stuck his head out the window, gave an exasperated sigh, and dog-warbled, "Mmmmmmonkees!" thus bringing to a victorious close the Battle of Grossmont. I know about all this because it was the lead story on the news that night and most of the next day, which seems entirely proper to me. The stymied assault force did manage to break loose one of its members to pull us over ten miles down the freeway because it "looked like" I didn't have my seatbelt on. He came up to the window, apologized, and sent us on our way; just one more useless experience... And a footnote: Three days after the incident, the whole thing became a joke on the national news.  Kismet: Bonnie and Nine are watching Downton Abbey as I write this, and one of the characters has just pointed out that, "Life is a game in which the player is required to look ridiculous..."  Perfect!

          Finally, note the poll I have added to the sidebar.  If you are a regular denizen of the Hideout (or thinking about becoming one!), I'm offering you a bit of say in what direction the discussion takes.  Take a moment to click on the one you find the most interesting, and the leading subject will soon appear as the latest feature article.  Just another way I try to maximize the fun...

          Now get out there and live life like you mean it!


  1. As I was with you for 2 of the restaurants, I think that the food at Rubio's was the best, even though I only took a bit of your taco... My food was absolutely dilicious and I liked the little high table we sat at with the view outside. The place was really clean, the condiments bar was REALLY clean and well stocked, and I just generally enjoyed it the most. I am looking forward to doing that again...for something other than fish tacos. Maybe after taxes we can take in some other cuisines and post about that as well. But there are a thousand things to do and going to them with you just makes them better! I am glad you are going to be more spontaneous....I'm all about variety and spice!
    Life is quite a dish isn't it?

    Love Ya,

    P.s. I voted......................

  2. Jack,
    Fish tacos aren't my thing dude. But I know alot of people like them. so im sure they will love this post as to where to get the best deal.Im looking for a place that serves a good philly cheese steak. wondering if its even possiable to find one in san diego. well time to get back to work dont want to fudge any times! (just kidding :)) later.