Q: I want to eat fish tacos, maybe somewhere downtown. Where should I go?
A: “Fish taco” sounds generic enough, but the phrase has a very specific meaning to anyone who’s spent time in southern California, or patronized a restaurant run by a homesick surfer.
Fish tacos originated on the streets of Baja California in the middle of the last century. It’s a testament to the snack’s regional importance that it figures into all kinds of disproven creation tales, including one involving tempura-loving fishermen from Japan. What is known for sure is that San Diegan Ralph Rubio popularized the combination of crisped fish, corn tortillas, cabbage, crema and lime on this side of the border. The Mission Bay taco stand he opened in 1983 bloomed into a 160-location chain.
In Charleston, though, the definition of fish taco isn’t quite so rigid. Plenty of restaurants serve “Baja-style” double-tortilla fried fish wraps — the fiercely beachy Mex 1 Coastal Cantina west of the Ashley is probably the category’s local standard bearer — but Lowcountry kitchens aren’t beholden to batter.
Indeed, at many of the area’s top fish taco destinations, the fish is just barely seared. That’s often the case at 167 Raw, which each day presents a different fresh catch in taco format. (Because some traditions shouldn’t be tweaked, every restaurant listed here also offers the classic fish taco accompaniments of outdoor seating and beer.) Fuel gives taco fans the option of grilled tuna or grilled mahi mahi, both of which are finished with harmonizing fruit salsas.
And if you decide to roam beyond downtown, there are fine fish tacos to be had at White Duck Taco Shop and Zia Taqueria, although the latter uses white swai. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program recommends consumers avoid the Vietnamese catfish because of the environmental destruction associated with swai production.
("The Swai is really great for our use," Zia founder Kevin Grant says. "It has such a nice white flaky flesh and a nice fat content compared to mahi mahi. I used to have lots of options for American farm-raised catfish, but a lot those producers stopped farming catfish to grow corn.")
One local alternative is the excellent catfish taco at Minero, where the North Carolina-farmed fish is fried and slathered with pickled green tomato tartar, a preparation that Southerners and Southern Californians alike can appreciate.
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