by Maria Manuela
photos by Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers
The Duke City is the largest city in New Mexico, a sprawling metro that stretches about thirty miles east to west. It’s a place where people do a lot of driving, and daily errands take folks far from home. I always find that I am hit by a wave of hunger as soon as I am at least half an hour from familiar spots, including my own kitchen.
Whenever I am suddenly starving, tacos are always a quick fix. So I recently set my radar for fish tacos, wanting to stake out new standbys in different areas around the city.
Picturing a fish taco, something like this appears in the proverbial thought bubble floating over my head: a deep-fried yet light fish, covered in a beer batter that gives a satisfying crunch when you bite into it. It’s cradled in a corn tortilla and topped with a luscious condiment—either crema or something like avocado—plus cabbage and diced onions.
This type of fish taco is rumored to have origins in Baja California, where the cities of San Felipe and Ensenada both claim to be the dish’s birthplace. Really, though, some elemental version of a fish taco has likely been eaten in Mexico for much, much longer, by Indigenous peoples who pulled fish fresh from the ocean and ate them with handmade tortillas.
The West Side
1517 Coors NW
Driving around town hunting for a bead shop one day (I make jewelry in my very minimal spare time), I spot Mariscos Altamar. Later, I see photos of a friend having dinner there, complete with fishbowl-sized cocktails and some delicious-looking seafood. So next time I’m in the area, I stop in and try it.
The buttery aroma of Mexican food hits me as soon as I open the door on a Friday afternoon. So do the sounds of people having a good time: there’s music crooning over the bar speakers and folks ordering towering micheladas—made with Clamato, lime juice, and beer—by the trayful. Mariscos means seafood in Spanish, and the blue glow from the bar lights adds to the restaurant’s aquatic ambience.
The fish tacos are wrapped in two soft corn tortillas, whose texture offers a nice juxtaposition with the crunchy battered and fried pollock fillets. This isn’t the kind of place where you get tacos a la carte—they come as a full meal with healthy servings of rice and beans.
Mariscos La Playa
5210 San Mateo NE
There’s a Mariscos La Playa in Santa Fe just a few blocks away from my dad’s old apartment. He used to love the food there. When I see Mariscos La Playa on San Mateo, across the street from Cliff’s Amusement Park, it recalls fond childhood memories.
The hostess greets me in Spanish, and I order the fish taco plate, which comes with seasoned wedge french fries and rice. The tacos are filled with spiced and grilled bite-size bits of mahi-mahi, and I feel a little less guilty eating them since they’re not deep-fried. They come in mini corn tortillas, four to the order, topped with lettuce, diced tomato, and avocado—
a winning move in my book.
300 Menaul NW
After my first two tries, I tell my good friend, who has Mexican roots and works in the culinary industry, that I’m on the lookout for the city’s best fish tacos, and she says I should try Taqueria Mexico.
Housed in a strip mall on Menaul Boulevard, not far from the intersection of I-25 and I-40, the restaurant buzzes with the sounds of folks speaking Spanish, packed with young families and people on their lunch breaks. This taqueria is busy in the way only really good places ever are: there is a line, but people are happy to wait; they expect to.
A santo featuring San Pascual, the patron saint of cooks and kitchens, hangs over the cash register where I place my order. The kitchen is open, so I catch a glimpse of the cooks hustling at the sizzling flattop grill. The ladies answering the phone are taking to-go orders; the phone rings as soon as they hang up.
Taqueria Mexico’s fish tacos are made with tilapia and sold individually, so you can have a snack or a full-on meal. I order one with a side of rice, and enjoy the cumbia playing over the speakers while I wait. I am happy I asked my friend’s advice as soon as I take a bite of these light and crunchy tacos. The breading is golden with just the right weight, so it doesn’t overwhelm the delicate fish. Topped with lettuce, diced tomato, onion, cilantro, and a light crema, the bite has great texture and the tortilla is crunchy too; you can tell it has been kissed by the flat top. It’s nothing stuffy or overcomplicated, which, indeed, is not the point of a taco. I devour it quickly and wish I had ordered a few more.
As well as feeling like the most authentic spot I visit, Taqueria Mexico provides a taco that has something I think is intrinsic to a taco’s soul: It is a perfect meal all on its own. It is simple and satisfying. My hunt taught me to ask friends for suggestions, and that, even if you have to drive a bit farther for it, a great taco is always worth it.
Mariscos La Playa.
6261 Riverside Plaza NW, Ste A1, Albuquerque
Fish tacos are served up Baja style—beer-battered fish wrapped in warm corn tortillas with pickled cabbage, Mexican cream, and habanero orange sauce. Each bite has the perfect balance of crunch and flavor that leaves a zing in your mouth. —Stephanie Cameron
111 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque
At El Cotorro, the fish taco rotates from day to day and week to week. On this recurring occasion: a beautifully blackened piece of mahi-mahi—not quite a slab, more than a sliver—served on a bright, crunchy bed of cabbage + carrot + pineapple slaw on a house tortilla. No salsa necessary. —Briana Olson
Casting a Wider Net
619 Twelfth Street, Las Vegas
The Skillet’s fish taco is a pleasant, landlocked variation on the coastal classic. Crunchy strips of beer-battered cod with black bean and corn salad, pickled red cabbage, and spicy mayo, held together in a corn tortilla with an unexpected layer of melted cheese. —Jason Conde
Maria Manuela is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe, where she was born and raised. She works with publications like New Mexico Magazine and Hyperallergic, focusing on stories about creative New Mexicans. She spends all her free time with her partner, Joel, and their three pups, Darla, Hamlet, and Pea. She’s working on a collection of short folktales based in the Southwest.