In early 2006 I arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, on a circuitous route from New York to Rio de Janeiro by bicycle. To the south lay the 1,000-mile-long Baja California peninsula, protruding between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez.
Lugging a heavy bicycle through a desert peninsula has its moments. Searing heat, countless cactus-induced punctures, unforgiving truck drivers and sleeping rough. But one of my fondest memories from that ride through Baja remains a breakfast of fish tacos.
Cycling the black ribbon of asphalt that weaves through the unceasing cactus forests, scrubland and arid mountains is monotonous, shadeless and hot. The villages that sporadically took shape on the hazy horizon became my oases, welcome opportunities to rest, replenish supplies and eat tacos.
In northern Baja, tacos are predominantly meaty, carne asada and tacos de tripa. But as the Transpeninsular Highway turns east to hug the beaches of the Sea of Cortez, Mexico’s quintessential street food becomes decidedly fishy.
At night the glimmer of lights from the pangas (fishing boats) reflects off the sea. At daybreak their catch is available in tacos de pescado from numerous taquerias. Often little more than makeshift kitchens of gas bottles, griddles, corrugated metal and sun-bleached plastic furniture, these roadside vendors of Baja cuisine are a cyclist’s saviour.
Waking in the desert at first light, I would brew campfire coffee, pack my bike and then cycle to a taqueria in the next fishing village. Taking my place with the truck drivers, fishermen and rancheros, I would place my order with the smiling matriarch. “Tres pescados por favor.”
She would submerge a few hunks of lightly battered dorado into spitting oil, retrieving the golden morsels moments later and leave them to cool. Three warm corn tortillas were taken from a griddle, the fried fish was placed in the middle and the lot was handed over on a lurid plastic plate. “Buen provecho!”
Presented with pieces of fried fish in a corn pancake, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. But subsequent do-it-yourself application of salsas and salads from the bar transform your taco: a little chipotle mayonnaise, some pico de gallo salsa, a pinch of shredded cabbage, some fresh coriander, sliced radish and, of course, a squeeze of lime.
Dressing a fish taco is an art. It requires time, patience and practice. Overload, and the ingredients will landslide down your front. Add too much spice and your morning is ruined. But carefully loaded and pinched between thumb and finger, a taco can be easily delivered to your mouth, bringing, with a first bite and gentle sucking, a moment of Baja bliss. The batter is light, the fish meaty; the cabbage has peppery crunch, the chipotle sauce is smoky and smooth. The red salsa provides just enough spice, trailed perfectly by a refreshing smack of lime juice.
The dictionary definition of a tachometer is a device that measures how fast a vehicle’s axle rotates. My definition is the number of fish tacos consumed before a morning’s cycling in Baja California.
Fish taco recipe
600g dorado/mahi mahi fillets (cod or halibut will do) cut into finger-size pieces
1 litre cooking oil
12 corn tortillas
For the batter
125g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp fine chilli powder
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
250ml Mexican beer
Sieve the flour into a mixing bowl along with the baking powder, chilli powder and pepper. Turn through with your fingers before adding the beer and whisking until the consistency of thick paint. Leave to rest for an hour.
For the pico de gallo
5 ripe tomatoes, diced
½ red onion, diced
Small handful of coriander leaves, chopped
1 small jalepeño pepper, seeds removed and diced
Juice of half a lime
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Mix all the ingredients in a serving bowl and set aside.
Finely sliced red cabbage
Your favourite hot sauce
Chipotle mayonnaise (add a clove crushed garlic, a teaspoon chipotle paste, pinch of salt and squeeze of lime to a cup mayonnaise and mix until smooth)
Heat oil to 170C in a deep pan or fryer – a small piece of bread should turn crisp and golden in a few seconds. Meanwhile, heat a non-stick frying pan and place the tortillas on the pan two at a time and warm until just lifting from the surface. Wrap in a clean tea towel to keep warm and moist.
Coat each piece of fish in the batter and submerge in the hot oil. Fry until golden brown, about two minutes. Transfer to a baking sheet or kitchen paper to drain.
To serve, place two pieces of fried fish in the centre of each tortilla, then add the other ingredients. My recommended order is: chipotle mayonnaise, pico de gallo, cabbage, radish, hot sauce and a squeeze of lime.
Tom Kevill Davies is the author of The Hungry Cyclist: Pedalling the Americas in Search of the Perfect Meal, and the owner of the Hungry Cyclist Lodge in Burgundy