Ensenada has always been a world capital of Lost Weekends: popular with sport fisherman who measure out their afternoons in spent cases of Corona, the center of the universe for aficionados of stuffed armadillos and illegal fireworks, a major crossroads for vendors of polyester serapes (made in Taiwan), a final destination for cheap cruise-ship journeys that take half a week to go nowhere in particular. The city has long been famous for the loud, boozy cantinas — Hussong‘s! Papas Fritas! — whose stickers probably adorned the bumper of the jacked-up Yukon that cut you off on the 405 last week, and if you spend most of your time within a few blocks of the bars, Ensenada can seem like a tequila-fueled satellite of the loudest fraternity party in the world.
Once you get a few blocks away from the tourist district, though, Ensenada takes shape as a solid, working-class industrial city, a major port. And as surely as Oaxaca and Veracruz, Ensenada has a cuisine of its own (if a minor one), a sturdy style of local cooking with big flavors, tons of citrus and lots of fresh seafood. Taquerias favor the decent local beef and pork — sometimes even turtle. Carts on every street corner sell shrimp ceviche and patas de mulas, spicy cocktails of lime, tomatoes and the raw meat of bulbous black clams that really do resemble mules’ feet. Baja spiny lobsters are split, fried in oil, and served with melted margarine and lime. Californians have always come to Ensenada for expensive breaded-abalone dinners. The local peppery version of seafood soup is famous all over Mexico. Still, in the rest of Mexico and beyond, the words estilo Ensenada signify just one thing: fish tacos, specifically the fried fish tacos served at stalls in the fish market down by the docks. And Ensenada‘s fish tacos are formidable things, little — a couple of bites each, tops — but mighty. And there may be no experience on Earth that quite matches the pleasure of an afternoon spent wandering around the Ensenada fish market, sluicing fish tacos down with oceans of slush-cold Tecate beer and watching locals haggle over yellowtail tuna and horse mackerel.
Oddly enough, despite the physical proximity of Baja and the presence of tens of thousands of Ensenada expatriates in the area, Los Angeles restaurants — with the possible exception of Señor Fish — have never been able to produce a really great fish taco, whether at slick chain restaurants or surf shacks, tiny Eastside cevicherias or big takeout joints. Sweet, mayonnaise-drenched replicas, yes; crisp, fresh, subtly tangy fish tacos, no way. Until now.
Tacos Baja Ensenada is a cheerful restaurant in a converted hamburger stand near the heart of East L.A., a Formica palace echoing with bouncy ranchera music and decorated with maps, posters and post cards of La Bufadora, the sea spume 20 minutes south of Ensenada. Tacos Baja smells right, homey and oniony like a Mexican grandmother’s house, without a hint of seafood funk, and the various seafood cocktails — octopus, shrimp, clam, though not the pata de mula — are fresh and good. You‘ll find the usual carne asada plates and sopes; more to the point, there are tiny, crisp tortillas mounded with tart, rich ceviches of crab, shrimp or fish. You’ve come, no doubt, for what may be L.A.‘s finest fish tacos: crunchy, sizzlingly hot strips of batter-fried halibut, folded into warm corn tortillas with salsa, shredded cabbage and a squeeze of lime, sprinkled with freshly chopped herbs and finished with a squirt of thick, cultured cream, lightly done, delicately flavored. Entire religions have been founded on miracles less profound than the Ensenada fish taco — you could eat four in a minute and a half, and no doubt probably should, before they have a chance to cool.
But in your lust for the tacos, don’t miss the spectacular cahuamanta estilo Sonora, a robust, fragrant kettle of Baja stingray simmered with vegetables until it reaches the consistency of poached chicken, then served as a sharply celery-scented soup or shredded and folded into comfortingly bland, vaguely marine-tasting tacos. Stingray tacos! Revenge on every creature that ever buried its barb into your ankle at the beach! The manliest taco in the sea!
5385 Whittier Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 887-1980. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $6–$14. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: shrimp ceviche, fish taco, jugo de cahuamanta.