Dueling Dishes: Battle Fish Taco
A great fish taco is a thing of beauty: fried fish (yes, it must be fried!) topped with raw, shredded cabbage, crema (thin Mexican sour cream), chunky salsa and a squeeze of lime on corn tortillas. The first time I had them ("Fish tacos? Seriously?") was when I was working in the San Gabriel Valley, home to the wonderful chain called El Taco Nazo. I was hooked instantly, both by the tacos and to the amazing fried yellow chiles kept covered on a foil-wrapped platter.
Back then, all the stores, which are mostly located in the SGV and the Gateway Cities of southern LA County, were called El Taco Nazo; differences of opinion and some infighting resulted in part of the family splitting off and converting some of the stores to the name Señor Baja. The recipes have diverged in the intervening years, enough so that it's time to settle the matter of which taco reigns supreme by ordering a fish taco, a shrimp taco, and chiles güeritos from each place.
El Taco Nazo's only OC branch, barely half a mile from the Orange Curtain separating La Habra from Whittier, is a nice, airy, clean, spacious store with an impressive salsa bar; radishes, several salsas, a huge bowl of carrots in escabeche and chiles güeritos free for the taking. There's an array of Mexican beers in the fridge behind the cash register.
The fish and shrimp combination comes with one fish taco, one shrimp taco, chips, salsa and a drink. You can add rice and beans for 99¢; I declined.
Their fish taco is in a light, almost tempura-like batter. The crema was nice and tangy, but there was too much cabbage on the taco, so that when I folded it to try and bite it, the excess cabbage prushed the crema and salsa fresca off and I had to do emergency structural repair to be able to get the ingredients to stay on the taco.
The shrimp taco was ethereal; a long, crispy shrimp that was absolutely perfectly cooked, with the right amount of cabbage, more of that great crema, and good salsa fresca, on two nice "corn-y" tasting tortillas. A squeeze of lime and a dash of salsa picante and the shrimp taco was gone in no time at all.
The chiles were nice and fresh and just salty enough. Chiles güeritos vary in heat, and you never know until you bite into them whether you've got a doozy or not. In this case, one of them was mild, one was very spicy and one was eye-wateringly spicy.
Señor Baja's only OC branch is also barely in OC, next to a Ralphs in the furthest reaches of eastern Anaheim, maybe 3 miles from the Riverside County line. I've been many times, but since the last time I biked up the hill, a whole bunch of warning signs and notices have sprouted up. Salsa is for patrons only, chips are $1.35 (really?), only one free refill on drinks, you must ask for chiles güeritos if you want them, the white zone is for the immediate loading and unloading of vehicles only, this train will not stop at Commerce, etc. Señor Baja does not have a liquor license, so you will be drinking soft drinks with your tacos de pescado, but they permit the one refill of any of the drinks, including horchata, jamaica, orange or pineapple drink.
The fish and shrimp combination at Señor Baja comes with one fish taco, one shrimp taco, rice, beans and a drink. I think I'd prefer chips to rice and beans, first because beans are not really the accompaniment to seafood in Mexico, and second because the meal just seems heavier with them.
The batter at Señor Baja is heavier than at El Taco Nazo, but the fish used in the taco was more assertive and really stood up well to it. The use of cabbage was better, but the crema was not nearly as good. They get high marks, though, for putting the crema under the cabbage, so that there's not such a problem should you decide to take some of the cabbage off. This taco needed more hot sauce than El Taco Nazo's.
The shrimp taco, though, was not a success here; instead of one enormous prawn, they batter and fry three or four smaller pieces per taco, which results in a very bready taco that is just about impossible to eat, as one piece or another of the payload keeps making a bid for escape and dropping onto the plate.
The chiles seemed like they'd sat out for a while: They were cold, with wrinkled, papery skin. I don't necessarily think this is because they're inferior; I suspect that I just did not have such great timing as I did at El Taco Nazo, where they set out a fresh tray as soon as I finished ordering. They were more consistent with the spice levels (muy picante, but not overwhelmingly so).
For fish tacos, they're about evenly matched, but I give a slight edge to Señor Baja. Honestly, though, either one will do you proud.
For shrimp tacos, there's no question--El Taco Nazo is the clear winner here. I would drive a very long way for a meal of El Taco Nazo's shrimp tacos, which I liked better than either place's fish tacos.
The chiles güeritos are a total toss-up, because it depends on how long they've sat out, how long they've been fried, and how heavily a particular batch has been seasoned.
Taking into account the atmosphere and general appeal of the two places, then, El Taco Nazo is the winner of this lucha libre de taco. That's not to say that Señor Baja is any slouch: I would take Señor Baja over just about any other fish taquería I've had in la naranja, except El Taco Nazo, and it's one of two oases of good food in a part of Anaheim that is not exactly rife with great restaurants.
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