ENSENADA, A QUIET sunny city tucked between the Pacific Ocean and Mexico’s Sierra de San Pedro Mártir mountains, is built on fishing. Every day, long-line vessels and fiberglass sport-fishing boats come into port to unload their catch: sea bass and yellowtail, sea urchin and lobsters, red and blue parrot fish, bright-orange vermilion rockfish and other colorful species.
On a mild day, I walked from the port into the sedate downtown where, in countless stands made from painted plywood and Coca-Cola signs, much of that seafood was being turned into an iconic local dish: fish tacos. Chunks of mako shark and handfuls of shrimp were dipped in beer-based batter and fried in pork fat, piled onto corn tortillas and topped with mayonnaise, salsas and shredded cabbage.
The dish has been adopted by chefs around the world, from beach stands in Southern California to trendy restaurants in Paris. But nowhere else are these tacos as delicious as in their birthplace, the Baja California peninsula. The mako used there is richer and more flavorful than most varieties of white fish, and the shrimp (a species only available in this part of the world) are remarkably plump. The batter is not only tasty from its ride in the pork fat and the addition of some seasoning, but also cooked so expertly that each bite is extremely crisp. Add a touch of salsa and a drizzle of mayonnaise, and you have a most delectable combination of crisp and tender, warm and cool, savory and spicy.
The history of the Baja fish taco is somewhat murky. It is served throughout the peninsula, a narrow, mostly arid spit of land that extends for almost 800 miles along Mexico’s northwestern coast (the state of Baja California occupies the peninsula’s upper half). But two spots in the northernmost part of the region—Ensenada and San Felipe, a speck of a town between the parched landscape of the Baja Desert and the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez—claim to have invented the dish. The supporting evidence is anecdotal at best.
In Ensenada, locals believe their seafood came in contact with Asian influences.
“In the 1920s, a lot of Japanese people immigrated to Ensenada,” said Diego Hernandez-Baquedano, chef of the farm-to-table restaurant Corazón de Tierra, situated just outside the city in Ensenada wine country. “The fish-taco batter is like a tempura, but done in a Mexican way. And the instrument that is used to fry it, the , is like a Mexicanization of a wok.”
San Felipe dwellers tell a different story. “In San Felipe, the hot weather is so bad you can’t survive without mustard [which doesn't require refrigeration] and beer,” Francisco Sosa, a resident who sells locally harvested salt to the town’s chefs, told me. “And the principal ingredients for the fish taco [batter] are beer and mustard.”
The San Felipe taco, which is served at large, open-air eateries that line the street across from the beach, is noticeably different from its Ensenada cousin. The fish is coated in a heavier batter and is fried in vegetable oil; the tortillas can be made of corn or flour and usually come rolled up into cylinders; and locals add guacamole and ketchup along with the usual salsas.
In recent years, other seafood-filled tacos have become popular in Baja. Chefs are using a wide range of ingredients, and the many migrants who have arrived from other parts of Mexico in the last few decades—particularly from the neighboring states of Sonora and Sinaloa—have brought their native variations to the table.
Most of these newer taco styles are found in Tijuana, served from street carts, food trucks and restaurants everywhere from Centro, the tourist-friendly downtown center, to the Zona Río, where many tech companies are headquartered, and out into the hilly suburban neighborhoods.
“For seafood tacos, this is the capital of Mexico,” claimed Bill Esparza, co-founder of the Baja-based Club Tengo Hambre, which runs food tours of the area. The city offers an astonishing array of taco fillings. Deep-red smoked marlin, prized for its dense, meaty quality, is paired with melted cheese in the marlin . Tender manta ray is stewed with vegetables or paired with equally soft, slightly gelatinous sliced tuna fins. Chunks of octopus are cooked with olives.
Some of these tacos are imports, like the gobernador, from Sinaloa, a coastal state just across the Gulf of California. But many of them were born here. The best example is the . This taco of plump shrimp enrobed in a red sauce of chile de arbol and piled in a lightly fried tortilla may have stemmed from Sinaloans’ expertise with seafood. But it is a Tijuana original that cannot be found elsewhere.
The most recent additions to the city’s taco menus emerged from the region’s newest food movement, an upscale, post-colonial cuisine started by chefs in Tijuana and Ensenada. The cooks draw inspiration from local ingredients and Baja’s long history of international influences, rather than from the Spanish flavors that inform food traditions in the rest of Mexico.
“I see [our new style] as a rebel kid who doesn’t take orders from anybody and is just very free, very creative. Nobody’s telling him what to do,” says Javier Plascencia, a chef who serves a wide variety of seafood tacos at his 6-year-old Tijuana restaurant, Erizo Fish Market. “Baja California’s very young. We’re not Oaxaca or Puebla, which have all this history.”
Among Mr. Plascencia’s taco offerings are a delicious swordfish , a fish-based take on the Yucatan’s popular dish of suckling pig marinated in citrus juice and annatto seed paste; an oyster tempura taco that marries Japanese and Mexican techniques; and even a traditional fried-fish version, an elegant homage to the taco that started it all.
1. The Classic: Tacos Fenix
Plastered with Coca-Cola logos, this stand may seem indistinguishable from the many others in Ensenada, but it’s the oldest in town. The mako shark used in the fish tacos is dense and flavorful, the shrimp are plump and toothsome and the batter turns out perfectly crisp. The fish is so good, in fact, that toppings are almost extraneous.
2. The Saucy Choice: Tacos La Floresta
This stand in downtown Ensenada serves excellent fish and shrimp tacos, accompanied by a wide array of salsas and toppings. These include pickled onions, chipotle mayonnaise, whole pickled jalapeños and long slivers of fresh cucumber. The sauces are made daily by the members of an extended family who take turns running the stand.
3. The Myth Maker: Taqueria y Mariscos Adriana
The oldest taco stand in San Felipe is painted turquoise and has been run by Maria Soledad Solorio since the mid-’80s. While no one knows which stand inspired the founder of the popular U.S. taco chain Rubio’s, many consider this the most likely contender. Ms. Solorio’s crisp fried fish—which customers enjoy at a long picnic table or a folding table covered with a colorful blanket—is perhaps the best in town.
4. The Non-Conformist: Tacos Marco Antonio
This informal eatery may be in the heart of Ensenada, but its offerings are far from local classics. Proprietor Marco Antonio serves his tacos filled with (stews) like , a mix of octopus, shrimp, clams, mussels and other seafood; tuna cooked in a cilantro-based sauce; and specialty items like fried fish skin. The tacos are sold from folding tables in a large courtyard in front of Mr. Antonio’s old cannery.
5. The Innovator: Mariscos El Mazateño
Although this enormous open-air restaurant in Tijuana’s Mesa Otay neighborhood is mainly a Sinaloan seafood spot, its most popular dish is Tijuanan: the , aka the “mazateña.” This taco of shrimp cooked in a chile de arbol sauce is so popular, it has been copied by cooks all over the city.
6. The Immigrant: Mariscos Ruben
Specializing in seafood dishes from the state of Sonora, this food truck has occupied the same downtown Tijuana corner for more than 20 years. Co-owner Mirta Rodriguez makes an exceptional manta ray taco, and a taquito of smoked marlin topped with chipotle cream and avocado sauce. Her homemade salsas are among the best in town.
7. The Eccentric: Tacos Kokopelli
Oso Campos, the chef behind this quirky food truck, creates inventive dishes that are like nothing else in Baja. The “kraken” contains grilled octopus covered in a Mexican five-herb pesto; the “gringo en vacaciones,” shrimp in a bright red chile sauce. The truck itself boasts bright orange walls, a thatched roof and a disco ball.
8. The Modern Master: Erizo Fish Market
A bright, airy seafood restaurant, with unadorned tables and a mosaic of salvaged wood decorating the walls, Erizo offers a long list of seafood-based tacos. They showcase chef Javier Plascencia’s unique use of flavors, cooking techniques and ideas from across the globe. There’s the “machaca de marlin,” made from smoked swordfish cooked in onions, tomatoes, chilies and cilantro; a taco filled with tender oysters in tempura batter; a taco of sea urchin sautéed with onion, Serrano chile and tomatoes; and many more.