The Baja Way

Nick's crispy fish tacos are so irresistible we had to eat them in our car

Readers, please forgive me for what you're about to receive. It's an anecdote about my 2 1/2-year-old son, a subject I've resisted writing about until now because I'm aware that nothing turns moderate interest into flip-to-the-sex-column boredom faster than stories about other people's children (unless it's stories about other people's pets).

But as I was writing about this week's dish, my toddler jumped in my lap, pointed to the screen, and announced, "Look, mommy. Y ... U ... M ... raindrop." Perplexed, I nonetheless gave him the positive feedback my parenting manual instructs: "Great job reading the letters!" I crowed. "Go tell daddy what letters you saw." (Subtext: "Get out of my hair for 10 minutes so I can finish writing my column or we'll be eating dinner at 9:30 again.") As he trotted over to my husband (who gave me a squinty-eyed look that screamed "buck-passer"), I looked at the interjection I had just typed, and it occurred to me that "raindrop" was my son's interpretation of an exclamation point. How friggin' brilliant-cute is that? I think from here on out we should all commence referring to the exclamation point as the "raindrop." So let it be written. So let it be done.

OK, I suppose you'd like to know just what I was referring to when I wrote the aforementioned "yum (raindrop)." It was, in fact, the first word that popped into my head while sitting in my car chowing down on a fish taco from Nick's Crispy Tacos (1500 Polk, 409-8226), which is only open for lunch. I was in my car because the odd little taqueria anchors an unlikely corner inside Harry Denton's Rouge nightclub -- and somehow it seemed inappropriate to be dining in one of those red leather booths, in the middle of the afternoon, wearing jeans, the possibility of fulfilling my two-drink minimum not even remote. (I later learned that every day at sundown, the staff strikes the taqueria set -- sombreros, piñatas, and all -- and Rouge reverts to a posh swingles club, complete with Vegas-style showgirls dancing on the bar.)

The fish tacos at Nick's are made Baja-style -- something you rarely find in these parts, as it tends to be snubbed by northern purists as an L.A. thing. But done right, it can be irresistible (the smell alone made auto interruptus inevitable). In this version, the fish is lightly batter-fried mahi-mahi, which owner Nick Fasanella -- a surfer who worked as a chef on private yachts in Mexico before coming to San Francisco -- says is the surfer-friendly alternative to thresher shark. Stuffed into a soft corn tortilla, it's surrounded by shredded cabbage, cilantro, onions, roasted tomato-garlic salsa, and a wonderful creamy topping that's part tartar sauce, part pico de gallo, and seriously yum raindrop. (You can get the whole thing done "Nick's way," with a soft tortilla wrapped around one griddled with cheese and guacamole, but as per Nick's recommendation, I didn't: "The fish is already batter-fried; adding cheese is overkill," he said. He was right.)

The key to this dish is not overdoing it: The batter should be more like tempura than Mrs. Paul's; the sauce, in this case made with mayonnaise and lime rather than traditional Mexican crema, should be on the thin side; and the trimmings should give it the piquant contrast that keeps it from bogging down in your belly. Nick's accomplishes all this. And if I hadn't beaten such a hasty retreat to my car, I would have complemented my taco with a fresh-lime margarita, which would have put a double raindrop on the overall experience.

 
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