Sunday, October 12, 2008

Baja Fish Tacos - Santa Ana

Contrary to what you may think, fish tacos are to be avoided at Baja Fish Tacos. Despite actually being deep-fried, they are inexplicably non-greasy and desperately lacking in flavor exactly because of it. To top it off, they're dry, lifeless. No amount of the restaurant's pico de gallo will ever hope to revive the sorry things.

The pico de gallo should be saved for a nobler purpose: as the amigo to the hot chips. For $2.25, you get a basket of chips scooped from heated receptacle by your cashier, and an empty Styrofoam bowl. The bowl is your license to go loco at the salsa bar.

If you don't pay the premium, the salsa bar is free, but then you're relegated to those little thimbles they provide. And for the chips -- they're the thin and homemade kind -- you'll need as much as two heaping bowls. You'll savor every chunk of fresh tomato, every bit of spicy onion, and every fleck of cilantro, which may or may not get stuck in your teeth for hours of unintended embarrassment.

Besides the chips and salsa, I always get the Enchilada Combo ($7.60), wherein two rolled corn tortillas get stuffed with your choice of fish, shrimp, chicken, carne asada, or if you're into it, cheese. The pair gets draped in red chile sauce and smothered under a thin veneer of more cheese which is melted under a broiler until all is bubbly and oozy.

Carne asada is my protein of choice most of the time. And why not? It's essentially fire grilled steak, hacked to itty bitty chunks, with some of the edges burnt crisp almost to ember.

Its gritty char, the velvet of the cheese and the acid tang of the enchilada sauce meld into something worthy of a telenovela -- cheesy, sultry, and full of scene-stealing actors.

Flanking it on both sides, the rice and beans aren't just mere supporting players. The beans are so blubbery it's almost soup; but as soon as you rake it up with a fork, it seems to congeal at the cooling touch of the metal -- a sign that lard is probably the secret ingredient. Then there's the rice. It's as fluffy as cotton, almost as flavorful as the rice they serve with Hainan chicken.

These two sides, in my opinion, are the best rice and beans north of the Rio Grande and west of the Mississippi. When I'm not particularly hungry, I just order a bowl of it, scarf it in spoonfuls with plenty of the pico de gallo and call it a meal.

But try to come when you're famished enough to finish a whole combo enchilada plate, if only so that you can waddle out of the restaurant picking your teeth and groaning "Ay, mi estomago!"

Baja Fish Tacos
(714)641-4836
3664 South Bristol St.
Santa Ana, CA 92704

*Special Thanks (and apologies) to Monster Munching champion and reader JB for reminding me to do a review on this place -- one of my faves!

THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Best of OC - Foodstuffs & Restaurants
and
Jang Mo Gip - Garden Grove

43 Comments:

At 11:41 PM, Blogger NP said...

Funny you posted this. My significant other and I went to Wahoo's the other day and lamented how "non Baja" their menu is - Blackened Fish Taco's!... There menu is so "white guy" Baja that I find most of what they have there really bland. I think their Pico De Gallo is great but everything else is mediocre.

I know what I'll get "Well, Wahoo's is healthier"... I don't believe that for a second - this from a chain that sells French Fry's and Onion Rings but can't fry my Fish!!! I really do like Rubio's but have been looking for a "home grown" non chain version of that.

Guess we'll have to wait to go back to Rosarito Beach! :( You know... the place some of us went to as kids and said "Why the heck can't Taco Bell do Tacos' like this"

 
At 4:22 AM, Blogger Loving Annie said...

Good Monday morning to you, Elmo.
I would go for the chips and salsa and sit with you while you ate the rice and beans :)

I crave a good white meat chicken taco and don't know where to find it...

 
At 10:07 AM, Anonymous dru said...

Hi Elmo,

Long time reader, first time poster here. Keep up the good work.

I tried the fish tacos at the Laguna Hills location, and I thought it was pretty good with decent flavor. My gripe was that it was pretty expensive. Plus, I love making fish tacos at home. Much cheaper!

 
At 12:03 PM, Anonymous james said...

El yo-yo es GRANDE!

When it come to fish tacos, nothing beats El Taco Nazo for me.

 
At 2:13 PM, Blogger wonginator71 said...

I've never been a fan of the grilled fish taco. Both Wahoo's and Baja Fish Tacos have always tasted dry and bland to me.

I tend to prefer the Ensenada-style fish tacos, where it is battered and fried, like Rubio's. For a non-chain, I like Los Cotijas Taco Shop, which I tried for the first time recently.

 
At 3:11 PM, Blogger Armilyn & David said...

Baja Fish Tacos is one of the reasons to stay in OC whenever my wife and I get the itch to move out of the area. We discovered it 9 years ago when we lived down Bristol. I ADORED the blackened chicken tacos they used to make, but for some reason they decided to stop making them about 2 years ago, even though they still offer blackened fish. I still order it "bravo style" which is basically grilled chicken but with the white sauce still added. Close, but I still wish they would bring it back.

And yes, the rice and beans kick butt over their competition.

 
At 4:15 PM, Blogger c said...

I'd have to agree with the other commenter about the ensenada style fish tacos. They're great, way better than any bland overcooked white fish you get at Wahoos that you have to drown in sauce for it to taste like anything. The ensenada style fish are crispy, delicate, and moist. Definitely a place to order fish tacos. Their shrimp burrito is also excellent, it's jammed with nice plump perfectly cooked shrimp, not small and rubbery, that screams shrimp flavour. It's almost like lobster, I kid you not. Well worth the $9 splurge.

 
At 4:36 PM, Blogger wonginator71 said...

Another comment: is it just me, or does anyone else find the white rice odd with fish tacos? I'm more used to Mexican rice and refried beans that I get at most places. But I'm still relatively new to the fish taco thing, having eaten it for only the last 5 years or so.

I do love white rice when eating Chinese food like roast duck from Sam Woo, or the pork pump from Mei Long Village. But I had problems finishing off the white rice and pinto beans that came with my fish tacos. They need to layer some cheese on top of the pinto beans like at a lot of Mexican restaurants.

There was a Baja Fish Tacos location in Irvine in the business district near the airport, but it has closed up. Looks like a pho shop is opening up there.

 
At 6:07 PM, Blogger briannie said...

I'm with wonginator-- Los
Cotija's has amazing Ensenada-style fish tacos!

 
At 8:05 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

NP,

Everyone else beat me to it, but yes Los Cotijas is *THE* place for fish tacos. Gloriously fried, patently greasy and wonderful.

And I couldn't agree more with everyone about Wahoo's.

Here's a post where I talk about both.

Annie,

I can survive on those rice and beans...and technically, I think I could if I had to. I think Baja Fish Tacos has white meat chicken tacos...though I've never had them...those enchiladas are too compelling.

Dru,

True. They're also expensive. Los Cotijas, for one, sells their tacos for $2.00 each!

James,

I love me some Taco Nazo...except most of them turned into Senor Baja. My favorite one has to be the one in Chino Hills, behind the Sizzler. Now neither the Sizzler or Taco Nazo is there anymore. The former is no great loss.

Wonginator,

What weird is that Baja Fish fries their tacos, but it's still as dry as Wahoo's. And yep, I prefer Rubios' fish tacos over both of them. Especially on Tuesdays, when they're cheaper. Los Cotijas is the best in OC though.

And I'm all about the white rice. I actually can't stand Spanish rice. I'll eat it if it's particularly fluffy and well done, but I like the way the white rice doesn't upstage the rest of the food on a combo plate.

Armilyn & David,

The rice and beans are also a bargain! I think they're like $1.99 by themselves. A hot meal for that price and all the salsa you want to pile on top of it. Can't beat that!

C,

You're intriguing me about the shrimp burrito. I can see it being great. I think I'll try 'em on an enchilada next. I've always been afraid that they'd overcook them, but what you said gives me hope.

Brianne,

And I'm with you! Los or Las Cotijas rocks!

 
At 8:13 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Wonginator,

And yes! Regarding the Baja Fish that used to be in that food court on Dupont and Jamboree, that was a sad day when they left. And I don't know why. They were doing the most business out of all the stalls there. Interesting that a pho place is taking its place. Do you know which one? I bet it's BB Pho -- the one formerly at the food court on Von Karman and Barranca.

 
At 10:41 PM, Blogger spaceman spiff said...

annie,

get the chicken bravo tacos here, theyre great.

elmo,
try the shrimp tacos, also awesome.

 
At 10:42 PM, Blogger spaceman spiff said...

btw, the bravo taco is not on the menu, just order it and theyll know what youre talking about

 
At 9:21 AM, Blogger wonginator71 said...

Elmo,

Good call, the new pho place is BB Pho. The sign is there, but still under construction. There is now a Flame Broiler there next door, which just opened.

Also, not in that food court, but in the attached building is a pizza/sandwich place called Joey's Pizza & Pasta Cafe. I just noticed it for the first time last week. I think it's new, as Yelp reviews started this year. They have French Dips on the menu, so I'll likely try it very soon.

 
At 9:58 AM, Anonymous JB said...

I am disappointed with this review for two reasons...
one, I didn't get a
"Special Thanks to Monster Munching reader JB" mention for helping bring Baja Fish Tacos back on your radar in a private e-mail to you a few weeks ago. *grrrr

Second, the review was uncharacteristically not enthusiastic...non-greasy fish tacos aside, Baja Fish Tacos is so much better than the overrated Wahoo's. In fact the Baja Bowl
($7.00, until recently $6.50) is about the freshest, tastiest, healthiest hot meal you can get for the money in the immediate area.

Baja Fish Taco's fish is moist and flavorful, whereas Wahoo's is dry and has that mass-produced "Mrs. Paul's" taste. The rice and beans are good, too.

As I noted in my e-mail, Chipotle opened up right across Bristol Street a couple of years ago, but Baja Fish Tacos is still always jam-packed with loyal customers at lunch and dinner. I'm with Armilyn & Dave...
Baja Fish Tacos is an OC treasure.

 
At 10:14 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Spaceman Spiff,

Love your pick for a name and your buddy icon. Calvin rules! Will def try the shrimp tacos next.

Wonginator,

Ah I knew it! I knew BB Pho would pop up somewhere else. And somehow I knew it had to be there.

JB,

HAHA! My bad for forgetting. And how could I!? You're one of my most faithful readers. And yes, it was you who reminded me I needed to do a proper review for the place. I've already rectified this injustice.

And though I agree with you that Baja Fish's fish tacos are world's better than Wahoo's -- and Wahoo's is absolutely overrated -- I still stand by my opinion that their fish tacos pales in comparison to Los Cotijas, El Taco Nazo, et. al.

But that's not to say that I don't love Baja Fish, which I do! A lot! I just can't sugar coat the fact that I don't like their fish tacos. Especially when the Enchiladas are so awesome.

Again, this doesn't change the fact that I also think Baja Fish Tacos is an OC treasure...just for different reasons.

If anything, I think you'd appreciate that I calls 'em as I see 'em, even if that means people will disagree with me.

 
At 10:59 AM, Blogger ChristianZ said...

I've been to this location a number of times. I actually think their shrimp tacos are super good and it goes good with their white rice.

And not to take anything from Elmo's blog since Mexican is only a small percentage of what he covers but there's a blog out there that covers nothing but Mexican restaurants in OC:

Baja Fish Tacos Coverage at OC Mex Food

 
At 11:53 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Christian,

There's an OC Mexican Restaurants Blog?! Why didn't you say so earlier? HAHA! ;-)

BTW, I didn't mention it when I made a comment on your blog about the Baja Fish Tacos in Irvine closing, but I like how you went Perez Hilton on the picture. Nice.

 
At 12:03 PM, Blogger ChristianZ said...

Yeah, I miss that place. It was right by me and I couldn't figure out why it closed. It seemed to be doing enough business. The only drawback about it is that it didn't have Jarritos soda as the other locations do.

 
At 12:49 PM, Anonymous inez said...

Oddly, your post made me crave Hainan chicken. Haha. Any recommendations?

 
At 10:39 PM, Blogger Passionate Eater said...

I actually really enjoy their pico de gallo, and often end up eating more of that, than of my meal.

Oh, and this is something that is interesting, my word verification is "damnboy." Huh, I wonder if Blogger did that on purpose! Well, I guess I should say "damnboy," I love your posts!

 
At 11:24 PM, Blogger NP said...

WIll be going to Los Cotijas this Saturday for SURE when I'm back in town. In London right now wondering why we can't get decent Tapas in Orange County (went to a place in SE London last night that was A: NOT a chain: Family owned, B: unpretentious C: Actually had good food D: Had a great cheap House wine. Drives me nuts that most people in the OC think Spanish food = Mexican.

 
At 8:54 AM, Blogger spaceman spiff said...

I agree that the fish tacos are mediocre here and I still love this place, thats how good the other options are. I love fried fish tacos, but they just arent the best things to eat here. This place is still a 9/10

 
At 3:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had delicious fish tacos (FRIED) at California Fish Grill (Cypress). You should try it sometime.

 
At 4:59 PM, Anonymous stormin norman said...

Elmo,
Enjoyed your review of BFT,but with all due respect,you simply ordered the wrong fish tacos.Although not their namesake,their blackened fish tacos are spectacular and the best fish taco in town.Unlike Los Cotijas,whose fried fish tacos are typically fishy and of lesser quality,BFT's blackened fish is never fishy and are uniformally high in flavor and quality...a must try.

 
At 5:12 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Christian,

Yeah, I couldn't understand it either. It was doing fine, so I thought.

inez,

Oh I wish I did. The only one I can recommend is not anywhere near OC. A place called Savoy in Alhambra does a really good Hainan chicken. But that was ages ago. I wonder how it is now.

PE,

Verification tool is getting insolent! But that's better than when you can't read it at all. I do also end up eating more pico de gallo than what is usually recommended. The chips runs out far too quickly.

NP,

Ah, yes Tapas in OC is a rare thing to find -- even rarer if you want *good* tapas. Try Lizarran in Fullerton. It's new and it's actually quite decent. By the way, Los Cotijas is a DIVE. Food's great though.

Spaceman Spiff,

Word!

Anonymous,

I just got back from California Fish Grill in Irvine. Haven't tried their fish tacos yet, but I am intrigued! Their salsa is good, so that's a good sign. Now to pry myself away from the White Roughy Special for $6.99.

Stormin Norman,

AHH! Well there you go! I haven't tried the blackened tacos. Perhaps *IT* will trump my beloved Enchiladas?

 
At 6:02 PM, Blogger melissa said...

*Laughing at your comment to Christian*

Thanks for the info about the fried fish tacos. I love the ones at Los Cotijas No. 2 (damn, I haven't been in a while though and they're so close to my house...) and I do make them at home. My temptation when trying a new Mexican place is to get fried fish tacos but I'll either order the blackened ones here, as recommended, or get the carne asada (my #2 protein choice).

We're about to move offices from Alton and Irvine Blvd. down to Bake and Research, so I'll be right around the corner from these guys. I imagine I'll eat there from time to time. Look forward to the beans.

 
At 11:13 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Melissa,

Oh these beans are spectacular. They also have black beans...which I haven't tried. Though I wonder what a fellow Los Cotijas fan like yourself would think of BFT's Ensanada Style Fish Tacos. Especially if you've actually made them yourself!

 
At 5:57 PM, Blogger Toby said...

An ode to BFT (apologies for the long post)

Elmo said:

Despite actually being deep-fried, they are inexplicably non-greasy and desperately lacking in flavor exactly because of it. To top it off, they're dry, lifeless...
------------------

Are you kidding me Elmo?! Gimme a break. The reason why these fish tacos are sooo darn good is because they are non-greasy. As for lacking in flavor, though I agree the regular grilled style is a bit bland, these are just about the BEST I have EVER tasted. You cannot get this type of quality coupled with the insanely good beans (expertly acknowledged by you) along with the all you can eat salsa bar at this price level. As for Wahoo's- pathetic compared to BFT: no salsa bar, little lumps of BLAND, cold fish, totally overrated and overpriced. Yeach.

I've been eating at BFT for over a decade ever since it opened in the mid 90's, and been to every location in OC. The Bristol main branch has sadly been a little inconsistent probably 'cause of the enormous popularity during peak hours. The Laguna Hills location is great, but the BEST out of all is the Laguna Niguel branch, across from the library- a gem.

As for the fish tacos and for fish aficionados here's a little known fact: while Wahoo's uses mahi mahi, a cheaper and less flavorful type, BFT gets their fish straight from the waters off Hawaii thru one L.A. supplier. It's called ono otherwise known as wahoo- how's that for false advertising from Wahoo's!

The BFT ensenada-style fish taco is a perfect culinary creation. The hot and huge chunks of steaming, ungreasy fish, literally stuffed to the max in those small tortillas are matched perfectly with the cool tang of the white sauce and the crisp bite of shredded cabbage. Top with the salsa rojas from the bar and one is in fish taco heaven!

Now about the cabbage- for a few months in the past, they unexplicably stopped finely shredding and just cut them up small, confetti-style. I thought it was terrible and complained about it to the restaurant owner, and he actually took my advice and changed it back! How's that for personal service!

Yes, the pinto beans are cooked in a little lard for flavor. I much prefer the excellent black beans. If you're in a budget pinch, I agree, there is nothing better than their fluffy rice and beans with heaps of salsa- a meal in itself.

When I lived in Philly for a year in a half in the recent past, though the culinary landscape there is amazing, I was still desperately craving BFT like a junkie on smack everyday single day- no joke, it is that good.

I've tried duplicating their recipe at home with moderate success. The amount of effort particularly the quality of their fish is hard to match. And who the heck can whip up 3 kinds of authentic tasty salsa like they can?

With all due respect to Elmo and his fantastic food blog and for foodies with an inclination to the "heavier and greasier" side of their taste buds, BFT might not be your cup of tea. It's not your standard greasy, fake, gringo- Mexican fare. Though the other menu items are delish, BFT's claim to fame is and will always be their heavenly ensenada fish tacos.

Finally about the competition:

Wahoo's- 'nuff said; see above.

Baja's Fresh - good, not great; standard, watered down salsa bar; now this is OVERPRICED! Has a somewhat manufactured taste in their items- what do you expect from a McDonald's owned chain?

Rubio's- good grief this place is pathetic compared to the real deal at BFT. Cold specks of wtf fish tacos, same watered down salsa bar, but even worse; upgrading their menu with lobster tacos smacks of desperation.

Sharky's Woodfired Mexican Grill- almost a carbon copy of Baja's Fresh, but has an even more corporate taste to their items. Nice, hip atmosphere but overpriced. Boring and flavorless salsa bar.

I rest my case.

Again, I would try the Laguna Hills or Laguna Niguel branch if you want consistency. Get thee to BFT right now! It's an order! :)

-and thanks Elmo for FINALLY putting BFT on the food radar.

 
At 2:20 PM, Blogger Bill said...

One of my favorite joint I love the pinto and rice. And the neutral flavor fish tacos is so goood.

 
At 1:41 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Toby,

You got me pegged. I am a greasy-fish-taco-lover. It's one of the few things where greasy batter becomes more of am asset than a liability. Tempura, no. Fish Tacos, yes. But your argument is so persuasive and informative (I had no idea that Wahoo's doesn't serve wahoo but BFT dies) that I think I really need to taste them again. That is, after I try the blackened ones.

Bill,

And the pico de gallo and chips! You know, I had no idea this post was going to get this many comments! Shows how great this place is.

 
At 10:30 PM, Blogger Bill said...

Oh yeah the pinto is really good as a dip for the chips just add a little pico to it and you got you self some bean dip.

 
At 12:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hiya Elmo,

I just thought I'd provide an unsolicited FYI on the "sweetened water with rice" you mentioned at the end of your Jang Mo Gip review in the OC Weekly. It's actually a barley malt punch, sometimes flavored with ginger root, called shikkae. The rice is only an accent, for fun and texture :) But the restaurant renditions are usually anemic versions of the real deal!

p.s. I'm a longtime reader of your blog, and absolutely adore it! This is my first comment, though :p

 
At 6:44 AM, Blogger joanh said...

man, that's what i'm talking about when i'm thinking enchiladas! i just went to taipei's newest mexican restaurant and the enchiladas were just put together and lukewarm w/ a sprinkle of powdery cheese. after some googling, that's how they make them in mexico?? i'm so confused and sad.

 
At 8:52 PM, Blogger Pauline said...

I love the fish tacos at Los Cotijas... They are the best in town!

 
At 8:23 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Bill,

Yup! I was there last week and that's exactly what I did. Used it as dip for the chips! Also ate it in concert with those peppers! Damn that was a good meal.

Anon,

Sorry for the late reply. Thanks for delurking and writing your first comment! Thanks also for the barley malt punch. I think what I had could be called an "anemic version"...it was refreshing nonetheless though!

Joanh,

I'm also confused...but more surprised that you actually found enchiladas in Taiwan!


Pauline,

Ya they are!

 
At 2:09 AM, Blogger joanh said...

MMmm Enchiladas. Have you ever had enchiladas that weren't baked? They served them not baked at a new Mexican restaurant in town and I was SO confused. After some googling, I guess they aren't baked in some parts of Mexico?

 
At 6:13 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

joan,

I would've thought that the very definition of an enchilada hinges upon it being baked...but I guess anyone can interpret it differently as they wish.

Me, I still prefer an oozy hot enchilada, over a non-baked one.

 
At 9:47 AM, Blogger Jeff Frazier said...

These guys have a new restaurant. www.ContodoMexicanGrill.com in Orange. Check it out.

 
At 11:18 AM, Anonymous hungrypoppa said...

Edwin you need to try Hole Mole in the LBC. You've tried the rest Gringo fish taco joints, now try 1 of the best. So take Gus by the mano and get get down to Hole Mole in the LBC. By the way if you go to their 4th street location wait for it...... They are only a BUCK!

 
At 1:21 PM, Anonymous amourra said...

This is my favorite place for FISH TACOS in OC.
Elmo, we just don't seem to agree on fish. I will say they are on the dry side (possibly because the fish it almost pounded thin), but still yummy with lot's of lime...if you haven't tried the enchiladas with the GREEN sauce, that's a must try.

They recently raised their prices, but that won't keep me from stopping by alomst weekly for the fish tacos...

 
At 11:36 PM, Anonymous HP said...

Really? After all of the iffy reviews on Wahoo's from the commenters on this page, I've been hesitant to try Wahoo's. Tried it today, and I must say I LOVE their fish tacos. Not so expensive for such a filling meal, too. I prefer grilled over fried because it gives it more of a moist flavor. Will try Baja's or maybe the other place that you rave about.

 
At 11:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me the fried "Ensenada style" tacos here are an afterthought to their specialty the grilled fish. Blackened or regular these are the best there are. Since discoveding this place 8 or so years ago I have never gone back to Wahoos, who's tacos I always thought were dry and bland.
I would also suggest the shrimp taco here. I have never had a more flavorfull one anywhere else and you get a good amount of shrimp.

 

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