Let’s play a game of food-word association: what’s the first thing that comes across your mind when someone says “New York?” How about “Boston…” or “Chicago…” maybe “San Francisco?”
There are obviously a ton of answers, but for New York you may have been saying pizza or hot dogs… For Boston, maybe clam chowder, for Chicago, deep dish pizza, and for San Francisco, maybe sourdough bread.
Alright, same game… San Diego.
Be honest… did you say fish taco? (you may have said California Burrito, depending on your taco shop preferences).
I definitely did. As much as some people hate to admit it, nothing else more perfectly lays out the lifestyle we live in San Diego. Why? Here’s why:
1)It’s heavily influenced by Mexican culture. In a lot of cases, it straight-up is Mexican food, but I won’t pretend that all fish tacos are created equal, because anyone who has loyalty to one taco shop over another, which is to say, everyone in San Diego, knows differently. It’s a simple enough dish that can be left open for interpretation and invention, so long as it doesn’t stray too far from the initial idea of fish, tortilla, greenery, salsa (exceptions can be made; see George’s California Modern).
2)It’s quick to make. Ever seen one of those guys operating a taco cart dress up a street taco? It’s like watching robots put together a car in a factory; arms coming out of nowhere, piecing together everything, tightening, dressing it up, and spitting it out before you can fully comprehend everything that just happened. And that’s just your standard issue carne or pollo asada taco… fish takes even less time to cook than those!
3)It’s portable. This is San Diego we’re talking about here, one of the fittest cities in the country! We’ve got places to be, waves to catch, and sunsets to watch! We can’t be bogged down by bowls or boxes… wrap that damned thing up in some foil and let’s get a move on!
4)It’s light in flavor and uncomplicated. Our culture is fairly mellow and laid back. The fish taco is a perfect example of how our food matches the city’s collective aura. The weather here is pretty much always sunny, and when it isn’t sunny, it’s partly cloudy. We don’t need some rich, heavy dish filling us up until we go food-comatose; we want something airy, acidic, and a little bit spicy to wake up our taste buds, in preparation for number 5:
5)It pairs perfectly with beer. We’ve got the hoppy beer market in a stranglehold, and we ain’t letting go anytime soon… it just so happens that our friend the fish taco is Turner to the local craft-brewing industry’s Hooch. What’s better on a hot day than a fish taco and a cold beer?
Do a quick Google search for the top 100 restaurants in the country, and note how many restaurants outside New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston there are on the list. San Diego is the 8th largest city in the country by population (depending on your source of info)… how many Michelin starred restaurants do we have? How many James Beard awards? (Don’t even get me started on Zagat’s ratings)
The short answer: Who cares?
We have a food identity in this city: it’s much more than one dish could possibly define, and obviously far deeper than any major food publication is willing to dig for. Many of our Chefs are certainly deserving of acclaim, but not every cook busts their ass in the kitchen to get their picture in a magazine. Sometimes the only satisfaction they want or need comes in the form of plates coming back from the customer wiped-clean.
For better or worse, I am a fish taco from San Diego, damn it… What are you?