Full disclosure — I’m from San Diego, California and I take Mexican food very seriously. Now that I am in Wisconsin, I’m in search of the perfect Baja fish taco.
The traditional fish taco originated in Baja, California. Many agree on how to assemble one — lightly battered deep-fried white fish, corn tortilla (sometimes two), shredded cabbage and the sauce. This stuff is usually the perfect blend of sour cream, mayo, lime, garlic, cilantro and chili powder.
So here began my quest for the best fish tacos in Madison. Surely a place that does fish fry so well can throw together a proper fish taco?
Stop number one — Canteen. Located on the south side of Capital Square at 111 S Hamilton St., hop on a plethora of buses outside Sellery Residence Hall, and you’ll be there in 10 minutes.
This place devotes just as much space to seating as it does to its tequila bar. All of their tacos are no more than $4, except for one. The one for which I came. Topping the price list at $5 a pop is their “Tecate” fish taco (Tecate is a city in Baja… my hopes are high).
Whitefish? Check. Corn tortillas? Check. Cabbage? Check. Sauce? Delicious. They pickle their peppers before they make their crema, but I’m not sure my palate could pick up on the difference. They also top it with lovely cilantro and a citrus salsa that I personally could’ve done without. Solid fish taco, but it didn’t quite hit the spot like one from home.
Next on the agenda — La Hacienda. Located at 515 S. Park Street, the restaurant is a 16-minute walk from Sellery.
Behind the hostess stand was a fridge of salsa in ketchup bottles, an ode to San Diego. Bottomless chips and salsa? Check. Fish tacos on the menu? Check. I get two. The first thing I notice is the lettuce. Not a deal-breaker, but until you’ve tried cabbage on a taco, you really haven’t explored your finest possibilities. The sauce? No kick. They did come with a hefty serving of beans and rice, but overall, the taco underwhelmed me.
My next stop — Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace. Located at 2009 Atwood Avenue, this was a hike to get to. Unless you have a car, it’s going to take you about 30 minutes by bus to get to the Atwood neighborhood.
It may be a hike, but this place is a party on the inside with its bright walls, colorful artwork and substantial margarita menu. Another highlight: the salsa bar that includes mild, medium, verde and hot salsas. I tried them all (because science) and they’re bomb. These tacos were beautiful. I went with a couple of friends and we sampled half the taco menu. My fish tacos? Amazing. Fish was seasoned, tortillas on point, cabbage and the sauce — oh my lord the sauce. This was the fish taco for which I was waiting. Topped with pico de gallo, this was my favorite Madison fish taco so far. I know it’s a journey from campus, but this place is 100 percent worth it.
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Next on the tour de taco — Madison’s. Located at 119 King St., Madison’s is at the eastern corner of the capitol square. Most buses can get you from campus to your seat in 15 minutes, otherwise, it’s a 24-minute walk from campus.
Madison’s is not a Mexican food place, but in all fairness, I wanted to give anywhere that advertised fish tacos a chance. “Diamonds in the rough,” and all that jazz. This was a diamond.
Whitefish? Check. Cabbage? Check. Their sauce? A spicy remoulade (a cold sauce made with mayonnaise and various condiments and herbs, as chopped pickles, capers, mustard, parsley, chervil and tarragon) that deviates from traditional but was super dang tasty. Another pleasant surprise? Pickled onion. Put me on the petition to get these on everything. Madison’s fish tacos are a win for me even though they remix the original recipe. Not the traditional Baja taco, but I’m still going back for more. You can tell they were paying attention to flavors, and my lord these are delicious.
Lastly — Eldorado Grill. Located at the very beginning of Willie Street at 744 Williamson. Jump on a bus (like the 03, 04 or 38) and you’ll be there in 15 minutes or less.
Right smack dab on the menu — Baja Fish Tacos. Coming off the back of the winning Madison’s experience, I’m ready for some conventional fish tacos. At Eldorado, you can get your fish grilled, but I went with fried. I noted three things right away: The pieces of fish were huge, the sauce was green and the pickled onions were back. The tacos were amazing, including the very green “cilantro-lime” aioli. Though strange to hear, there was so much fish the flavors were drowned out. I felt like my whole bite was fish.
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So for a traditional Baja taco, I’d say head to Tex Tubb’s. If you want something closer, and equally delicious, Madison’s is your best bet.