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Friday, February 17, 2017

In Search of the Original Fish Taco: Ensenada, Mexico - Part 3

Missed Part 1? You can view it at this link: Ensenada, Mexico - Part 1 or you can see Ensenada, Mexico - Part 2.

Earlier in my life, Ensenada was a frequent destination for family getaways. When I got old enough, it became that way for me when friends and I would shoot down across the border where the prices and drinking age were both lower than they were in the states.

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Many a day, or night, was spent setting off firecrackers on the beach, drinking cases of Tecate, and enjoying the food that locals cooked right there on the beach.

I loved the dough that the old man squeezed into a boiling pot of oil over a make shift fire on the beach and learned the joys of a treat called churros when I was a boy. The tacos from a street-corner stand where the vendor would ladle a spicy, watery, and creamy guacamole over the meat. My dad would drive south of town, into the countryside, on highway 1 looking for roadside vendors selling that most known of Ensenada cuisine, the fish taco.

Street life, and street food, in particular were so savory in this Baja seaside town. Today, we’re on a mission to see if we can still find some.

After a midday rest at our room at the Estero Beach Resort, we head south of town to Maneadero. Formerly a tiny village, it’s now a growing town. Along the road where many taco stands would abound, there are several restaurants but the roadside kiosks are gone.

I turn down the road to Punta Banda. La Bufadora, the blowhole, is one of the most famous attractions in town. The hole in the rocks where wave shoot water spray hundreds of feet in the air has been drawing people to see it throughout the town’s history.

We’ve seen it before and we’ll save that for another trip. We’re looking for something else.

A little way into the countryside, we see what looks like an abandoned waterpark. Out front is a blue and white taco stand advertising fish tacos. We put that in the memory banks for the drive back and continue on.  Not much else to see as we keep driving along the estuary towards the point until we reach the village of Punta Banda and see another taco stand on the side. We decide to pull in.

As we unload Tim and his chair, an American lady comes out to ask us if we want pizza. No, we tell her, fish tacos. She apologizes and says the taco stand is closed on Thursdays (this should tell you what day we got there) and explains that she runs the pizza shack on one end of the building and another lady runs the taco stand.

We load Tim back in and head back to the other shack next to the closed waterpark. This is Lupita’s.  I tell my wife that this Lupita must be very wealthy because every other restaurant in town is called Lupita’s.

My wife (a native Mexican) patiently explains to her gringo husband that they are named after the Virgin of Guadalupe, kind of a good luck thing, and Lupita is the nickname for Lupe, which is the short version of Guadalupe, so…yeah…you’re going to see a lot of Lupitas down her, a whole LOT of Lupitas.

We unload, take up residence at one of the flimsy tables next to a group of local truck drivers and order some tacos.

Battered filets sizzle in the red hot oil as we pop open some bottles of Mexican Coke. A few minutes later, the blazing filet is placed in a hand-made tortilla and given to use. A two by six board running along the side of the shack holds the condiments…shredded cabbage, cream, several salsas, radish, guacamole…and you help yourself to whatever you want.

I’m not a fish lover but committed to eating a whole taco in the land where the fish taco was invented. It was light, tender, juicy, fluffy, and very tasty. Although very hot, it was delicious and the Mexican Coke was perfect to wash it down with. Letty still says the fish taco at Los Tacos de Huicho in Bakersfield is better, but I thought this was just outstanding.

Why is Ensenada so famously known for inventing the fish taco? Probably because it has historically been a fishing town, and still is.

After this treat, we head to the waterfront and find a secure, guarded parking lot where we can leave the van all day for 50 pesos, around $5, at Plaza Marina, just north of the giant Mexican flag. Here, after you park, you can walk through the building to get to the waterfront, the best wheelchair accessible route to experience the Malecon and other waterfront attractions.

(NOTE: wherever you park, go to the Malecon for access. On the street side, a few corners are missing curb cuts and you will be forced into a narrow, traffic filled street now and again. You can access it from the river next to the cruise ship dock, through Plaza Marina, and also through the mall where the Cineopolis Theater is.)

Before we get our next meal, I decide to look up an old friend. In the old days, I’d come to Ensenada with friends looking for watering holes and adventure. One of our favorites was the bar in the San Nicolas Hotel, two blocks south of downtown.

We walk past the Federal Police station and make our way in.

At the very quiet bar, we take seats outside, the only place where the wheelchair will fit. The giant pool is empty, waiting renovation. The only three customers today are named Letty, Tim, and Darryl.

It’s extremely quiet and empty. What used to be the liveliest place in town is now a morgue.  Quite telling how hard the tourist crash has hit.

I ask the manager, “I seem to remember the bar being below ground and had an underwater window to look into the pool.”

“Yes, it was quite beautiful and fun but it was torn down to build the new casino (next door),” he said.

Too bad, it was quite a sight and now it’s just history. The drinks are still quite good, though.

Along the waterfront, many vendors are selling churros that they cook on the spot for you, ice cream, snow cones, tacos and more. Boat captains will be handing you their card, hoping to book a fishing trip for you and your friends (great fishing down here, by the way). Curio stands mark the north end of the seawall and our next destination.

Ensenada has a fish market that has been here forever. It’s not huge, just two aisles with around 20 vendors crammed in selling the day’s fresh catch. There are ramps at each end of the building, put there so the mongers can wheel there fish-laden handtrucks in, that work well for wheelchairs.  One aisle is outside, while the other is in.

We wander along, eyeing the fresh octopi, barracuda, tuna, shrimp, lobsters, and many more creatures of the deep.

A giant fish head at one of the stalls makes a good photo opportunity.

The vendors are vocal, trying to get you to take a filet or two home. It’s all very fascinating and I was surprised at how clean, smell-free, and fly-free the place was. I’m not a seafood lover but, if I was, this would be the place. It’s still a fascinating place to see.

Just outside the market, about another twenty food stalls exist with very aggressive servers vying for your business. Most have a step or two to get to the tables but the row of stalls just across from the market on the north side have a patio around back that is wheelchair accessible. This we know because several of the hyper servers tell us so.

My wife picks the one that promises her a free piña colada with her meal.

We make our way to the back patio and the staff finds us a nice place to sit, next to the Christians from Canada…

We’ve been seeing these people all over Ensenada and in fact a few are staying at our hotel. They look like Amish and the men keep separate from the women but they use smartphones, are driving cars, and otherwise not eschewing modern technology at all. 

I have to ask.

“Are you Mennonite?”

“No, we’re Christians.”

“So am I…what denomination are you?”


“I know but there are many different flavors and you guys look Amish or Mennonite.”

“We know, we don’t have a formal structure. We just call ourselves Christians.  We come from Quebec and we’re in town for a ministerial conference. We also run an orphanage here.”

…you learn something new every day.

While I’ll just shoot video and stills, Letty orders the Caldo de Siete Mares (seven seas soup), a steamy broth filled with scallops, crab, cod, mussels, shrimp, clams, oyster, and octopus, and Tim gets a plate of fish nuggets.

I do taste each one and confirm that they are very good, but a tad fishy for a non-seafood eater like me. Letty and Tim assure me that’s what it should taste like and the seafood here is a fine example of what ultra-fresh seafood should taste like.

And, yes, Letty did get her free piña colada.

There’s only one part left of this trip and it entails one of the most nerve wracking things you can ever do on a driving trip to Mexico…returning home.  Stay tuned for that.

Copyright 2013 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

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