A Fishy Culinary History of Fish Tacos and Fish Taco Catering

The historical roots of tacos are hard to track, but Baja Mexicans clearly invented fish tacos. Of course Americans commercialized the idea on a broad scale.

There is an uncertain history on the topic of tacos. While generally believed to have originated in 18th century Mexico, some say it was with the silver miners who first devised filling a corn tortilla with tasty ingredients. Others argue its history began before that in other regions of the country.

But what’s a bit clearer is the history of fish tacos. Turkey, chicken and meat may have been the more common ingredients in those early Mexican tacos. But the fish taco form – now popular among many taco catering companies and their clientele (now termed “fish taco caterers”) – skews west in its orientation to the Baja California region of Mexico. That is somewhat to be expected, given how no part of the 800-mile long peninsula is more that 50 miles from either Gulf of California or Pacific Ocean waters. Seafood is historically abundant there and a diet staple.

San Diego-based food writer Susan Russo wrote in a 2007 food blog for National Public Radio that “the fish taco is to San Diego what the cheese steak is to Philadelphia or the lobster roll is to Maine.” She says the obvious geographic proximity that San Diego has to Baja is the reason for this. But she adds the Baja delicacy is really the result of Spanish, indigenous Mexican and Asian cuisines. The peninsula is a crossroads of a sort, and that between the conquistadores, later East Asian arrivals in the first half of the 20th century, and the Kumeyaay, Cochimi, Cucapas and other tribes who historically fished the coastal areas.

Americans stumbled across fish tacos in the mid-20th century when they began to venture down Baja in search of adventure and, in particular, waves for surfers, writes Russo. The excitement and surf were there, along with crispy fish tacos. That once exotic food now caught the attention of entrepreneurial Americans who brought the idea back to the States and added them to menus of restaurants and taco caterers. The rest is history.

Of course there are many different types of fish, many different preparation methods, and even many different toppings that one can put on a fish taco. Which is why the offerings of no two mobile taco catering operations are the same. The lighter tasting white fish (tilapia, cod, perch) should be complemented with lighter fillings and salsas; the bolder tastes of salmon, mahi mahi and grilled shrimp might have more ancho chilis and other caliente sauces and seasonings.

Will the popularity of fish tacos continue to climb, such that one day will a seasoned and grilled tilapia taco be more common than the beef and bean burrito? Time will tell (as will the availability of sustainable fish supplies). But as Americans’ interest in healthy foods continues to rise, so too might the interest in better-for-you fish.

How to Present Tacos Like a True Chef

Modern taco events have changed what festive eating looks like. Fortunately, the nature of mobile taco catering lends itself to a clean presentation.

It says something that the once-lowly taco is now served at weddings, corporate events, and high-ticket fundraisers. The deceptively simple yet delightfully textured tacos that taco cart caterers are now serving at these events cannot just be delicious food: they need to be presented in such a way as to fit their surroundings and to meet the expectations of their well-heeled diners.

But while an unfortunate number of Americans met their first tacos at a certain fast-food chain (or confuse tacos with their cousins, the burritos, extensively sold also in casual, fast-service environments), the association with fluorescent lighting and hard plastic seating is out of step with what tacos have become today. So for the unenlightened, the presentation of tacos – be it at a company party assisted by taco catering, a bar/bas mitzvah with mobile taco catering carts, or an in-home event prepared by an amateur chef – requires a few important details that add to the gastronomic pleasure of the modern taco:

Clean kitchen – The hygiene of food preparation is essential, of course. But just as important is the perception of that hygiene. A good taco cart will be sparkling clean with the added bonus of the food prepared right in front of the guest, one taco at a time.

Collaborative cooking – The other benefit of taco events is how no two tacos are alike. Because of the wide array of salsas and toppings – in addition to the choices between chicken, chorizo, carnitas, tofu, tilapia and shrimp – the diner and cook will have a back-and-forth exchange on what goes on that particular taco.

Salsas and toppings – As with the clean kitchen, the salsas and toppings need to look fresh and be in good supply. The sharp cook will keep all options available to all diners at all times.

Clean wrap (not overfilled) – It’s tempting to overfill a taco. Because more is more, right? Well not exactly. An overflowing taco ends up being messy for the diner and much of what’s lost goes to waste – or on someone’s nice shirt. Better that the diner gets a second or third taco that has just the right amount of fillings.

Sufficient plate – The greatest part of a taco-catered event – aside from perhaps the margarita bar – is that the rules of traditional dining don’t apply. This is walk-around food if the event calls for it, and that is the reason so many event planners ring up taco caterers first for their parties.

One other thing: make sure all ingredients are fresh. This isn’t just about taste – guacamole, chopped tomatoes and onions, and cilantro have to be prepared the day of service or else the host risks bad perceptions. Presentation is everything!