by Matthew Korfhage
The fish taco does not travel like other food. It travels with the waves, and with rumors of chillness.
Fourteen years ago, when Pelon’s Baja Grill first opened in a strip mall, tucked away behind the hotels of the Oceanfront, co-owner Robyn Muscara worried Virginia Beach wouldn’t understand her family’s approach to tacos.
The Baja taco is a fillet of mild white fish fried and breaded and wrapped in corn tortillas, ensconced in cabbage cut to the barest slivers – livened by a swirl of acid and fat from creamy white sauce, bright pico de gallo and a hint of lime. The Baja taco is crispness, tenderness and lightness.
The Muscaras moved here from Southern California, where Baja tacos are a gospel learned from the seafood-rich surf towns of Mexico’s western peninsula. But in 2005, Pelon’s was one of only two spots – along with Gringo’s, which opened within months of Pelon’s – serving it.
“When we first brought them this way, people didn’t understand them because we were using corn tortillas,” Muscara remembers. “People were used to grilled fish. They were used to tacos with lettuce and cheese.”
Of course, local surfers were hip to them, having chased waves in San Diego and Mexico; so it makes sense that weeks after Pelon’s opened, Virginia Beach surf impresario Paul West found her and booked the restaurant for the East Coast Surfing Championships.
But Baja is not the only surf taco. These days Tidewater embraces seafood tacos with greater fervor than almost anywhere but California, albeit in a homespun variety guaranteed to confuse anyone visiting from Mexico.
Seemingly every seafood palace and beach-bum bar on the Chesapeake Bay or Oceanfront has its own take on this taco, whether mahi mahi, firecracker shrimp or oyster, not to mention an improbably delicious creation made with tuna and mushroom.
Baja fish or shrimp tacos at Pelon’s Baja Grill
One of the most important ingredients to making tacos at Pelon’s, says co-owner Robyn Muscara, is a very fancy knife.
“You have to cut the cabbage really thin like hair,” she says. “It took us forever to find the right knife.”
Make the cabbage too thick, and the texture and bitter crunch take over the taco. And the magic of the Baja-style taco, which Pelon’s makes as faithfully as anyone in this region, is a very specific balance.
First it’s the flavor of the grilled corn tortilla, finished and caramelized on the flat-top. Then it is the softness of the fish and the light decadence of beer-batter breading. And then it’s the delicate cabbage, whose thin strands should crunch and then dissolve. That cabbage is a sauce delivery mechanism, picking up the flavors of Pelon’s chipotle-drenched crema.
Still, it’s possible the shrimp taco at Pelon’s is better than the classic breaded fish. The shrimp’s saltiness is set off by diced-pineapple salsa mixed with red bell peppers, jalapenos and onion; this bit of tropical brightness is a perfect complement to the $5 margaritas at happy hour. And one way or another, every hour at Pelon’s is a happy hour.
– 3619 Pacific Ave., Virginia Beach; 738 W. 22nd St., Norfolk
The Truth at Bro’s Fish Tacos
For five years, Jacob Harver served his Baja-inspired fish tacos out of a roving food truck, the movements of which could be tracked only on Facebook. More than 7,000 people followed him on social media to track his whereabouts, all of them searchers for the Truth.
The Truth is Bro’s Fish Tacos’ finest achievement, a fillet of wild-caught, beer-battered flounder loaded so densely into a tortilla that the taco seems pregnant. When combined with sliced cabbage, grape -tomato pico de gallo (nearly psychedelic in its redness) and any of four mayo-yogurt sauces, it is near-tawdry in its excess. But the beer batter remains admirably light, a school in crispness without the oily weight that afflicts far too many breaded fish tacos.
No one would confuse it as a product of Mexico. Instead, it is almost Greek in its Mediterranean vividness and dogged insistence that you eat your fill.
At the brick-and-mortar location of Bro’s, which opened in November, those tacos are finally available with a pint of beer and a seat at the bar. The menu has also expanded into nachos and churros, as well as catch-of the-day specials alongside the other fish taco options.
But every single day, the Truth is unchanging. The Truth is honest. And the Truth is good.
– 277 N. Lynnhaven Road, Virginia Beach
Fried oyster tacos at Casa Pearl
To get what’s behind the oyster taco at Williamsburg’s Casa Pearl, you’ve got to go deep. The restaurant is a nest of contradictions – a casual, fun seafood spot with a serious pedigree. Chef Mikey Maksimowicz, formerly of Washington’s Michelin-starred Fiola, chucked that career for a life as a humble
Southern seafood salesman, and both those backgrounds come into play at Casa Pearl.
The food here is both hyperlocal and internationally inspired, drawn in part from the taco-filled Nicaraguan childhood of Maksimowicz’s wife and partner, Chelsea.
All of this comes together in Casa Pearl’s oyster taco. The Chesapeake Bay oysters are brined Southern-style in buttermilk and Fresno hot sauce before being dredged and fried in coriander and the same corn masa used to make the tortillas. The slaw puts the taco in Baja territory, but the sauce is Cajun remoulade, a megaphone for seafood flavor touched up with heat from jalapeno in the slaw.
The taco is boisterously juicy, bright, and satisfyingly chewy, made serious by just a touch of pain.
– 722 Merrimac Trail, Williamsburg
Firecracker shrimp tacos at Fin Seafood
Every year from May to August in Newport News, Kenny Sloane’s fine-dining seafood spot turns into ground zero for live outdoor music in the Port Warwick square. The lawn in front of Fin Seafood fills with revelers in love with the blues, desperate for food they can hold in their hands. And so Sloane improvised.
“I’ve always had fish tacos,” he says. “But we started experimenting: The firecracker shrimp has always been one of the most popular items on the menu. People enjoy it so much, so we put it in taco form to give it extra variety.”
Starting with the classic mayo-sriracha bar mix, Sloane turns up the volume with sambal chile paste from Indonesia, then rounds out its depth with sesame, soy and fresh herbs. He then lays the shrimp down on a bed of lightly sweet and acidic slaw.
But the key to the taco is that same salsa verde that goes on Sloane’s rotating fish tacos, which he makes using the tasty, fatty belly meat of the fresh fish he serves on the restaurant’s high-dollar entrees.
The salsa is simple: the tart crispness of tomatillos, the citrusy wallop of lime, and the bittersweet depth of grilled onions. But playing against the lower and earthier spice and salt of the shrimp, it is a high and tremulous grace note you can hear better than whoever happens to be playing in the square.
– 3150 William Styron Square, Newport News
Fish tacos at Jessy’s Taco Bistro
The Taco Bistro in Ghent is the most overlooked piece of the Jessy’s taco empire. It is a dressed-up restaurant somehow so separate from owner Jorge Romero’s other homestyle taquerias in Ocean View and Virginia Beach that it can feel like a separate being altogether. The often understaffed restaurant also moves at its own rhythms, slower than most lunch breaks can accommodate. But do not sleep on these fish tacos.
The Bistro makes its own trio of tacos with whatever fish happens to be fresh – the same fish it’ll use in the ceviche on any given day, which often turns out to be a variety of rockfish. Freshness is pivotal. Unlike many blackened fish tacos in these parts, which are too often grilled to chewy, chickeny oblivion, the unbreaded, spice-crusted fish fillets served at Jessy’s are light, tender, moist and full of their fish’s subtle, salted flavor.
Within a corn tortilla lightly crisped on the grill, the flavors in the Jessy’s taco are like a cross between west-coast Baja flavors and Mexico’s Yucatan south: pickled onion and lime-oregano slaw, radish topper, and a lightly spicy chili-lime aioli. It is a supreme balance of acid and fat, savory depth and a whisper of heat. Get lucky on the time of year, and the tacos will come with a seasonal side of charred poblano and corn of equal earthy depths.
Dear Lord, it is a good taco plate – the sort of meal that has you texting your dining partner hours later just to confirm the profundity of your experience.
– 328 W. 20th St., Norfolk
Tuesday fish tacos at Auntie’s Tiki
At a lot of bars, Taco Tuesday is a low-cost, low-effort sport. But at Filipino cocktail hall Auntie’s Tiki, it’s improvisational art. New head chef Abriel Levantino reserves each Tuesday for an experimental-taco break, different each week.
Alongside $5 margaritas made with the sweet-and-sour kick of Filipino calamansi citrus, Levantino kicks out a rotating menu of tacos that always includes at least one fish option.
But when it comes to what he serves, you’re at the mercy of the seas. One Tuesday, you may arrive to find seared tuna on a house-made blue-masa corn tortilla, drenched in tangy Meyer lemon crema and a dusting of sinus-tingling wasabi pea crumbs. The next Tuesday, it may be a delicately diaphanous cod topped with pink pickled onions and a bright garden of fresh cilantro, the tortilla toasted and pillowy in its comforts.
– 4312 Holland Road, Virginia Beach
Tuna mushroom tacos at Gringo’s Taqueria
Gringo’s Taqueria is an Oceanfront religion, having been voted the best in Virginia Beach over and over, until voting becomes boring.
Evie Fetterolf and Tony Pellino’s flour-tortilla tacos aren’t really Baja-style, nor would you expect to find anything like their orange chicken or Pabst beer-battered fish tacos anywhere in Mexico. Gringo’s is pure Virginia Beach.
And the fish taco that’s tastiest there is by far the most unlikely: a grilled tuna taco folded into a flour tortilla with romaine lettuce, zipped up with habanero crema and pico de gallo, and girded by the umami depth of grilled and garlic-spiced button mushrooms.
This taco should, by all accounts, not exist. It has no particular precedent in any cuisine. And yet it is delicious, a balance of alien elements. And because there is nothing else quite like it, it is also what you’ll crave at Gringo’s after you eat it.
– 612 Norfolk Ave., Virginia Beach