Fishing for Condiments

by Zach Mann on November 13, 2009 · 3 comments

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At the tail end of San Diego’s autumn heat wave, I visited my favorite neighborhood hot sauce store to re-up on the good stuff and purchase a few novelty gifts for friends. I hadn’t yet tried California-Antilles Trading’s line of hot sauces by Très Tropical, so I decided on a few flavors and struck up a conversation with the shop’s proprietor. He stroked his Gandalf-white beard while examining my choices. Then he singled one out, the Kiwi-Jalapeño flavor, and listed the sauce’s merits as a salad dressing and pork punctuater. The professor lowered his voice, leaned forward and intimated what he believed was the Kiwi-Jalapeño Hot Pepper Sauce’s true calling:

“And man does it taste great on fish tacos!”

So I set out with a bottle of Très Tropical Kiwi-Jalapeño to find out for myself.

Mariscos German - San Diego, CA
Mariscos German had been on my list for awhile. Practically a household name in pescado-loving San Diego, Mariscos German consists of multiple trucks, a large chowhound following and even a spot on this Serious Eats list (which functionally measures fame rather than merit). When a Mariscos German truck moves street corners, people talk.

The Mariscos German truck closest to me, at 35th and University, sits in the corner of a liquor store parking lot and offers such amenities as shade, picnic tables and limes. I’m no stranger to taco trucks, but Mariscos German was the first one I’d been to that doesn’t list any prices on the menu (aside from 99 cents for a fish taco). It was also the first to hand me a styrofoam cup of soup broth to snack on while I waited for my order. The deep red broth, which took about as long to finish as my tacos took to cook, radiated flavor, a delicious balance of spice and assorted seafood. I knew immediately that I wouldn’t be disappointed by the rest of the meal.

Mixta Ceviche - Mariscos German - San Diego, CA Marlyn Taco - Mariscos German - San Diego, CA
Fish Taco and Marlyn Taco - Mariscos German - San Diego, CA Gobernador Taco - Mariscos German - San Diego, CA
Mariscos German’s fish tacos, like some other ninety-nine-centers I’ve had in San Diego, taste their price. All fish tacos under five dollars look the same to me – the same fishstick kin, cabbage and tomato combo – but some taste better than others. These land in the middle. Far more delicious – and far more interesting – is the marlyn taco, a heavy handheld combination of smoky marlin, celery and cheese. The smoked marlin has so much meaty flavor that it is reminiscent of BBQ pork, and the taco as a whole is unique and flavorful enough to combat the pools of grease that makes carrying the taco impossible.

Grease is the word. I hate to say it, but ultimately, Mariscos German disappointed me. I love me some good, greasy Mexican food, but when it comes to the subtle flavors of pescado and camarón, grease gets in the way of the good stuff. I’d order the marlyn taco and the gobernador taco (grilled shrimp, onions, celery and cheese) again because the intensity of flavor did not disappoint, but the next time I’m in the mood for mariscos on a budget, I’ll be driving to Cocteleria La Playita instead.

Cocteleria La Playita - San Diego, CA
My initial experience at Cocteleria La Playita could not have been more different than my meal at Mariscos German. Rather than a truck amidst crowds of waiting pedestrians in a liquor store parking lot, La Playita is a hole-in-the-wall tucked into the back corner of an uninspired Smart n’ Final lot, and the only customer at the time I stopped in was yours truly. I arrived after the lunch rush, as an inconspicuous white van arrived with the day’s shipment of seafood. Eight employees bounced around the open kitchen and unloaded the van while the lone customer waited for his order.

I’ve never shied away from bad restaurant inspection grades. On the contrary, I’ve always believed, to some extent, in a correlation between health negligence and flavor prominence. I don’t know what La Playita’s grade might have been, but the place definitely looked dirty. Grime and stains marred undecorated walls and a linoleum floor warped at every corner. Even I glanced around skeptically as I waited, rethinking the testimonies to mariscos mastery and the promising seafood-only menu. Those worries dissipated with my first bite – I’m sorry, Cocteleria La Playita Fast Sea Food, for ever doubting you.

Fish Taco and Gobernador Taco - Cocteleria La Playita - San Diego, CA Gobernador Tacos - Cocteleria La Playita - San Diego, CA
Mixta Ceviche - Cocteleria La Playita - San Diego, CA Mixta Ceviche - Cocteleria La Playita - San Diego, CA
Cocteleria La Playita’s mixta ceviche is worlds better than Mariscos German’s, which registers as an orchestrated death by citrus. While I would consider Cocteleria La Playita’s ceviche a little too liberal with the lime as well, it contains noticeably fresher seafood, and that made all the difference, giving the tostada second place behind another La Playita’s perfect comfort food. I immediately made a note to return to the cocteleria for its cócteles, which have earned praise beyond their marquee status.

The tacos looked somewhat less exciting, but again my eyes were fooled while my taste buds reaped the truth. The usual fishstick kin, cabbage and tomatoes combine to form more than the sum of their parts. Seafood is the star, and unlike those at Mariscos German’s tacos, other ingredients don’t get too big for their supporting roles. Again, I would guess that the freshness of the fish and shrimp play difference maker, and in the end, I’m more inspired than ever to find more and better fish tacos before I finally leave Southern California. Alas, mariscos on a bargain will make me rue that day.

As for the the Kiwi-Jalapeño Hot Sauce: Man, does it taste great on fish tacos!

Soup Appetizer - Mariscos German - San Diego, CA

Comments

wasabi prime November 16, 2009 at 10:42 am

HA — the last pic is adorably creepy! Yes, I think street food can be hit or miss, but I heard something very true the other day, that the real magic behind street food vendors is in their array of condiments, as that allows their customers to take basic, but delicious food, and make it truly individual.

James Boo November 16, 2009 at 3:25 pm

So, if every third meal I eat when I’m back in California on holiday is a burrito, and every sixth meal I eat is a fish taco, how much room will I have left for burgers, sushi, chili, Thai curry and Oaxacan food? Now that I know smoked marlin tacos exist, I may have to discover a meal between breakfast and brunch.

Zach November 16, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Wasabi P,

I did not address this in the post, but both Mariscos German and Cocteleria La Playita did have an impressive display of hot sauces on their tables. Since I have only eaten at these establishments TO-GO, and because my condiment collection at home is more extensive than either of theirs, this very valid street food category did not apply. I tried to describe the food on a pre-condiment level, but I ultimately enjoyed the meals with whatever hot sauce fit my mood.

James,

C’mon. Burgers and Chili are totally the same category.

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