Fish tacos are to San Diego and the Baja Peninsula what hot dogs or Italian beef are to Chicagoans. They're quick, inexpensive meals, utilizing local ingredients. But up until recently, they've been hard to find in the Midwest. Thankfully, a few transplants are now recreating these delicious, hand-held meals with some success.
Certainly, the whole chickens take up much of the kitchen space at Chicks 'n Salsa in West Suburban Glen Ellyn. But Cindy Degen's experience in Southern California also led her to offer some dynamite fish tacos.
"I had experienced them for eight years, fell in love with them, would call home, tell my mom there was nothing like it here, I told her when I came back to Chicago I was gonna bring them back with me," said Degen.
Served grilled or "Baja-style" (that's fried) she dips tilapia fillets into a semi-spicy beer batter. After a quick fry, three white corn tortillas are briefly warmed up then topped with a succession of crunchy cabbage, chipotle mayo and the fried fish, plus some chopped cucumbers and a healthy shot of cilantro. A trio of homemade salsas and fresh limes stand at the ready, but honestly, these Baja beauties need little doctoring.
Downtown in River North, Hub 51 is the first restaurant from the sons of Lettuce Entertain You Founder Rich Melman. Their fish taco plate is replete with guac, beans and rice and pico de gallo, plus handmade corn tortillas.
"It's not our grandmother, but it is a team of people rolling our own tortillas; everyday we make probably a little over a thousand tortillas everyday," said Jerrod Melman, Hub 51.
Extra points for including bits of corn in those tortillas. Mahi mahi is grilled, served along with some tomatillo sauce; the diner gets to build their own taco.
"When halibuts in season we use halibut...we plate it so that people kind of build their own, it's kind of interactive and people have a good time with it," said Melman.
In Ukrainian Village, the Old Oak Tap is a fine example of a bar for grown-ups. Part of their upscale menu includes fish tacos that begin with tiny tilapia filets soaked in buttermilk, then tossed in seasoned flour and fried. On each warm corn tortilla go layers of crunchy cabbage, then spicy chipotle mayo and finally, homemade pico de gallo gracing the well-seasoned, crunchy fried fish. The trio makes a perfect foil for the outstanding beer list.
"We like to do it Baja-style, meaning just some citrus, there's not a whole lot on it, cabbage and just quick flash fry on the tilapia and that's it," said Chris Ongkiko, The Old Oak Tap.
And another honorable mention is in Highland Park at La Casa De Isaac, which has a Mexican menu but really knows how to make fish tacos.
Chicks 'N Salsa
874 Roosevelt Rd., Glen Ellyn
51 W. Hubbard St.
Old Oak Tap
2109 W. Chicago Ave.
La Casa de Isaac
431 Temple, Highland Park