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Long-ago fish taco still the gold standard

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Updated: June 29, 2012 8:59AM

Today fish tacos — usually grilled or fried fish served in soft tortillas — are everywhere.

But in 2005 when Tacos del Pacifico opened and started serving fish tacos, it was a seldom seen and altogether different dish.

At the Far South Side restaurant, fish chunks — lightly pre-cooked— were placed in tortillas and it all was fried. The result was a golden crunchy tortilla on the outside, while the fish inside was moist and juicy.

Tacos del Pacifico immediately became a pilgrimage site for Chicago food enthusiasts.

Alas, mere months after opening, Tacos del Pacifico closed, leaving behind an emptiness comparable to the closure of Riverview Amusement Park. And nowhere in Chicago have I found tacos prepared the way they were at this tiny, unforgettable restaurant.

Recently in Baja California, in the pueblo of Todos Santos, I went fish shopping with Chef Alejandro Aran of the Hotel Guaycura Restaurant. Aran brings a fine dining sensibility to traditional Mexican foods, much as Rick Bayless has done at Chicago’s Topolobampo.

One afternoon, as fishing boats pulled up a few hundred feet south of the Tropic of Cancer, Aran selected an ocean-fresh and monstrous-looking monkfish. He baked the fish, wrapped small pieces in a flour tortilla with onion, garlic and nopales (cactus paddles), all cut very fine. Then he fried the rolled tortillas and served his fish-filled flautas with a chipotle aioli and other sauces.

After eating, I checked the Shedd’s Right Bite guide and, sure enough, monkfish is not a sustainable species. Though conscience-stricken, I must say those were the best fish tacos I’d eaten since Tacos del Pacifico closed.

Last year, I mentioned to Girl and the Goat’s Stephanie Izard that frying the tortilla-and-fish combo together yields a much more delicious fish taco. Knowing a good culinary concept when she hears one, Izard’s eyes brightened with more than usual wattage.

Perhaps someday a Chicago chef will again prepare fish tacos in the style of Tacos del Pacifico. We can’t bring back Riverview; but we can resurrect flavor-packed fish in crispy tacos, can’t we?

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer and contributor to WBEZ (91.5 FM) and E-mail

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