Today is Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Mexican army’s victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. And although the holiday is celebrated predominately in Puebla (and, of course throughout the United States), we decided it would be a fine day to hold a battle of the fish tacos, a dish much more closely associated with Baja California. Fish tacos have in the past couple of years experienced a surge in popularity in New York, with places like Mercadito Cantina, Pinche Taqueria, Toloache, Tortilleria Nixtamal, and Rockaway Taco all putting their imprint on the dish. And, of course, tacos de pescado have also been appropriated by Baja Fresh, the California chain that opened two Midtown locations last year.
Plenty of people — particularly transplanted Californians — profess a fanatical love for Baja Fresh, and we wondered how its fish tacos would compare to those of one of Manhattan’s more established — and much smaller — taquerias. So we chose Pinche on Mott Street, which, like Baja Fresh, also offers both take-out or sit-down options, albeit in a tighter and more rickety confines. So how did each fare?
First up was Baja Fresh, where the fish taco costs $4 and is dispatched to you within about 45 seconds of ordering. The breaded, fried fish is cradled in a double tortilla; buried under a pile of diced tomatoes, a few shreds of green cabbage, a squirt of salsa, and what the menu called “tangy dressing”; and accompanied by a desiccated sliver of lime.
The dressing carries much more heat than one would expect from anything served at a fast-food chain, and is delicious in the way that bags of flavored potato chips are delicious. The tomatoes are surprisingly vibrant, and the tortillas soft and pliant, if flavorless. The fish itself was on this occasion well-seasoned but kind of tough and gummy, and also not particularly plentiful. It was the weakest of the ingredients; it’s saying something when the out-of-season tomatoes in a fish taco are better than the fish itself. Despite this, the taco as a whole was pretty satisfying, owing in large part to the heat, seasoning, and fatty dressing.
Pinche Taqueria is a 6 train ride away from Baja Fresh’s Lexington Avenue location, and within 20 minutes of leaving the latter we were perched on one of Pinche’s structurally unsound green window stools, enjoying the view of the sidewalk and eating another fish taco. This one cost $3.95 and was made with breaded and fried mahi mahi. The fish came in a single tortilla, griddled to make it slightly crisp, and peeked out coyly from beneath a pile of shredded green cabbage and chopped onion that had been lubricated liberally with pico de gallo and crema. Unlike the Baja Fresh taco, the limes accompanying it were plenty juicy.
Pinche excels with its crema, which is tart and, well, creamy, and its pico de gallo is refreshing and carries a nice bit of heat. But the fish itself was a bit of a disappointment — although it was far more tender and obviously fresher than the stuff at Baja Fresh, it was also bland, a victim of underseasoning.
Altogether, though, Pinche’s fish taco was more satisfying than its competitor’s — the tortillas may be diminutive, but they carry a substantial payload. One taco is enough to satisfy a craving; two will easily carry you through a sunny afternoon.
While Baja Fresh’s taco earned points for it seasoning, spice, and surprisingly fresh tomatoes, it was undermined by the quality — or lack thereof — of its star ingredient. And although Pinche’s fish could have used a healthy shake of salt, its overall quality was solid. And given that the most important component of a fish taco is, of course, the fish, this victory goes to Pinche.
465 Lexington Avenue
227 Mott Street