Sure, we love ramen and cupcakes. We gobble up donuts and inhale barbecue. But for the past three years, the reigning Toronto food trend has come wrapped in a corn tortilla. Here’s why the city is swimming in fish tacos.
At a quarter to noon on a recent Wednesday, the crowd outside Seven Lives Tacos y Mariscos in Kensington Market was already 10 deep and growing fast. The small restaurant, which had been operating for a scant three weeks, had been jammed since the first day, with lines forming before the place opened at noon. When Seven Lives’ owner, Sean Riehl, finally threw open the door, everyone let out a collective whoop. An elderly man, walking along the sidewalk, stopped when he encountered the crowd.
“A lineup?” he said, to a middle-aged woman near the entrance. “Must be something special. What are they selling in there…cake?”
“No,” said the woman. “Fish tacos.”
“Oh,” the man replied, somewhat perplexed. “Happy day.”
As you may have noticed, Toronto is swimming in fish tacos. They’ve spawned in kitchens across the city, appearing on menus ranging from the high-end French bistro La Société (tuna tartare with radish) to the Firkin pub chain (tempura fried snapper with lettuce, guacamole, and sour cream) to perennially packed taco hot spots, such as Grand Electric and La Carnita. They are one of the reigning food trends of the moment, along with ramen, barbecue, and donuts, just as Asian fusion, cupcakes, and molecular gastronomy once were. It’s telling that Seven Lives took over the space of Miss Cora’s Kitchen, a cupcake bakery that closed this year. These food trends seem to appear overnight, spreading so fast we can scarcely contemplate the consequences. We find ourselves ordering the item of the moment, and wondering just why, exactly, are we so excited to eat this particular food and not the one next door, which we know is equally tasty and we can get without delay? Why a fish taco and not, say, souvlaki, or empanadas? Why here? Why now?
Fish tacos are originally from Ensenada, a town in Mexico’s Baja California state, on the Pacific coast. They are a relatively recent regional specialty, likely dating back only half a century or so, and are served by roadside vendors, who batter and fry small fillets of white fish, such as snapper or mahi mahi, serving them in corn tortillas with shredded cabbage, thinned mayonnaise, a drizzle of pico de gallo, and lime. American surfers visiting Baja in the ’60s and ’70s acquired a taste for fish tacos, and one of them, a student named Ralph Rubio, took a recipe from San Felipe (a three-hour drive from Ensenada) back to San Diego and opened his first fish taco stand in 1983. Today, there are 190 Rubio’s locations on America’s west coast, which cumulatively sell millions of fish tacos every year.
There is no definitive record of who first introduced the fish taco to Toronto. Old Chowhound posts on the topic, dating back to 2007, list places serving them as diverse as Jack Astor’s, Lone Star Texas Grill, and a handful of Mexican restaurants, such as the Milagro Cantina, which opened in 2006. In the spring of 2007, Anthony Rose, then the new chef at the Drake Hotel, put a locally sourced perch taco on the menu. “We were trying to find a way to use the fish at lunch and have something a little lighter and fresh that you could eat with your hands,” says Rose (now owner of Rose and Sons), who had cooked fish tacos when he worked at Washington Park, a New York restaurant run by California chef Jonathan Waxman. They were an instant hit with the Drake’s customers. “It was just ripe for that time,” recalls Rose.
For four years, fish tacos sat largely dormant on a number of other Toronto menus, like a sleeper cell waiting for its signal to strike. Then, in the summer of 2011, Andrew Richmond, a graphic designer who had eaten his fair share of Mexican food while working in Silicon Valley, launched La Carnita, an art and taco pop-up at his employer’s office. The third time Richmond operated the pop-up, he sold a fried-cod taco served with “Voltron” (a tamari-based habañero sauce he’d concocted in his mother’s kitchen), Mexican cream, pickled cabbage, shredded green apple, and cilantro. People went bat shit over La Carnita’s fish taco, and shared their enthusiasm and photos over social media. Fish tacos had arrived as a trend in Toronto.
“Every pop-up after that, if we didn’t bring fish tacos, people were pissed off,” says Richmond, who now runs La Carnita as a wildly successful restaurant on College Street, where an average night sees lines for a table exceeding two hours. “As soon as you put a fish item in a taco, it sells better than anything else.” Richmond estimates 70 per cent of his tables order fish tacos with their meal. At Milagro Cantina’s three locations, the three seafood tacos (Baja snapper, anchiote octopus and tuna, and sautéed shrimp) are the top sellers, while the item is so popular at the restaurant Playa Cabana (and its Junction sister, Playa Cabana Cantina) that I’ve heard people refer to Playa as “that fish taco place,” even though it is just one item on a very large menu.
None of this happened by chance. Toronto’s fish-taco boom is part of a larger North American fish-taco trend. USA Today reported in 2010 that they were one of the hottest dining trends that year, with national chains California Pizza Kitchen and the Cheesecake Factory adding them to their menus. Menu research firm Datassentials found that the appearance of fish tacos on American menus rose 60 per cent between 2007 and 2011. “They’re no-brainers to make, consist mostly of fresh and healthful ingredients, and are the rare seafood item that operators can sell at a modest price point,” boasted a 2011 article in the industry magazine Restaurant Hospitality, extolling restaurant owners to put them on their menu. “As long as you serve customers tasty fish tacos, they will keep ordering them from you.”
Food trends don’t simply emerge fully formed onto menus and supermarket shelves. They are not boy bands. They succeed only when a number of disparate factors, ranging from restaurant finance and cooking logistics to intangibles like social and cultural storylines, line up at just the right time, gathering a collective energy, until its popularity is inevitable and it bears down on us like an avalanche.
Economics is a key driving force behind most of those trends. Fish tacos, like burgers and cupcakes, elevate easily obtained, inexpensive ingredients into a premium product, netting a healthy profit margin for restaurant operators. A fish taco is cheap to produce and dead simple to make. It can go in many different directions, using almost any type of fish and cooking method available.
“These are dishes that are very malleable,” says Alison Pearlman, a Los Angeles–based cultural critic who recently published the book Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America, and blogs regularly about the intersection of food and fashion. “They can be dressed up or dressed down,” and economics is central to their adoption.
The trend’s storyline is crucial to its presence in the media. Tacos (like cupcakes) photograph well, and their limitless variations provide fresh fodder for writers and editors. The fish taco has a compelling story behind it (Mexico, beaches, vacation, surfers!), whereas no amount of Photoshop or fable will make beef stew sexy. It used to be that media adopted trends slowly, with coverage limited to a few food magazines and local newspaper restaurant reviews, but today there are innumerable voices preaching the gospel of food trends, from widely read food blogs and Twitter feeds to social networks like Chowhound, Yelp, and Mavensay. In the past two years, must-eat taco lists have populated the pages and websites of Toronto Life, BlogTO, Post City, Yelp Toronto and, of course, right here at The Grid, where we’ve chronicled the minutia of taco fever with as much space as we’ve given to Mayor Ford’s antics. It’s inescapable.
When a trend makes sense, restaurants will adopt it eagerly, because it’s good business. They’ll look at the lineups outside Grand Electric and add a fish taco to their menu, or open their own taco restaurant, hoping to pick up a piece of the action. Each restaurant puts its own spin on the trend, furthering its evolution. The malleability Pearlman talks about plays into this, because a trend can link up with any number of current narrative forces in the food world: local fish tacos, authentic fish tacos, exotic fish tacos, ethical fish tacos, organic fish tacos, gourmet fish tacos, cheap fish tacos, ironic fish tacos, Korean fish tacos, et cetera.
“The food world has different indicators of status that can exist simultaneously,” says Josée Johnston, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto whose research looks into the world of foodies. Food trends are sometimes derived from the need for eaters to gain status by “eating something or somewhere that has an in-the-know feel to it,” she says, whether that’s ramen at Momofuku or tacos at La Carnita.
All of these disparate elements need to fall into place for a food trend to take off. Something might make economic sense (say, rotis) but lack the tastemaking approval of a hot chef. Likewise, a restaurant like Momofuku might popularize a dish that proves too difficult and expensive to replicate (say, homemade miso paste). All of this makes future trends nearly impossible to predict. A lot of it just comes down to luck. “It’s a fool’s errand,” says Pearlman, who believes food-trend predictions are too focused on the rear-view mirror. “All you’re doing is basically thinking that whatever’s happening now is what’s going to be happening.” It’s no different than picking stocks. If forecasting trends was possible, every restaurant would serve the next big thing. Once you know about a trend, you’re already behind the ball.
Interestingly, in Toronto, the fish-taco trend has largely bypassed restaurants owned by Mexicans. On any given night, when the wait at La Carnita is two hours long, you can shoot a cannon off in Rebozos, just two blocks away, which serves wonderful Mexican food…but no fish tacos. Nearby, at the newly opened Pancho y Emiliano in Kensington Market (which is quickly becoming our city’s little Tijuana), owner José Luis Lopes and his two partners reluctantly put a fish taco on the menu. It now sells more than any other dish.
“You go to a real Mexican restaurant in this city, and they’re empty,” says Francisco Alejandri, the Mexico City–raised chef and co-owner of the soon-to-reopen Agave y Aguacate on Baldwin Street. Alejandri has resisted adding tacos of all flavours, because he hasn’t found a tortilla that satisfies him. “The taco is part of our culture, but the taco is a trend [here], and it will pass.”
“Think of it as a fashion cycle,” says U of T’s Johnston. “Something starts with elites, but the more it becomes mass market, [restaurateurs] have to innovate to come up with something new.” That innovation can evolve quickly, especially when a menu item is removed from its original context. Jamie Kennedy, who is not French Canadian, introduced gourmet poutine to Toronto at his eponymous Wine Bar in 2003. He deconstructed the dish to a basic trio of potatoes, gravy, and cheese that could go in any direction. Kennedy has since watched the poutine trend blossom in a million different ways, from chains such as Smoke’s Poutinerie to poutine food trucks in Los Angeles and Mexico City. Despite that, Kennedy’s ever evolving poutines remain a staple at his Gilead Café.
Sushi only blew up in Toronto two decades back, when restaurants like Eglinton’s EDO (owned by a Jew who’d lived in Japan) broke with the strict formality of the Japanese kitchen to make things like sushi pizza and crazy rolls. The fish taco trend is no different. La Carnita, Grand Electric, Seven Lives, and even Playa Cabana (arguably the most popular fish-taco spots in the city) are not owned by Mexicans, and are by no means traditional Mexican restaurants. Free from the constraints of “authenticity,” they’re able to push culinary boundaries, bringing in elements like bourbon or Sriracha sauce.
It has pushed Mexican restaurateurs to dig deeper, moving beyond tacos and raising the bar on ingredients and recipes. “Seven years ago, the few tacos offered across Toronto restaurants were Tex Mex–style hard shells with ground beef, cheddar cheese, and sweet tomato salsa,” says Arturo Anhalt, co-owner of Milagro Cantinas. “Now, everybody is into the soft tortillas, fresh ingredients, and Mexican influences.” Later this year, his former business partner, Andres Marquez, will open Fonda Lola, a new locally focused Mexican restaurant, which is currently operating as a Saturday pop-up in Ossington’s Reposado Tequila Bar. “There’s such a thing as too much taco,” Marquez told me recently, noting how he hopes to bring Toronto the type of quality dining experience found in his hometown of Mexico City.
After 15 minutes waiting in line outside Seven Lives, I finally got inside. Owner Sean Riehl, who barely had time to look up from the fryer, told me that the tiny restaurant has been jammed from the moment it opens until the second it closes, every single day of the week. “The fish-taco trend was pretty much at its peak when we opened,” says Riehl, who moved here from San Diego three years ago. He hands over four massive seafood tacos. There was one with flaky smoked marlin and creamy cheese, another with plump shrimp, and one featuring a tender, fiery sauté of fresh chopped octopus. The one I had come for, though, was the Baja fish taco, a piece of golden battered mahi-mahi the size of a small banana, dressed simply with shredded cabbage, thinned mayonnaise, lime, and pico de gallo. I devoured that crispy, creamy, gloriously spicy bastard in three massive bites, fish juices and mayonnaise dripping off my chin, onto my hands, shirt, and shoes. A woman, who had been standing nearby, looked at me with a mix of astonishment and envy.
“Is it worth it?” she asked, looking back at the line that continued to snake out the door, up the block, and out of view.
BABY STEPS TO THE FISH TACO REVOLUTION
Mid-’80s: American spins on Mexican food arrive at chains like Chi-Chi’s and Taco Bell, while packaged brands, like Old El Paso, are served at home. Some authentic Mexican places take root in the city, like Dos Amigos (at Bathurst and Davenport).
Mid-’90s: Tex Mex. Salsa and chips pop up at every house party, and a surge in places like Tortilla Flats and Lone Star makes sizzling platters of fajitas a menu staple around town.
Late-’90s/early-2000s: Burrito boom. Migrating from San Francisco, overstuffed burrito joints fill the city and surrounding food courts, providing a vehicle for rice, beans, and shredded meat.
Mid-2000s: So-called “authentic” Mexican restaurants start opening around town, ranging from cheap and cheerful (La Tortilleria, Rebozos) to more elaborate and upscale (Milagro Cantina).
2011: The hipster taco revolution arrives, with La Carnita, Grand Electric, Playa Cabana and others boasting lineups of two hours or more. Fish tacos colonize menus, while Kensington Market becomes ground zero for taco startups and a burgeoning Mexican scene.