What? No cooking, gardening or blogging? Where the heck did she go? Well, Mexico, for starters. For weeks, I have been planning a surprise 60th birthday party for my mom at her new home in Baja California. Family flew in from Colorado and San Francisco and drove down from Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. Our merry band of travelers gathered at my parents’ cliffside casa and spent the kind of time together that only family can. The laughter and celebratory beverages incited outbursts of spontaneous dancing and singing. I had the whole party belting out the words to my favorite Cake tune, “I don’t know much about Cinco de Mayo. I’m never sure what it’s all about…Oh baby, I was bound for Mexico.” The sun shone all weekend, glinting off the ocean. My mom glowed with happiness in her feather boa and birthday tiara. The surprise party was an absolute success, and the most fun I’ve had in ages.
By the end of the weekend, I had eaten some form of fish taco every day. I tried the just-average fish tacos at my parents’ favorite bar, Splash, situated on the waterfront where waves crash against black rocks sending plumes of foam skyward. Fish tacos were the Sunday night family meal prepared by my brother and husband, and they were great, but I longed for fish tacos at Mariscos la Alegria, a roadside restaurant in Primo Tapia. The owner, Flor, who is always there, battering fish and patting out tortillas to order, is the queen of fish tacos. Carlos tells everyone who ventures with us to Mexico, “These fish tacos will change your life.” I have been eating at Mariscos la Alegria for seven years. It is usually the first meal of the day, breakfast of champions with ice cold beer, followed by an afternoon at the beach. Every trip south of the border demands a stop at the happy storefront painted with fish and a purple octopus. In fact, this is the first time I have bothered to eat fish tacos anywhere else, and it will be the last time. Why mess with perfection?
We stopped on the last morning of our trip, on our way north to the San Ysidro border crossing. Flor always remembers my husband. She welcomes us with a smile and we exchange greetings and a few words in Spanish. She knows exactly what we want, tacos de pescado y cervezas, but she asks anyway. ”Tortillas de harina o maiz?” Flour or corn? We answer, “Harina, por favor,” and she sets to work making fresh flour tortillas, grilling them on the comal until they are speckled brown on both sides. The tortillas are lusciously tender, but strong enough to fold around two strips of golden fried ”sea bass” (which sparkles with freshness, but cannot actually be sea bass for $2 a pop) and all the trimmings: self-serve bowls of shredded green cabbage, pickled white onions, pico de gallo, smoky salsa, and crema Mexicana. Flor sets out a plate of tiny halved limes for us to squeeze over our tacos. The batter is thick, yet crispy and light around juicy flakes of fish. We order ceviche, tangy lime-cured fish minced and slathered on a tostada with sliced avocado, and the magnificent coctel of shrimp, octupus and clams in Clamato sauce served in a tall glass like an ice cream sundae. Everything is bright with the flavor of the ocean. Everything is right in the world, for another half hour we are on vacation. Then it’s back in the minivan, some with hangovers in tow, for the gridlocked border crossing.