Overland miles: 209 Tacocount: 8 Days without Tea: 1
We were standing on the corner of Alvarado and First in the sweltering midday heat of Ensenada, Baja California, streaked in rivulets of sweat (Clare would no doubt use the euphemism ‘glowing radiantly’)’ and figuring out when to cross to the next block without being run over by a variety of station wagons, cruisers, antiquated green busses and or a converted off-road Beetle carrying a Tour de France team’s worth of bikes strapped precariously to its roof, when we spotted a mini-commotion around a street cart to our left. My foodie senses were immediately heightened. Target identified, PFB squadron honed in for a closer look.
The place was called La Guerrerense, a seafood stand specialising in fish tostadas, which differ significantly from their close relation, the fish taco stand, in the use of a hard-baked corn disc as the repository for the filling, rather than the soft tortilla used for tacos. It’s listed by Newsweek as one of the top 100 street-eats to try. Ordering was delightfully disordered. Groups of families, couples, and youngsters – some locals, some tourists – gathered chaotically around the stall, vying for attention and custom items.
Your correspondent will try to describe the scene faithfully. To the right, the ‘main dude’ (there’s always a main dude – let’s call him the Jefe de Comida, although I feel certain that no Mexican ever would – who acts as the ringmaster and is responsible for loading shells, so all eyes are naturally fixed upon him) is busy checking orders with the orders guy and fishing around (no pun intended) in large plastic tubs for what remains of the day’s catch.
Opposite him stands the ‘bartender’, whose role, believe it or not, is to mix fish cocktails. A clear favourite is the Pismo Clam Colada (I have invented the name myself as I did not go as far as ordering one myself). To prepare this clocktail, a couple of the crew are sat behind the stall, stationed on permanent clam-shucking duty. The shucked clams are then passed to the bartender, who chops and muddles the clams with some kind of fish liquor, pours in tomato sauce and a shot of chilli, and tops the concoction off with sliced avocado and lime juice.
Having ordered our tostadas – a couple of Mixtas for the novices who were wildly out of their depth – directly from the Jefe, we asked the bartender to add some avocado, then made our way to the centrepiece of the stall: an incredible variety of chilli sauces. I didn’t get a photo of the sauces myself, but you need to take a look at Gastronomer’s to appreciate the sheer size of the range has to be seen to be believed.
Wowee-zowee eh? They all offer various degrees of mouth-spanking agony to accompany your chosen tostada. I made my first mistake in liberally spicing my Mixta with a bright red number alongside a seemingly much cooler green version.
The Mixta consists of a classic combination of fish, fresh tomato, onion, garlic and corriander. The mix was incredibly fresh and flavoursome, melding perfectly with the avocado and lime accompaniments. The corn tostada was nutty and crunchy, and amazingly, held together when bit into, despite the load it carried. In the words of Homer Simpson, it was like there was a party in my mouth, and everyone was invited. However, halfway through I was having a little difficulty standing and found myself clinging to Clare for support whilst the waves of searing pain subsided. It was only when we got back to our hostel that a local resident informed us that green often means even hotter than red. When we returned for bacalao (cod) and black clam varieties, I compounded my initial error by assuming that if I went for La Guerrerense’s own variety of chilli sauce (they clearly felt there wasn’t already enough choice), this would be a safer option. The increasing sensation of having my tongue lashed to hot coals whilst a Mariachi band stamped all over it disabused me of that notion.
Condiments aside, the fish tostada is a thing of simple, fresh, unrefined beauty: an perfect moment of culinary pleasure in the acrid bustle of the city. There is no clear pricing or charging policy: these guys know you are going to be blown away by what they offer, and trust you to find out what and how to pay when you’re done. And when the fire on your lips dies down, it’s an experience guaranteed to bring a broad smile to them.