Dale Botwick was my Gammy’s sister. Where my Gammy was elegant, Dale was brash. Where Gammy was Elizabeth Taylor knock-your-socks-off beautiful, Dale was, well Dale was not. Tall and large, with a lemon chiffon shock of blond hair that looked like spun sugar, Dale was loud and crass and wore flowing caftans and massive jewelry gifted to her by her adoring and equally rotund husband, Alfred. She was also a travel agent who mercilessly pushed family members to use her services. When I was 14-years-old, against my father’s wishes, my mother, who felt badly and wanted to give her business, finally caved and permitted Dale to plan a trip to Cabo San Lucas on the Baja Peninsula for our family’s March spring break. My father was not happy. He was even less thrilled when we arrived.
In 1987, Cabo San Lucas was NOT the ‘Cabo’ it is now. The beaches were beautiful and the water was rough and intimidating, its infamous riptides pulling even the strongest of swimmers under. The resort was sparse and rustic, the people beautiful and smiling. My mother instantly fell in love, but my buttoned up father hated it upon first sight.
My mother was a tiny explorer. She loved to travel, to people-watch, to discover new places, and talked to people wherever she went. Cabo San Lucas was no exception. She spoke spanish fluently and made friends easily. She could sit on the beach chatting it up for hours, a bikini-clad social butterfly who could charm, disarm and always went home with new numbers in her rolodex and lunch dates at Bergdorf Goodman on the calendar. From the moment they looked up from their tropical cocktail accented with a tiny hot pink paper umbrella they fell in love with Ina. My brother and I would pick our heads up from our lounge chairs only to find her perched on someone else’s making dinner plans with them, or we’d return from a walk to see her galloping on horseback along the shoreline, waves crashing, blonde hair tangled and flying behind her. She was fearless and she was friendly; a lethal combination in her marriage to my father, who was happiest when left alone cocooned in multiple towels under an umbrella reading his book.
My mother and father could not be more different if they tried.
Cabo, rustic and rough, was testing my father’s patience. Tensions built between them as my mother’s golden suntan deepened. But the shit really hit the fan when she declared one night that she wanted to leave the gates of our resort to go in search of authentic Baja Fish Tacos.
In the 1980s our experience of tacos as Americans existed only in a hard, corn shell, piled high with ground beef, messy and spicy, seasoned with pre-packaged spice mixes. This apparently was not how Mexicans ate their tacos on the Baja Peninsula.
Ina was fascinated. My father was not.
She assured him that it was just a short walk into town and that it would be incredible. When my mother wanted to charm, her southern accent grew thick. My father would look at her, shake his head, laugh, and moments later, he would cave. It was part of their flirtation; part of their dance. I would watch them, holding my breath until the tension fell away and my father laughed.
We left the hotel on foot at sundown. The air was cooling, the sky was streaked with hot house pinks, and fiery orange. There were no street lights, no passing cars, no sidewalks, just the four of us making our way through the dusty hills of Cabo. My father was silent. My mother reassured us that she knew exactly where she was going, but her voice betrayed her nerves. As it grew darker and darker the hand written directions scratched in spanish by our hotel concierge grew more and more difficult for her to see. You can imagine my father’s delight when a group of stray dogs emerged from the hills and began to follow us.
My parents’ fights were always memorable. Loud. Pierced with lightning bolts of anger. Sometimes violent. This one was quiet. My father’s rage shimmered quietly like the heat against those darkening hills in front of the pale lavender horizon. The panting of the dogs behind us was the only sound. My mother had grown quiet as well. Even she knew that her sweet southern accent couldn’t save her this time.
But then as we walked over the next hill, lights. A harbor below. Music. My tiny mother lifted her head, her voice strong and steady, “See!” She took my hand in one hand and my brother’s seven-year-old little hand in her other, “I told you I knew the way! Dinner!”
We sat by the water that night. We ate, we laughed, we swirled those soft warm tortillas in foreign, spicy green sauces and ate the freshest, flakiest of white flesh caught from the sea just that morning. Even my father succumbed to the magic of Cabo that night, and succumbed to the magic of his wife. That tiny blonde adventurer. But for sure we took a taxi home. No doubt.
Stray Dog Fish Tacos
- Citrus squeezer (my favorite is linked below & in my Amazon store!)
- 6 oz per person of mild white fish. I like cod, halibut or mahi mahi for these as the fish holds together really well and accepts a marinade beautifully. I ask my fishmonger to cube it or cut it into strips.
- 2 small limes, 1 for marinating, 1 for garnish and some extra squeezes of bright citrus-y love
- Kosher salt
- A few grinds of black pepper
- 3 Tbsp Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small Poblano pepper. To downplay the heat factor you can substitute a red bell pepper, to up your holy heat experience you can use an Anaheim pepper.
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
- Warm tortillas, I prefer flour tortillas, but feel free to use corn if that’s your jam.
- In a glass mixing bowl whisk together 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and all the juice of 1 lime. My favorite citrus juicer is linked here.
- Season fish generously with kosher salt and a grind or two of black pepper
- Add fish and toss gently, allowing to marinate for 15 minutes.
- While the fish marinades, roast the pepper of your choice (for me it’s Anaheim or Poblano) over an open flame on your range or grill, turning with tongs until fully charred. Don’t fear the char! This is super easy and just requires a little bit of patience. Throw some music on and grab your tongs, this is going to change your fish taco experience forever…I promise!
- Once the pepper is blackened and softened, place it in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Allow the pepper to steam. When it has cooled down, peel the charred skin from the pepper, cut it in half, and remove the seeds.
- In a blender or cuisinart blend your charred pepper, fresh cilantro, garlic cloves, a healthy pinch of kosher salt and squeeze some more lime juice until the mixture moves easily and comes together. Note this can be made in advance. The night before or the morning of is perfect.
- Heat one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in a sauté pan over medium low heat. When it’s hot, add your marinated fish stirring gently until it’s cooked through. Stir in the pepper mixture and serve immediately, spooning the fish into a warm tortilla and topping with my Jicama Slaw (if you’re a V.I.Bee. you have received my ‘Jicama Slaw Bee Byte’ in your email by now). For garnish, you can add cubed avocado, diced tomatoes and a little cool-to-the-tongue dollop of sour cream.
Stray Dog Fish Tacos are the perfect outdoor summer meal! See what I personally use to make my outdoor dining space and our al fresco meals special!
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All illustrations by @courtneycoloring
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Love Baja Fish Tacos! Great story…one of my favorites so far. Please tell us more…
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