I tried my first fish taco when I visited my brother Justin in Santa Barbara, CA in 1999. It was a typically beautiful southern California day, and he brought home some fresh fish, got out his cast iron skillet and opened up a few beers. Within about 10 minutes I realized that I’d been missing out on something special (not the beer, I’d had plenty of that). When my boyfriend (now husband) spent a few months in San Diego in 2001 my love for the fish taco was cemented.

For the longest time it wasn’t easy to find fish tacos on the East Coast, but these days they show up on menus everywhere. Locally you can get fish tacos at a number of places. I’m a big fan of Tyler’s version, fried whitefish with sliced cabbage and a house-made slightly spicy white sauce, served with lime on the side (you can change up the fish for salmon). I also love City Beverage’s tuna tacos. They take rare tuna and lightly grill it in a cilantro and scallion crust, then serve it with greens, tomatoes, red onions, spicy black bean salsa, avocado and crème fraiche. And for a sweeter version NanaTaco’s come with a mango-jalapeno salsa.

On a recent trip to San Diego we stopped at Escape for a fish taco fix. This place is far from fancy, but the food was wonderful. They give you a choice of grilled or tempura battered fish. When I had a hard time deciding, the waitress offered to make mine half-grilled and half-battered. They roll the fish (in this case halibut) in a grilled flour tortilla with a smoked chipotle chili avocado puree.

There seems to be a few different stories on the origin of the fish taco, but most agree that it made its way from Mexico to California about 50 years ago. Surfers like my brother would drive down to the Baja peninsula for the big waves. Justin first discovered fish tacos when he visited a little out of the way dusty surf camp there many years ago. There was a little old lady who had a tiny shack at the entrance to the camping area. She would fry up the strips of fish and hand you the taco on a paper napkin. The fish was fresh, the batter not too heavy. While his preference is for pan searing the fish, he based his tacos on the ones he got that day in Baja.

They’re generally pretty easy to make at home. If you have access to fresh fish, I recommend grilling or pan searing (with salt and pepper and a spritz of lime juice). If you’re feeling a little lazy, and like the idea of the crunch, by all means feel free to cheat a little and use (gasp!) fish sticks. Seriously – why not? If they can serve it to you fried in Southern California (or the very serviceable versions done that way here) then you can cheat a bit to mimic it. Here’s his recipe:

Justin’s Cheap and Cheerful Fish Tacos

Fish sticks prepared per package directions (with two or thre per taco depending on size).
Corn taco shells – one per, toasted in oven.
Shredded cabbage. Sour cream. Salsa or taco sauce.
Optional: shredded cheese, chopped green onions, chopped Serrano pepper. A squeeze a lime just prior to serving.

Put everything into the taco how you want it (these are fun at a family party – give each person the tortilla and the fish and let them fix it the way they like).

Unlike my brother, I usually use a flour tortilla and wrap it around them. And I’m thinking that next time I might try something like a chipotle mayo/sour cream mix (tiny bit of chipotle in adobo, zapped in a mini mixer with a bit of mayonnaise and sour cream, salt and pepper).

Play around with it. Do you want the crunch of a corn tortilla or is the fried fish enough? Do you want avocados for some extra creaminess? Skip the cheese if you’re a purist. Have fun with them, and enjoy!

You can follow Kari on Twitter @NoshSpiceNC.