Along the Baja coast, surfers fuel up on fresh street fare and cold beer when the sun has sapped their energy. But all you need is a summer breeze and a few pesos to bring the same California buzz to your lunch or dinner table.
The Menu (For a Party of Six)
Tequila-Soaked Fruit with lime juice
This is the kind of meal where you don't have to iron out every wrinkle, says food editor Anna Kovel. Just spread it all out on the table, inside or outside, for your family or friends. People can come and go -- the food wont suffer if it sits for a little while.
Hot appetizers paired with chilled cocktails will set the no-hurry mood. Do your part by putting on a pair of flip-flops and pouring yourself an icy beverage before frying up some spicy bites.
A Starter with Sizzle
These snacks are best served right out of the skillet, when they're piping hot and oozing with cheese. You can stuff the green chile and sweet piquante peppers with the tangy goat-cheese-and-cilantro filling the day before and stick them in the refrigerator until ready to start frying. (The olives come prestuffed with pimiento, jalapeno, or -- ai yi yi! -- habanero peppers, the hottest kind.) After you've cooked the first batch, set your skillet out on a trivet with a spatula. When everybody's picked it clean, fry up another batch.
Less expected than a margarita but just as easy to make, Blueprint's Paloma Cooler is lively and laid-back at the same time. It gets its light, bubbly flavor from Mexican grapefruit soda (which is also great on its own) and a platinum tequila. The "drunken lime" floater is a cored-out half lime filled with a shot of a reposado tequila. And a cold, crisp Mexican beer always goes down suave.
Choosing a Tequila
So you don't get schooled by a tequila snob at your own table, here's a quick 101. Gold tequilas, or mixtos, have added sugars and colorings and are for mixing only. Platinum or silver tequilas are 100 percent agave and unaged; they're a mixing upgrade. Reposados, literally "rested," are aged in casks for up to a year and are nice for sipping. And extra-aged, or anejo, tequilas spend three to four years in barrels -- quaff these in a snifter.
Fish tacos are the best kind of fast food: fresh and filling, but of course more festive. You can prepare and set out the sides before you even fire up the grill -- and don't forget the hot sauces.
The components clockwise from left:
Rather than double-fry it as they do in Baja, we rubbed ours with three spices and then grilled it. Try a tender, flaky variety such as red snapper (shown here) or striped bass.
White corn are the most traditional kind. Toast each one briefly on the grill. Quickly stack and wrap in a tea towel and then foil to make them pliable and keep them warm.
Use a melon scoop to carve out avocado rounds, then squeeze on liberal amounts of lime juice to prevent their turning brown.
Pickled jalapenos, carrots, and red onions are a staple at authentic taco stands. You can make this spicy-sweet combo days ahead.
Lettuce is a fish-taco no-no. Shredded cabbage stands up better in the heat and adds a crisp, satisfying crunch.
Crema: This drizzling cream is found at Latino markets. Or, thin 1 cup sour cream with about 3 1/2 tablespoons lime juice and 1 tablespoon water.
Cue the Assembly Line
This is a hands-on meal that can be passed around family-style or set out and lingered over during a long afternoon. Either way, all you have to do is provide the flavors and textures. Guests are on their own after that.
Shake 'N' Take
Grilled corn always elicits oohs and aahs, even though it takes only minutes to make. Imagine, then, how doubly impressed your friends will be when you toss the corn with a spicy seasoning. Roast the ears until they're lightly blackened, then cut them into smaller pieces. Transfer corn to a sturdy paper bag, sprinkle with lime juice, chili powder, and salt, and shake to coat.
Pickled with Delight
Trust us, there's no crazy canning procedure involved here -- these pickled vegetables are just simmered in a vinegar solution for 10 minutes and cooled. The mildly hot jalapenos, sweet carrots, and red onions can be nibbled on pre-meal, or thrown into a taco.
"A fish taco is about clean contrasts and fresh, bright flavors," Anna says. "When you put it all together, you end up with a little bite of everything." For an extra twist, add pickled cactus to the mix. These savory, slightly sweet dark-green strips are often found atop Mexican salads. (Available at mexgrocer.com or Latino markets.)
1. A warm tortilla is key. Make (and take) one taco at a time so your second is just as satisfying and flavorful as the first.
2. Flake off just a few forkfuls of fish, so you have room for the other ingredients.
3. Add the rest: smooth avocado, tangy pickled veggies, and crunchy cabbage. Top with a sprinkling of cilantro, creamy cream, and a squeeze of lime.
4. Finish off your taco with a fiery habanero sauce, or a milder serrano version.
Juicy, tropical fruit is a refreshing finale to a meal high on flavor. Cut the fruit in the morning and refrigerate, then sprinkle on tequila an hour before eating. Skewer right before serving.
Our Favorite Finds
For the Appetizer
Santa Barbara Olive Company's stuffed olives are filled with pimiento, jalapeno, or habanero peppers. Old El Paso green chiles come folded, four to a can, and their giant size makes them ideal for stuffing. And Peppadew peppers have equal doses of sweetness and heat.
For the Drinks
Jarritos Mexican sodas come in 11 fruity flavors, including guava, strawberry, and grapefruit -- which we used in our paloma cooler. Order a dozen or so to stock your fridge. El Tesoro de Don Felipe Platinum Tequila is perfect for mixing. And crisp, dry, Pacifico beer is light but not too light.
For the Tacos
Put out a selection of condiments so people can customize their tacos. Frontera Habanero Hot Sauce is both spicy and savory. A Mexican sour cream, Piaxtla Crema is smooth and pourable. And Terra Sol Serrano Prickly Pear Hot Sauce (store.terrasolshop.com) has nice kick and more body than most green hot sauces.