Fish tacos in the Vail Valley
Vail CO, Colorado
The fish taco is a unique culinary beast.
Reputed to be “born” in the Mercado Negro fish market in Ensenada, Mexico, the fish taco dates back in Mexican cuisine to the 1950s.
But it was only popularized on the American menu in the early 1980s when Ralph Rubio returned from a vacation in Baja, Mexico with a local vendor’s secret recipe.
He opened Rubio’s in San Diego and dubbed it “home of the fish taco” – and the rest, they say, is history. The culinary fad quickly spread across California and the Southwest.
However, it’s not yet what might be called a national culinary trend – there are still those who have never experienced a fish taco. And perhaps others who don’t really know what one is.
That is, unless you live in the Vail Valley. The fish taco has taken local palates by storm, offered in varying styles in no fewer than a dozen local eateries. Who first offered the fish taco is up for grabs – and who has the best is a matter of personal opinion.
The original fish taco was a simple equation: fried white fish served in a hot flour or corn tortilla and topped with a fresh pico de gallo. It’s known as Baja style. Now you’ll find them grilled, blackened or steamed, served with signature white sauce, jalapeno sauce or aioli. You’ll even find shrimp and lobster tacos. It’s a veritable adventure for the taste buds. So get the inside scoop and then set out on a tasting journey of your own…
Perhaps the best known fish tacos in the valley come from Mango’s in Red Cliff.
“We started doing them in 1999 when we opened,” said Mango’s owner Eric Cregon. “We were accidentally sent some fish and tried making some tacos.”
What began as an experiment quickly became a Mango’s tradition.
“We were flying by the seat of our pants in the beginning,” said Cregon. “Todd, my old partner, came up with the original white sauce. For the first few years we listened to our customers and tweaked the sauce until we had it just right. But once we nailed it down – it hasn’t changed at all since then. We’ve been using the same fish, pollock, and the same sauce, even the same tortilla, since then.”
Cregon insists that though the building was recently renovated, the taco recipe has remained untouched.
“Some people think it’s changed since we put up the new building, but I have these tacos almost every day, and I can say, they are the same tacos we’ve served for years. You know, if something isn’t broken, why mess with it?”
Indeed, the richly spiced white sauce is in perfect balance with the flaky grilled fish and refreshing pico de gallo. It’s a time-honored Mango’s tradition that’s well worth the drive.
Just down the road from Mango’s is the Tex-Mex oasis Chili Willy’s. Owner Al Hinton has a penchant for margaritas, and nothing accompanies that zesty quaff like a fresh fish taco. The blackened catfish tacos come with a slow burn, corn salsa and extra-special tartar sauce.
Best Kept Secret
Known for their tasty northern Mexican cuisine – but not necessarily for their fish tacos in particular – is La Cantina in the Vail Transportation Center.
“They were on the menu when I opened 10 years ago,” said owner Rich Wheelock, a San Diego native and long-time fish taco connoisseur. “I grew up around them in California,” said Wheelock. “A fish taco is such an easy thing to do, you can go anywhere with it.”
And at La Cantina, Wheelock has gone a few different directions with it.
“We serve several variations here at Cantina. We do the original Baja style- fried cod and a corn tortilla with a white yogurt-based sauce.”
And there’s something to be said for the original. The battered, fried fish offers a tasty texture and crunch that gives body to the taco.
“A year later we added the mahi mahi grilled taco,” Cregon continued. “People were asking for grilled fish. Whether they like the fish better, or wanted a healthier option, it was what they were asking for so we added that variation to the menu.”
Served with a spicy jalapeno vinaigrette, the grilled version is also a home run. The subtle sauce complements the flaky grilled fish without overwhelming it. For a lighter, more refreshing bite, the grilled taco is a winner.
Wheelock, also owner of Avon’s Agave, said that diners can expect a similar quality and flavor profile from the fish tacos there, but with a slightly different sauce. He also serves shrimp tacos at both restaurants, rounding out the experience for taco veterans and first timers alike.
Cordillera, the beautiful mountain community just west of Edwards, is known for its breathtaking views, unparalleled vistas and high-end accoutrements.
It’s no wonder then that the fish tacos at Cordillera’s Grouse on-the-Green, though pricey, are some of the best in town.
They’re beautifully presented with a heap of purple cabbage and a thick, lightly toasted shell framing the fish. Served with a choice of cod or halibut, either blackened or steamed, this is no “traditional” fish taco.
“I think our tacos have a unique flavor balance,” said executive chef Chris Mihalick. “The chipotle aioli adds spice, and the lemon vinaigrette on the cabbage adds a nice refreshing kick.”
The combination is a winner ” it is by far the most complex and evenly balanced taco on the circuit. By using lemon instead of the traditional lime base, and only a sparse amount of cilantro for a hint of flavor, Grouse on-the -Green achieves a unique and subtle taste that sets them apart from the competition.
“We also put a lot of time into preparing the tacos,” said Mihalick. “We toast the shells to perfection, we make the sauces in house. We use fresh fish – never frozen, and I think that makes a big different.”
Taco by the Water
It’s only natural that a yacht club serve fantastic seafood ” even if the only water seen from its deck is the rapids of the Eagle River.
Long a local’s favorite, the Wolcott Yacht Club has earned a reputation for one of the best fish tacos in town.
“We put fish tacos on the menu for the first time 14 years ago,” said owner Jan Jouflas. “We did them Baja style at first, and at the time, we had jerk chicken wings on the menu. I was messing around with them one day and decided to try the tacos with jerk seasoning. It was really yummy – and so that’s how we still serve them today.”
The jerk seasoning adds a character to the fish that clearly, though not overwhelmingly, defines the flavor.
“We use a wet jerk seasoning, which really helps the fish keep its moisture,” Jouflas said. “Because the fish isn’t fried, it takes the flavor of the seasoning so well.”
And if the backbone of a good fish taco is good fish, then this taco has an excellent head start. The marinade gives the mahi mahi a kick which is complemented, but not overwhelmed, by the aioli served with it. The fish is so well flavored it could stand alone – and makes for an excellent taco.
The Surprise Winner
It is, after all, a beach-themed restaurant. Perhaps because it’s also a sports bar and popular watering hole, one might jump to categorize the menu as “bar food.”
Though picking favorites isn’t the mission here, the Sandbar is at the top of a short list. They offer excellent, hearty fish tacos at a fair price. (They’re also known for friendly and inviting service and atmosphere.)
Both the traditional Baja-style taco and the shrimp taco are outstanding and packed with fish – thereby also earning the title of best bang for the buck.
“I think the breading on our fish tacos sets them apart,” said kitchen manager Dan Smith. “We marinate them, which really gives them great flavor. Then we prepare them Baja style, which means they are battered and fried. That’s how they do them in the Baja region, so that’s the way we do them here.”
And it works. The texture and saltiness of the battered fish adds a sinful element that, though maybe not as artery-friendly, makes the tacos stand apart from the crowd. They also offer a charbroiled version, which is lighter in flavor, refreshing and incredibly well prepared. The shrimp tacos, packed with seasoned and charbroiled shrimp, are also among the best in the valley.
Long recognized by locals for excellent fare in a laid back setting, the Sandbar can proudly boast some of the best fish tacos in town.
For those who think they’ve tried it all – think again.
E-Town, Edwards’ newest hot spot, boasts an inventive and unique twist on the fish taco: four tiny, lobster-stuffed shells on a bed of guacamole
“They’re cooked in a buerre fondue, which is really rich and buttery,” said executive chef Roman Cristali. “Then I add a jicima zucchini slaw, which is a little acidic. The acidity from the slaw cuts the butter, but it’s still there for flavor. It’s a nice balance.”
Indeed, though a departure from the fried cod original, the dish is a little slice of heaven.
“It’s a little something different,” said Cristali. “That’s sort of our culinary theme here – traditional things with a little twist.”