When I set out to find the best fish tacos in the East Bay, my first thought was to avoid tilapia because, even though it’s more sustainable than basa and other commonly used fish, I don’t find it particularly flavorful. But the deeper I dug, the more tilapia I found, especially at the best taco trucks in East Oakland and the mariscos joints on Foothill and International Boulevards. And these fish tacos are, of course, much cheaper than the versions made with wild fish. When I dropped my preconceived notion of what the perfect fish taco should be — locally sourced wild fish on a handmade tortilla — I discovered some perfectly respectable alternatives.
Here are six spots in total: two Fruitvale trucks, two popular Temescal destinations, an Old Oakland spot, and a downtown Berkeley gem.
The Taco Trucks
I headed first to Fruitvale Avenue in East Oakland, where my favorite tacos trucks dish up fast and delicious Mexican food into the wee hours every night. It was no surprise that the best fish tacos I found were at my two top trucks for asada, carnitas and pastor as well: Taqueria Sinaloa and Mi Grullense (in the Goodwill parking lot).
I group them together here because these tacos are virtually identical in every sense: Both use as the main ingredient diced and seared-to-brown tilapia smothered in a moderately spicy chile sauce. Grullense’s has more minced white onion than Sinaloa’s, and Sinaloa’s includes minced jalapeno, but they are otherwise twins, topped with chopped cilantro and served on two just-warmed La Finca corn tortillas (arguably, the best packaged corn tortillas on the east side of the bay), with chile and carrot escabeche on the side. And that’s it. At $2 a pop, there’s not much to complain about. (Both places have two trucks each, one for meat and one for fish, so be sure to get in line at the right truck.)
2138 International Blvd. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94606
Ph: (510) 535-1206
Hours: unpublished, but roughly 8am-9pm on weekdays and 9am-midnight on weekends
Price range: $ fish tacos ($2)
Mi Grullense Taco Truck
1301 30th Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94601
Ph: no phone
Hours: Sun-Fri, 8am-midnight; Sat, 8am-2am
Price range: $ fish tacos ($2)
The Fried Fish Tacos
Despite everyone’s New Year’s resolutions, it would be remiss of me to exclude fried fish tacos. One might even argue that these are the most traditional; they’re certainly a worthy indulgence.
I made my first visit to La Calaca Loca Taqueria at the recommendation of friends. It’s a colorful, friendly place with Day of the Dead décor year-round and a large menu of mostly locally-sourced meat and produce. It’s the sister restaurant of Nick’s Crispy Tacos in San Francisco, and the fish tacos here are made with mahi mahi, a beautifully flaky fish, battered in a tempura style and served on creamy slaw inside a soft Guerrero corn tortilla with a thick slice of lime and “Baja” sauce (a pleasantly bitter, creamy, and mildly spicy chile sauce) on the side.
Cholita Linda began as a stand at local farmers’ markets, serving only a few taco choices and some aguas frescas, and is now also a brick-and-mortar Mexican/Cuban restaurant in Temescal that serves one of the best fried fish tacos in town. While the fish is tilapia, it’s a huge chunk, lightly battered and flash-fried, tucked into a La Finca tortilla and smothered in slaw and topped off with cilantro and crema. The sauce of choice is a salsa roja, a creamy, tomato-based chile sauce that is the secret recipe of the owner’s mother. For good measure, there’s habanero sauce on the table.
4923 Telegraph Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94609
Ph: (510) 594-7610
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11am-10pm; Closed Sun
Price range: $ fish tacos ($3.50)
Facebook: Cholita Linda
Cosecha Café, in Old Oakland’s Swan’s Marketplace, only serves fish tacos on Tuesdays and Thursdays at lunch and Monday through Thursday at dinner, but it’s worth the wait at lunch for mid-week taco bliss to stand in line for the best fried fish tacos around. Made from local cod, beer-battered and fried, tucked into a homemade corn tortilla with butter lettuce, pickled onion, and a mild, creamy chile sauce, this is the best overall fried fish taco I found. The homemade tortilla and pickled onion tipped the scale.
907 Washington St. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94607
Ph: (510) 452-5900
Hours: Mon-Wed, 11am-3:30pm and 4:30-8:30pm; Thu-Fri, 11am-3:30pm and 5-9:30pm; Sat, 10:30am-3:30pm and 5-9:30pm; closed Sun
Price range: $$ 2 fish tacos with beans and avocado ($11.50)
The Wood-Fired Fish Taco
The best fish taco of all, in my not-so-humble estimation, is Comal’s wood-grilled local cod. The fish is delivered daily, and the grilled preparation infuses a bit of smokiness without obscuring the fish’s delicate, buttery flavor. I could eat the homemade tortillas by the stack. The fish tacos come two to an order and are topped with a mildly spicy slaw made from cabbage, carrot, radish, cilantro, and red bell pepper, topped with avocado aioli. Tart, house-pickled carrots and jalapenos come on the side. Put this plate next to the house margarita and you’ve got a perfect meal. Don’t forget to splash on a little homemade habanero salsa.
2020 Shattuck Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94704
Ph: (510) 926-6300
Hours: Sun-Thu, 5:30-10pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30-11pm
Price range: $$ 2 fish tacos ($13)