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Masa Meets Madeleines: The Tortillas at Fish Lonja Evoke Memories of Street-Side Snacks in Mexico 

click to enlarge RON BECHTOL
  • Ron Bechtol
There I was, in a South San Antonio patio paved with pebbles and bottle caps, having a “madeleine moment” with masa. How do Marcel Proust and Fish Lonja come together across time and cultures?

Let me explain…

I’ve yet to read Marcel Proust’s seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, but its theme of “involuntary memory” — for the author, the simple act of eating a familiar French madeleine cookie triggered a flood of past memories — is a relatable one. Don’t worry, though, a weighty tome is not to follow.

But the core connection remains: Lonja’s house-made corn tortillas, as used to cradle its Baja-style fried fish taco, triggered in me a profound memory of street-side snacks consumed in the heart of Mexico. Slightly charred on the edges, the tortillas were intensely fragrant and recalling of slaked-corn masa in all its primal glory. The essence of an entire country in a single, savory circle. Fish Lonja could have put anything on them, including shredded pork from next door Carnitas Lonja, and the result would have been exceptional.

Well, almost anything, that is.

That Fish Lonja chooses tilapia for its one taco is likely a matter of economics rather than preference. The ubiquitous, farm-raised fish was encased in a beautifully light (and likely beer-based) batter and was perfectly flaky. It just didn’t taste like much. To the rescue come cabbage, avocado, some cheffy baby sprouts and a smear of spicy mayo. Bottles of Valentina and El Yucateco (habanero — apply with caution!) hot sauce are provided for further voluntary enhancement. In the end, the filling comes out fine, but it’s still mostly about that evocative tortilla.

Sturdy tostadas form the base for the rest of the modest menu: fish ceviche, shrimp and octopus, each piled atop crisp discs that miraculously retain their crunch, right to the last shard. To come right out with it, the ceviche towered above the other two. Cut into tiradito-like slivers, the fish is fresh and clean tasting, there’s red onion to share in the citrusy bath, more sprouts and a little mayo that serves as underpinning. The extra salsa isn’t really needed, as some stealth chile appears, finely chopped to avoid detection.

On the next visit, again sitting under colorful umbrellas at wooden picnic tables and beginning to recall waves off the coast of Mazatlán in their warped exuberance, I tried the remaining tostadas — this time with a plastic cup of icy and bracing michelada prep (it’s called Clama/Chela, but the clam influence is minimal) and a tall can of Modelo Especial in hand.

For its part, the shrimp version was again clean and fresh, with chopped cuke, tomato and red onion added to the mix. But I wasn’t convinced by the raw, or nearly so, shrimp. It’s likely a textural thing, since I think they’re just fine uncooked, thinly sliced lengthwise and a little more citrus-cured, in an aguachiles preparation. Here, though, not so much.

The octopus has definitely been cooked, and to the point of perfect tenderness. I was offered a taste of the unadorned, chopped tentacles on the first visit and found them surprisingly bland, despite the claim of some interaction with chiles and garlic. My hope was that they would get perked up in the final presentation, but sliced cuke and red onion weren’t enough to turn the tide. What the pulpo really needed was…

Salt. All of the menu items could have used some in varying degrees. So, I have a suggestion. Salt may not be as evocative of place as, say, wine (and, of course, certain pastries), but it still has regional distinctions. And as it happens, there’s a Mexican sea salt being harvested off of Manzanillo, a little south of the Sinaloan Coast represented by Fish Lonja’s menu. It’s called Flor Blanca, and I respectfully recommend Fish keep some on hand.

I would be happy to pay four or even nine cents more for it on the taco —
which would bring the price up to a princely $5.45 or $5.50. I was told in person that the price was precisely $5.41 — in person because neither Lonja eatery has a phone or website, and there’s no posted menu at Fish. This would be enough to keep me coming back in the cooler weather that’s now upon us — though Fish, unlike Carnitas, does have indoor seating.

You could mix still-fabulous carnitas tortas with fried fish tacos. You just have to hop between kitchens. “Puro hits” will be playing on the rigged-up sound system. It’s all puro San Antonio, in fact, with a little Proust mixed in for good measure.

The skinny: Fish Lonja sits behind nationally-recognized Carnitas Lonja, across a casual patio paved with gravel and populated with warping picnic tables and colorful umbrellas. There are four items, plus a Clamato-based michelada, at the walkup window: a fried fish taco (tilapia) and tostadas of fish ceviche, shrimp and octopus. The first two are really the best but given a good day and a cool cup of adulterated beer, almost anything tastes good — especially that taco with its evocative, house-made tortilla.

Fish Lonja
11075 Roosevelt Ave.
Hours: Thursday and Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m, Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Tacos and tostadas: $5.41-$6.50
Menu: Fried fish tacos, tostadas of ceviche, shrimp and octopus.

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