Although they've become an established menu item nationwide, fish tacos apparently still have the ability to weird people out. People definitely like tacos, and people are usually fine with fish, but there's a disconnect for some folks when the two are put together. (Search Twitter for "fish tacos gross" sometime.) This is a real shame.
The fish taco emerged in its modern form out of Southern California and the Baja region of Mexico somewhere near the midpoint of the last century. Often fried -- but occasionally grilled, lending an air of healthiness -- the fish taco is most often topped with some kind of slaw, a mayonnaise or crema, with a lime wedge on the side. There's really nothing weird about it, unless coleslaw at a fish fry is weird.
Madison has definitely embraced the fish taco, from the restaurants that keep it on the regular menu to those that make it -- or some version of it -- a special. Ian's Pizza even served a crispy tilapia fish taco pizza for a week back in June.
Alchemy occasionally offers a cornmeal-breaded version, $9.25 for four tacos. That's a price point worth discussing. You can probably start considering the taco a bargain if it hits $3. Fish tacos tend to come two or three to an order. Alchemy's special is one of the least expensive you'll find, though they can range from $1.50 to upwards of $4 each.
Tex Tubb's Taco Palace has three types of fish tacos on the menu, but closer inspection reveals that the toppings for all three are identical, just listed in different orders. Tilapia is the fish here, as it is most places in Madison, and it is available either blackened, dusted with achiote or fried. The achiote is the best of the three, subtly seasoned and cooked to frizzled edges but not dry (two for $9, or three for $11.)
A fan of Bonfyre's wood-fired grill might expect its grilled mahi mahi taco to be superior to the fried. As it turns out, however, this meaty fillet of white fish takes well to a deep-fry. The grilled version dries out just a bit, while the fried version is crisp and hot, its interior moist and flaky. The portions of fish are bigger than most, and mahi is a relatively unlikely choice that helps to justify the price tag (three for $13).
There are other fish tacos of varying deliciousness. The Old Fashioned has a Taco Tuesday special, though the fried tilapia tacos, inexpensive as they are ($1.50 each), are bland and unremarkable. The Great Dane includes "Jaime's Tacos" on the appetizer menu; while the included barbecue and hot sauce are completely against type, the tacos themselves are both good and a good bargain.
They're nothing as weird as the weirdest fish tacos in town, found at Fuzzy's Taco Shop on University, available grilled or tempura style. The fish is too mushy, but the bizarre trademark combo of garlic sauce and feta cheese manages to be pretty tasty ($2 each).
A contender for the top spot is the fish taco special at Ale Asylum. Served on some Fridays, this duo of pan-fried ancho-dusted tilapia tacos is hot and flavorful, thanks especially to the house chipotle sauce and fresh salsa ($8 for 2).
The best fish taco Madison has to offer is the Thursday-only PBR-battered tilapia taco at the Tipsy Cow. They were part of the outgoing menu at King & Mane, when that restaurant was reinvented as the Tipsy Cow. A small cadre of like-minded individuals staged a Save the PBR Taco rally (back in May of 2011, when rallies and protests were commonplace on the Square), and by the end of August of that year, they were returned to the menu as a special.
A PBR-battered taco really fits on the Wisco-centric Tipsy Cow menu, anyway. Beer-battering is a common fish fry theme, and the way the alcohol cooks off gives the crust a light, tempura-esque crunch. They come with no sides, but sides are unnecessary with a good tap list, and Tipsy Cow has that in spades. A pint and a plate of PBR tacos put a person in good spirits going into the weekend (three for $9).
Whether it is fried or grilled, a good fish taco is a refreshing thing, with fresh, crunchy vegetables, smooth crema and zesty salsa. At its best, it's fish that needn't wait for Friday. If only Tipsy Cow would give the PBR taco the whole week to ply its trade.