I had only been living in the Bay Area for a few weeks — boxes still unpacked, favorite shoes still missing — when I boarded a puddle-jumper plane bound for San Diego to be with an old and dear friend while she got married. She met me at the airport with two other friends, and before heading to the hotel, before diving into pre-wedding prep, and before even catching our breath, we were off to get tacos.
Not three weeks earlier, I had been packing up our apartment in Ohio and there had still been snow on the ground. Now I was looking out over palm trees and the Pacific Ocean, taco in one hand and beer in the other. What could I do but raise my taco to the yonder glittering ocean and quietly say Thanks!
Tacos in California have been a revelation to me as a Midwestern girl who grew up on ground beef tacos in hard corn tortilla shells. It took me a while to get used to these small, soft-shelled things that could be eaten in just two or three bites.
But oh, what two or three bites they were! Shredded beef tacos that melt in the mouth and come topped with tangy cabbage slaw. Fish tacos that taste like the ocean. Simple tacos filled with summer corn, roasted poblano peppers, and crumbly cheese. Over the past two years of living in the Bay Area, I think I've sampled them all.
That first plate of tacos at that nameless taco stand in San Diego still feels to me like the quintessential California taco experience. The place was a little grungy, a little weathered — but what came out of the kitchen seemed otherworldly to me. Maybe it was the fatigue of travel and moving. Maybe it was the company of my good friends. Maybe it was the salty air coming off the ocean. I don't care. They will forever live in my memory as The California Tacos.
These shrimp tacos here are an ode to those first ones. I like roasting shrimp in the oven because it's easy and foolproof and Ina Garten-approved, though if you have a grill, by all means grill your shrimp instead. The mango-avocado salsa is creamy and cool, but spiced with a hit of crunchy jalapeño. Combined in a soft tortilla with some cotija cheese and fresh cilantro, everything just works.
The tacos also come together in a flash — maybe 15 minutes, tops. I love them for a quick weeknight meal, but they also make a fantastic party appetizer. Just set out platters of everything and let guests help themselves.
And before you take your first bite of taco, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Smell that ocean? Hear those palm trees rustling in the wind? Feel the sun on your face? Yup, that's California. Home sweet home.
For the salsa:
1 medium ripe mango
1 medium ripe avocado
1 to 2 jalapeños, depending on how spicy you like your salsa
Salt and pepper
For the shrimp:
1 pound medium-sized (17-21 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails removed
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
12 to 15 6-inch corn or flour tortillas
Cotija cheese, crumbled
Extra lime wedges
To prepare the salsa, dice the mango and the avocado, and mix together in a bowl (for further instructions: How to Dice a Mango). If your mango is very ripe, it may break down as you stir it; this is fine.
Trim the tops off the jalapeños and then slice them down their length. Scoop out and discard the seeds and white pith. Cut the jalapeños cross-wise into very thin slices. Combine the jalapeños with the mangos and avocados.
Squeeze the lime juice over the salsa and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Give it a taste and adjust seasonings as desired. Set the salsa aside until serving.
To prepare the shrimp, heat the oven to 400°F with a rack positioned in the middle of the oven. Toss the shrimp with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Lay the shrimp on a baking sheet in a single layer. Roast for 6-8 minutes, until the shrimp are pink and cooked through.
While the shrimp are roasting, arrange an area for assembling the tacos. Wrap the tortillas in foil and let them heat in the oven for a few minutes in the oven alongside the shrimp. Set out bowls of salsa, crumbled cotija cheese, lime wedges, and chopped cilantro alongside the hot sauces. When the shrimp have finished roasting, transfer them to a serving platter. Assemble and eat the tacos while the shrimp is still warm from the oven.