The haddock tacos at The Contented Sole in New Harbor are the seafood restaurant’s biggest seller. Photo courtesy of Warren Busteed

The Contented Sole is a waterfront seafood restaurant in New Harbor, perched just downhill from historic Fort William Henry at the Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site, a popular tourist destination. This summer, for the first time, the restaurant did something that others might consider unthinkable – it took boiled lobster off its menu.

Why? Its haddock tacos are much more popular.

“Our restaurant is driven, almost, by the fish tacos,” says owner Warren Busteed. “We have people that come exclusively for the tacos. Last year, we sold $70,000 in fish tacos. It’s hands down the biggest seller and most popular thing on our menu. I mean, it’s crazy.”

Not so long ago, tacos were hard to find in Maine – good ones, anyway. Oh sure, we’ve had chain restaurants that served Mexican food. And there have been a few local pretenders to the taco throne. Presumably Amigo’s and Tortilla Flat served tacos when they opened in Portland back in the 1970s, as well as Margarita’s in the 1980s. El Rayo Taqueria came along in 2009, followed by Taco Trio in South Portland in 2011, both raising the bar on taco goodness.

Natty Graham, the 34-year-old chef at Treehouse Taqueria in Ogunquit, grew up in Maine with what he says was “a meat and potatoes mentality,” and remembers being puzzled by tacos and guacamole when he started seeing them at a young age. “Eating Mexican food was never a thing for my parents,” he said.

Today, it seems as if tacos are everywhere, served not only from food trucks and new Latin American restaurants, but also in restaurants that have simply added them to their menus, “which I think back in the day used to be a rare kind of thing that some chef might do as a special for fun,” said Karen Rasmussen, co-owner of Taco Trio in South Portland with her husband, Manny Pena, who hails from central Mexico.

Over the past couple of decades, tacos gradually moved east from the West and Southwest, where they have long been popular, following a shift in both demographics and consumer preferences. In 1992, Pena moved from Texas to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, where “there were very few Latinas – very, very few, even fewer than you see here – and no Mexican restaurants there.” By the time he left 15 years later, the Hispanic population in the area had increased tenfold, Pena says, and Mexican restaurants, carts and food trucks were “everywhere.”

The taco also caters to Americans’ current preference for fast casual food that is easily customizable, notes Graham, and that’s a change in dining habits that knows no geographical boundaries. “It’s a handheld thing,” Graham said. “You get options. You can get three tacos that are completely different, and you’re paying a more minimal cost but you’re getting more variety.”

At Taco Trio, Rasmussen and Pena sell a Baja-style haddock taco, but they hope to add more variety – both in tacos and in other Mexican dishes – when they open in their new, larger location later this summer. “I would say tacos are only part of Mexican cuisine,” Pena said, “but the popularity of the taco is so much bigger in the U.S. that it’s sometimes hard to bring some other things – other things that are equally popular in Mexico, but not here for some reason.”

DOWN EAST SPIN

Maine restaurants have embraced the taco trend, often giving it a Down East spin by filling it with local ingredients such as lobster, monkfish and fried clams. And they’re getting creative with fusion tacos, too. You can now easily find an “authentic” Mexican taco in Maine, but also a taco that mimics a Vietnamese banh mi (Bird & Co.) or borrows from Korean barbecue (Tacos del Seoul). At El Corazon, the menu includes both goat tacos and fried green tomato tacos.

Even Maine’s hunters and fishers are tackling the taco by filling tortillas with local fish and game.

Mike Pomer, the kitchen manager at York Street Tacos in York, fills tacos with seafood he buys from Taylor Lobster in Kittery – haddock and cod, which he fries in chickpea-rice flour batter; scallops, which he fries and serves with roasted corn salad and smoky habanero sauce; and monkfish, which he slow roasts and tops with papaya or mango salsa.

“Tacos have really kind of blown up in the past three or four years,” Pomer said, “and good Mexican food is something York hasn’t really had in a long time.”

The Shuck Station in Newcastle serves fried Maine oyster tacos with spicy avocado crema, pickled onions and pico de gallo, on corn tortillas. The Lobster Haul in Damariscotta has lobster, crab, and haddock tacos on the menu, served with lettuce, tomato, corn, and sriracha sour cream. Locally Sauced in Yarmouth serves local hake in its tacos.

The hake taco at Locally Sauced in Yarmouth. Photo courtesy Aimee Ely

It’s not just fresh, local seafood that makes a taco a Maine taco. Kate Krukowski Gooding, food columnist for The Maine Sportsman, has made tacos with venison, moose and even beaver, and says tacos made with ground game meat have become popular.

“A lot of people like ground meat more than they do steaks, so they love making sloppy joes and tacos,” she said. “Mexican food is getting very, very popular because people who don’t really like the taste of game meat, if it hasn’t been handled properly, the Mexican spices will cover up some of that gaminess.”

Fishermen, Gooding said, probably wouldn’t put brown trout or salmon into a taco, but it’s perfect for bass or lake trout.

“Trout has such a great flavor, you don’t want to cover it up, and salmon too,” she said. “The lake trout a lot of people don’t like, but it’s a good fish to use for chowders and tacos and pickles.”

Gooding’s favorite taco was one she made with chipotle pulled beaver, served with a summer peach balsamic coleslaw. (She adds the caveat that trappers who might eat these tacos are not trapping beaver much now because the fur market in China has plummeted.) Beaver meat is very sweet, she said. She wrapped the meat in bacon and, after a slow bake, added barbecue sauce.

Most Maine tacos, however, are made with fresh, local seafood, especially haddock. The popularity of their haddock tacos prompted The Contented Sole to try other seafood tacos, including fried clams, cod, and raw tuna, which is topped with seaweed salad. In May, the restaurant bought three huge halibut from local fishermen and used the cheeks in a taco. But the haddock taco remains king, with the chef often going through 30 to 40 pounds of the fish in a day, sprinkling it with blackening seasoning before searing it on the grill. The fish is served in a corn tortilla with a spicy crema made with smoked paprika and pepper relish.

Busteed said the restaurant hasn’t abandoned lobster altogether. You can still get a lobster roll there, and yes, a lobster taco, too.

A “happy accident”: The Lobster Cheese Crisp Taco from High Roller Lobster Co. in Portland. Photo by Peter Bissell

The marriage of Maine and Mexican cuisine is perhaps personified by the lobster taco. Arguably the most popular lobster taco in Portland right now is the Lobster Cheese Crisp Taco at High Roller Lobster Co. The taco was, the owners like to say, “a happy accident” born of cooks snacking on the crispy bits of cheese left on the grill after making a lobster grilled cheese.

“One day we just started throwing handfuls of cheese on and making these big cheese chips,” explained co-owner Baxter Key. “One time I pulled it off the grill and it folded over and it looked like a taco shell, so we made a taco out of it.”

He posted a picture on Instagram, and faster that you can say “pass me a beer,” it became a secret menu item, and then a social media star. After it went viral, so many customers asked for the taco that it was added to the menu. The lobster roll is still the most popular item on the menu, Key said, but the taco is holding its own.

TACO EVOLUTION

We’ll never know who first put lobster into a taco shell in Maine, but if ever there were a contender for the OG lobster taco in a Maine restaurant, it would be the spicy lobster taco at El El Frijoles in Sargentville. The taco has been on the menu 15 years, ever since the restaurant opened on the Blue Hill peninsula.

Michael Rossney, who owns El El Frijoles with his wife, Michele Levesque, recalls that before opening the restaurant the couple spent a year driving all over eastern Maine, looking for used equipment and checking out what Mexican food was available in the area. “It was a horror show back then,” he said. “It was truly some revolting meals we ate.”

One he still vividly remembers came from a gas station that billed itself as an Italian and Mexican restaurant.

“I ordered a burrito,” Rossney said, “and they took a Styrofoam clam shell over to the pizza prep table and they put a raw flour tortilla in it. They put mozzarella cheese, black olives and a bunch of chopped up tomatoes and red onions in it, sort of folded it over a little bit, and then they put a scoop of Dennison’s chili out of a can and put it in the microwave and handed it to me. We had just moved here from California, and I was, like, ‘Oh my God, is this really happening?’”

Rossney is happy to say that the Mexican food situation in the region has greatly improved over the past decade and a half. He thinks it’s a result of the farm-to-table movement, which showed people “what food is and should be.” He added that with the increasing number of visitors coming to Maine, demand has increased for more options than traditional foods like fried haddock sandwiches, boiled lobster, “or all the brown and green food you get at a church supper.”

The spicy lobster taco at El El Frijoles in Sargentville. Photo courtesy of Michael Rossney

It makes sense to him that Maine would embrace the taco. “Almost every food culture has some sort of protein in some sort of bread thing,” he said. “It’s almost part of the universal human experience. … The taco as we know it is pretty much associated with Mexican food, but they eat the same kind of thing in Africa and the Mediterranean.”

One of the first things Rossney and his wife did after surveying the bleak Maine taco landscape was experiment with making a lobster soft taco that would be a hybrid of Northern California and Maine. They sautéed lobster in a compound butter with achiote paste and garlic, put the lobster into handmade corn tortillas, and topped it with shredded cabbage salad marinated in lime, red onion and jalapeno.

The spicy lobster taco is the signature dish at El El Frijoles now, but they make other seafood tacos as specials, such as a recent one with an Indonesian twist – a taco with haddock marinated in coconut milk, sambal oelek, garlic, and ginger sauce, then pan-seared to order.  “I didn’t even have a chance to write it in the chalkboard,” Rossney said. “We sold out of it in two hours.”

At Treehouse Taqueria, Graham makes Maine lobster tacos as well as large surf ‘n’ turf-style tacos called The Legend, which combines lobster with some form of beef, such as steak or short ribs. He buys his lobster from friends who own a lobster pound just a mile down the road from where he grew up, and his greens and vegetables mostly from nearby Zach’s Farm. He’s proud that the fish he uses is mostly sourced from Gulf of Maine sashimi.

The grilled squid taco at Treehouse Taqueria in Ogunquit. Photo courtesy of Treehouse Taqueria

Graham considers the taco a blank canvas awaiting his interpretation. He uses a lot of local seafood in his catch-of-the-day tacos, including cod, haddock, pollock, monkfish and bonito.

The scallops in his scallop taco are pan-seared and served over avocado slaw with sweet corn, then finished with smoked poblano butter, avocado salsa, chili lime seasoning and cilantro. The tempura-style hake tacos come with avocado slaw, avocado salsa and scotch bonnet cherry chutney. The bluefin tuna tacos share their tortillas with avocado slaw, mango, avocado, pickled rainbow dilly beans, scallions, and coconut-chipotle crema. And the grilled squid tacos are tossed in herb vinaigrette and accompanied by avocado slaw, citrus pesto, chili seasoning and cilantro.

It all sounds delicious. And it sounds like Maine.

El El Frijoles Lobster Tacos

Recipe from Kate Shaffer’s “The Maine Farm Table Cookbook.” At El El Frijoles, they serve these tacos with housemade spiced achiote butter and housemade red onion and jalapeno quick pickle. Here we have substituted plain butter and purchased pickled jalapenos.

Serves 3 or makes 9 individual tacos

ENSALADA DE LA PAZ
2 cups shredded green cabbage
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Juice from 1 lime
1/2 jalapeno chile, seeded and finely diced
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1/2 small red onion, finely diced

CREMA
3 tablespoons milk
1 cup full-fat sour cream

LOBSTER FILLING AND ASSEMBLY
3 tablespoons butter
1 pound freshly cooked and picked lobster meat
9 corn tortillas
1 ripe avocado, pitted, peeled and sliced
Pickled jalapenos

To make the ensalada, toss the cabbage with the salt and lime juice in a medium bowl and allow it to sit for 10 minutes, or until the cabbage begins to soften.

Add the jalapeno, tomato, cilantro and red onion. Stir together and taste. You may add additional lime or salt to your liking. Set aside.

To make the crema, stir the milk into the sour cream until smooth. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the lobster and continue to stir until the lobster meat is just warmed through. Don’t overcook or the lobster will become rubbery.

To assemble the tacos, lay out three tortillas on each plate. Evenly distribute the lobster among the tortillas. Drizzle with any extra butter from the pan. Top each taco with 2 to 3 tablespoons of ensalada, the avocado slices, pickled jalapenos, and a small dollop of crema. Serve immediately.


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