Taqueria El Refugio
3991 Jackson Avenue
Early last month when I was working on my fish taco story for the Flyer, Warren decided that it wouldn’t be complete unless I discovered an unknown fish taco. I insisted that I had done my research and that there wasn’t one I was missing. “Have you driven down Jackson Avenue and tried all of those authentic Mexican places?” he asked.
“Uh…no,” I said. “But fish tacos are more of a Southern California/Baja thing rather than a truly authentic Mexican dish.”
He was not convinced.
"I've got Guadalupana and Las Tortugas," I said. "Ask anybody and those are going to be the two 'secret' places."
He stared blankly.
“Okay, let's say you are right. When am I going to have time to drive up and down Jackson Avenue?” I asked.
He had no answer.
The Saturday before my deadline, my bestest friend, Hope, was in town. I really wanted to take her to Las Tortugas, but Warren convinced us that it was the perfect time to head to Jackson Avenue. We loaded up the monkeys and started our quest to find the unknown fish taco.
In a stroke of good luck, both monkeys (Satchel, 5, and Jiro, 3) almost immediately fell asleep in the backseat. This allowed us to do several drive-bys without a million questions or hungry protests. In another stroke of luck, Hope agreed to be the one who ran in and asked, “Do you have fish tacos?”
Of course she agreed to this before she knew we’d be going to a million places.
We went all down Jackson and then cut over to Raleigh LaGrange and tried a few places there and on Covington Pike. Of all the restaurants, only two said they had fish tacos. Since she had actually been inside each one, I told Hope to pick. She chose El Refugio, an unassuming storefront in a half-empty, dilapidated strip mall on Jackson.
Before we could even get out of the car, Hope was accosted by someone I described as “Crazy Earplug Lady” in my notebook. She wanted money, we refused. I had briefly considered letting Jiro stay asleep in the car since we could get a window seat about five feet away, but Crazy Earplug Lady quickly made me change my mind.
Satchel woke up immediately when we told him we were ready to eat dinner, but Jiro was out. I carried him in and he continued to sleep in my lap for the greater part of the meal. As we looked over the menu, Hope verified with the waitress that they did indeed have fish tacos.
“Oh no,” said the waitress. “We don’t.”
“But when I came in the woman over there said…”
“Oh, I’m sorry. She must have misunderstood you,” she said.
The “woman over there” was listening in from behind the kitchen window and said, “Tell her we can make fish tacos.”
“We can make fish tacos,” the waitress said.
I have to admit that I was a little annoyed. I didn’t really think it would be fair to include something in my article that wasn’t actually on the menu. And at this point, with a very hungry five-year-old on one side of me and a comatose three-year-old in my lap, going to another restaurant didn’t seem feasible.
“Okay, I’ll take the fish tacos,” Hope said in true trooper fashion.
“I”ll have the tamales,” I said as both Warren and Hope shot me a look.
Warren ordered something involving pork I’m sure and a pork taco and a sope for Satchel. Not sure if Jiro would be interested in eating anything on the menu, I decided to let him pick off of everyone’s plates when he woke up.
“I want cheese dip!” said Satchel.
“No cheese dip,” said the waitress.
Before he could freak out, I ordered him a cup of .39 queso. It turned out to be finely grated Mexican white cheese and it thankfully appeased him. Hope ordered some guacamole and a beer and we were good to go. The chips came out super hot, like they had just been made in the kitchen and were delicious. So was the guac.
I took a moment to take in the ambiance. All of the pictures—except for one of a peacock—on the walls were actually 1000+ piece puzzles. (Satchel thought this was awesome.) There was a huge jukebox playing loud ass music that wasn’t so awesome. It was literally hard to hear what the waitress was saying. There were several other patrons—mostly Hispanic guys—but it wasn’t what I would call crowded. There were a couple of candy machines, but they were under the kitchen window rather than by the door, so the monkeys never even saw them! All of the food was served on plastic Chinese dishes.
The food was taking some time, so we had a second round of chips. Jiro woke up and demanded to know where his Kikaida DVD that he was holding when he fell asleep was. I went out to get it—looking over my shoulder for Crazy Earplug Lady—and quickly appeased him. Next, I ordered Satchel a second round of queso, and a first round for Jiro.
It was about that time that I noticed a heavy woman and a small child come in with a plastic bag (obviously containing a whole fish) and a slushie. A few minutes later, we were all served our food. My tamales were quite good and Warren was pleased with his pork dish. Satchel’s pork tacos came with a huge order of piping hot fries that Jiro immediately went for. He also had a sope—a tortilla pie like thing with meat, beans, lettuce, and cheese. Warren had to coax him a bit, but he ended up eating most of it. Jiro finished the fries and then occupied himself by eating ketchup off his finger. When that got old, he added some of his cheese to the ketchup.
Okay so what about the fish tacos? They weren’t much more than a whole fried fish served with French fries, rice, salad, and a tortilla on the side. Hope reported that the fish was really greasy and not all that. I’m sure that if the cook hadn’t of had to actually leave to purchase the fish and then rush to prepare it, they might have been better, but I was glad that I went with the tamales.
Jiro and I of course made a restroom run, and it was a rather disappointing one top. The floor was super sticky and I begged Jiro not to touch anything, which he didn’t.
When we returned to the table Warren was thumbing through a Hispanic newspaper. He started pointing to different restaurant ads and saying things like "I bet they have fish tacos." And "Oh, we should have gone to this place!" And my favorite, "We should have driven down Knight Arnold!"
So maybe there really is an incredible fish taco out there just waiting to be found, but I guess someone else is going to have to find it an tell me all about it! (And please, don't tell me about the ones at Blue Coast Burrito or Moe's or any other chain. I know they all have them and that they are probably really good, but for the purposes of keeping the quest pure, I chose independently owned and operated restaurants.)