Mexico Highway 1 — or Mex 1 — runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean, stretching the length of the Baja California peninsula with amazing views, great surf, and the famous Baja fish taco. Typically made with lightly battered white fish, shredded cabbage, crema, and lime in a corn tortilla, the ubiquitous fish taco has been exported, but distant renditions rarely hit the bar set by the original.
Mex 1 Coastal Cantina in West Ashley feels very SoCal and would be right at home in Baja. The restaurant may not be near the water but the surfer vibe is at high tide. A huge map of Baja sends you on your journey, while the big bar made from planks of weathered, painted wood, beckons. Vibrant orange and deep red planks anchor the walls and add a funky vibe. To the left of the bar is the kitchen, separated from the dining room by a wall constructed of surf boards, some long, some short. One TV airs ESPN, with surfing videos on the rest.
The space is so transformed it's hard to believe it was once Jack's Cosmic Dogs. Jack Hurley still owns the place but decided to change the concept with the help of son Morgan, who manages the place. A recognizable mixologist who's won plenty of competitions, Morgan has set up a serious cocktail program.
A chalkboard lined with bright colors lists the current house infusions, like Tabasco agave tequila, raspberry vodka, and pineapple habañero tequila. I started out with the Cadillac Margarita ($8) on the rocks, which is made with Milagro Reposado, the house Mex 1 mix, and a splash of Grand Marnier — delightful. The house margarita runs $6 and there's a jalapeño-infused one for $7. Aside from the margaritas, you'll find the trendy Moscow Mule ($7) as well as the Salty Saint (vodka, St. Germain, grapefruit juice, and a salt rim, $7). The Tequila Mockingbird, a recent special, was a nice surprise — berry Serrano tequila, Solerno (blood orange liqueur), lime juice, and agave syrup. All the well-known Mexican beers are available, including Tecata Roja in a can and Dos Equis Amber on draught. These all pair well with Mexican fare, but I liked seeing two Holy City brews on tap as well as some craft bottles, such as Bell's Two Hearted, Stone IPA, and Allagash White.
But what about those fish tacos? The crisp and lightly battered mahi-mahi with shredded cabbage, lime crema, and cilantro-onion relish ($3.50) were spot on. But seriously, flour tortillas are the default? Corn tortillas are the way to go, but they aren't listed on the menu and you have to specifically ask for them. In my opinion, they work better, though they don't taste fresh and are a bit dry.
The Baja fish is the best taco on the menu, but the others are pretty good too. The sweetly spicy Bangin' Shrimp gets its flavor from signature Mex 1 sauces drizzled over lightly fried shrimp and shredded cabbage ($3.50). The beef in the carne asada was chewy but flavorful. The serrano-jicama slaw and chipotle crema were also both tasty.
Every order comes with a complimentary basket of fresh-fried corn tortilla chips and a mild, thick salsa. The guacamole ($6.75) gets two thumbs up, as it's vibrant and fresh. No tomatoes here, just avocado, red onion, cilantro, lime, and a little salt and spice. My only complaint is that the portion size is a bit small. The creamy queso ($5.50) is standard fare, and the smoked chipotle salsa plays the sweet note too strongly for my taste.
Most of the tacos also come in quesadilla form, but the tortas are where it's at. Big, dense, soft rolls are filled with a taste of Mexico. I opted for the carnitas ($8.50). The slow-cooked, shredded pork was tender, and the spark of heat from the serrano jicama slaw was cooled by an ample portion of lime crema. Each torta comes with a choice of brown rice and black beans, street corn, slaw, or a side salad. I went all in on the street corn with extra napkins at the ready and toothpicks handy for after the meal. I love street corn, so I was disappointed to see that Mex 1's version is corn kernels cut off the cob, mixed with queso fresca and a powdering of dry red pepper. It was a big letdown when you're expecting to bite into a boldly flavored, messily dripping cob. Next time I'll stick with the slaw and be happy.
Mex 1 may not be near Baja and the waves certainly aren't as towering as they are on the West Coast, but it's nice to know you don't have to travel 2,500 miles to indulge in a quality fish taco. With the food, sauces, and mixes all made in-house, Mex 1 is the perfect getaway for landlubbers and surfers alike — a place where the surf is always just right.