A dozen food scouts were recently sent from Sunset Magazine to chomp their way through the West in search of the best taco.

Who would have dreamed they'd discover it in Salt Lake City.

But it's true. Backed by their research and practiced palates, these foodies chose Lone Star Taqueria as the home of "The Top Tacos." Best in the West.

Surprised? The kicker is that Lone Star's winning tacos are worlds away from the usual corn tortilla filled with seasoned ground beef and shredded lettuce.

Fish tacos are Lone Star's baby. They originated south of the border as street food, migrated to California and have been booming here ever since. Just ask the folks lined up out the door of this former frozen yogurt shop that's been transformed into a hot spot for authentic Mexican takeout.

The dcor of the place is total funk — with brown paper bags strung on clotheslines that crisscross the ceiling, advertising daily specials. Aztec ceremonial masks look down on eat-in diners crowded into the multi-windowed dining area. Not-so-refurbished patio tables and chairs are reclaimed yard-sale beauties that match the broken down sticker-covered station wagon permanently crashed into a makeshift fence.

A suspicious "fin" poking out on top of the wreck advertises fish tacos. Well-worn cowboy boots top the fence posts.

Locals flock to the place — it's pleasantly packed for lunch and dinner. The drive-up window also does a brisk business.

Several local eateries feature their own version of the fish taco (Rubio's, de Fuego, Dos Serranos and others), but the authenticity of the Lone Star pescado taco is unrivaled, says owner Susan Harries.

Unlike most, Lone Star uses grilled fish, not deep fried. (On another healthy note, Lone Star beans are cooked without lard.)

Harries, who has frequented Mexico for years (she owns land in la Manzanilla), became hooked on the local fast-food fish tacos there while vacationing on the beaches south of the border.

The road to becoming a restaurateur had a humble beginning for the native Utahn. Her first "culinary" experience was in her teens, as a dishwasher at the Heather (which is no longer in business). She moved through several career upgrades and eventually took ownership of The Park Cafe. (Her brother owns Fresco, the recent recipient of first-place honors in the Zagat Guide). She opened the Lone Star six years ago and has watched business climb dramatically.

She hired longtime associate Manuel Valdez to manage her eatery, which he does with the help of his four brothers and several cousins. Friendly family chatter adds to the ambience of the place.

The idea of a non-beef taco took a bit of getting used to among locals. But through word of mouth — and, simply, by mouth — the delicacy now sells well . . . more than 300 a day (at $2.39 each).

The fish taco is made from fresh fish that chef Valdez buys daily from the purveyor — Royal Alaska Seafood — known for supplying the freshest catch in the area. Depending on availability, the taco "meat" might be cod, red snapper, mahi mahi, ahi or even salmon. He chooses whatever is freshest. Valdez won't use fish that isn't fresh. Not frozen. No way.

His daily catch is then marinated, cut into serving pieces for tacos and grilled to order — no pre-cooked products are sold. Grilled fish are wrapped in homemade tortillas trucked in from California.

Lone Star's specialty is wrapped in two soft white corn tortillas and served the traditional Mexican way — with shredded cabbage, tomato, fresh cilantro, onion and fresh lime slices, with a side of homemade jalapeo-cilantro mayonnaise. Each ingredient complements the flavor and texture of the fresh fish. Pico de gallo adds a finishing punch.

A variety of tacos and burritos are also available — carne asada (steak), carnitas (roasted pork), carne adovada (marinated seasoned pork), carne desebrada (shredded beef) and pollo asado (broiled chicken). The breakfast machaca (egg) and vegetariano round out the menu. Do-it-yourselfers can purchase meat, rice, beans, salsa, guacamole, chips and tortillas to go.

If you've never given fish tacos a try, take a spin south on Highland Drive, turn east on Fort Union Boulevard and watch for the entrada sign and graffiti-mobile.

"This is the place" takes on new meaning at Lone Star.


LONE STAR FISH

6 tablespoons ground dried New Mexico or California chilies

3 tablespoons salad oil

1/2 teaspoon pepper

About 1/2 teaspoon pepper

About 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

2 whole cloves

1 dried bay leaf, broken into pieces

1 pound boned, skinned firm-flesh fish such as halibut, mahi mahi, or rock fish

Shredded cabbage

Fresh lime juice

In a large bowl, mix ground dried chilies, oil, pepper, 1/2 teaspoon salt, garlic powder, cayenne, cumin, cloves and bay leaf.

Rinse fish and pat dry. Add to bowl and turn to coat with marinade; cover and chill at least 1 hour or up to1 day, mixing several times.

Lift fish from marinade and arrange pieces in a single layer in a 9-X-13-inch pan. Discard marinade.

Broil fish 4 to 5 inches from heat until opaque but still moist-looking in center of thick part of fish (cut to test), about 5 minutes for 1/2-inch-thick pieces. With a slotted spatula, transfer fish to towels to blot oil, then set on a platter. Cut fish along the grain into 1/2-inch slices, season to taste with salt. Serve wrapped in flour tortilla with shredded cabbage, Lone Star Pico de Gallo and Lone Star Cilantro-Jalapeno Mayonnaise and a squeeze of lime juice. Enough for 6 tacos.

Each serving contains 163 calories, 16g protein, 10g fat, 4g carb, 236mg sodium, 24mg cholesterol. From Chef Manuel Valdez of Lone Star Taqueria.


LONE STAR CILANTRO-JALAPENO MAYONNAISE

1 3/4 cups mayonnaise

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

1 rinsed and stemmed fresh jalapeo chili with seeds removed

1 peeled garlic clove

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1/2 cup lightly packed fresh cilantro

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Salt to taste

Combine all ingredients except salt; whirl until smooth. Add salt to taste. Makes about 2 1/4 cups.

Each tablespoon contains 77 calories, 1g protein, 8g fat, 4g carb, 61mg sodium, 6mg cholesterol. From Chef Manuel Valdez from Lone Star Taqueria


LONE STAR PICO DE GALLO

2 cups diced tomatoes

1/2 cup finely diced onion

2 tablespoons minced jalapeo chilies

1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons lime juice

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Salt to taste

In a bowl combine all except salt. Add salt to taste. Makes about 2 cups.

Each tablespoon contains 4 calories, 1g protein, 0g fat, 1g carb, 1mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol. From Chef Manuel Valdez of Lone Star Taqueria