Fish Tacos

by | Jun 26, 2009 | Seafood | 0 comments

Long ago in a small-town mission church in Arkansas a priest (who is now a bishop) told me about the CASE method: Copy And Steal Everything. The following is from the San Francisco Chronicle

South to North: Baja meets bayou in a fish taco

Jacqueline Higuera McMahan, Special to The Chronicle

Fish tacos, much like margaritas or salsa and chips, are one of those Mexican entities that changed as soon as they crossed borders and became popular.

A legend then developed that they had to be made a particular way to be authentic – or as authentic as mass marketing could make them. Part of the legend associated with fish tacos is that no one could get the recipe for the “secret sauce” always drizzled over the genuine dish.

The first time I ate a fish taco was during a snorkeling trip to Isla Mujeres off the Yucatan Peninsula 30 years ago with my husband. The two guys running our small boat caught a sea bass, and cooked it on a remote beach over an improvised grill made of crisscrossed green palmetto sticks.

Our fingers were our utensils as we broke off pieces of fish nicely charred around the edges, wrapped them in warm corn tortillas, squeezed on fresh limes, and even added droplets of the lethal-looking homemade hot sauce. I’ll always remember this as one of the best meals of my life. Even the sand tasted good.

A few years after the beach-grilled fish, I was told in San Diego that the only fish taco to have must be deep-fried in a casing of beer-batter and doused with that infamous “secret sauce” that Baja vendors used and actually turned out to be mayonnaise thinned out with water or milk and maybe a tiny bit of vinegar.

Who would have expected the “secret sauce” to be more complex than plain old mayonesa? After all, the popular fish tacos were cooked in shanties and in makeshift deep fryers and then hawked along the beach.

Now I have come to a compromise with my fish tacos. I still love a grilled piece of fish and am always trying to approximate the Caribbean taste over a wood fire (lacking palmetto sticks) when we have the time.

But I have found that by dusting chunks of firm fish with corn flour (not cornmeal) and sauteing them in a small amount of oil, I can have golden pieces of fish to wrap in warm corn tortillas – a delicious alternative.

Using corn flour is a Cajun trick I learned in New Orleans. It adds more delicate crustiness to the fish without the mess of beer batter and deep frying.

Good salsas are a must. Aficionados of Baja-style fish tacos also insist that no lettuce is allowed inside fish tacos. Only shredded cabbage, seasoned or not. You need the crunch. This is one rule I agree with, but hold the “secret sauce.”
Halibut Fish Tacos

Serves 4

Use any firm fish like rock cod or sea bass but halibut fillets are my favorite. Prepare the cabbage just before the fish is cooked so it does not become too wilted.

* 1 cup corn flour (Bob’s Red Mill is good)
* 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
* 1 teaspoon ground red chile
* — Freshly ground black pepper
* 1 1/4 pounds halibut fillet, cut into 2-inch pieces to easily fit tacos
* 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
* 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
* 1/4 cup minced cilantro
* 4 cups thinly sliced white cabbage
* 1/4 cup canola oil + more if needed
* — Salsas (see recipes)
* 1 dozen corn tortillas, warmed just before serving

Instructions: Pour the corn flour out on a large sheet of waxed paper and combine with the salt, red chile and pepper. Dust the pieces of fish so all surfaces are coated. Let them sit on the remaining seasoned flour while you prepare the cabbage.

Just before you cook the fish, combine the mayonnaise with the vinegar and cilantro. Toss with the cabbage. You want the cabbage to be barely moistened but enough to be a slaw. Set aside.

Redust the fish pieces with the remaining corn flour mixture. The damp fish absorbs the coating, so a second coating will help create a better crust. Heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the fish pieces, a few at a time, and pan fry until golden on all sides, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add more oil, a tablespoon at a time, as needed. Remove the fish to a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat with the rest of the fish pieces.

Bring the golden fish, cabbage, warm tortillas and salsas to your table, and let everyone assemble their own tacos.

Per serving: 515 calories, 36 g protein, 45 g carbohydrate, 22 g fat (3 g saturated), 47 mg cholesterol, 461 mg sodium, 6 g fiber.
Favorite Green Salsa

Makes 1 1/2 cups

This is the quickest green salsa I have in my repertoire but also my favorite. I even use it for sandwiches. This is not a chunky salsa; it should have a hot-sauce consistency.

* 1 pound tomatillos (about 10)
* 1 jalapeno
* 1 serrano
* 1/4 small yellow onion
* 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
* 1 teaspoon kosher salt
* 2 teaspoons champagne vinegar
* 1 tablespoon light-flavored olive oil

Instructions: Run warm water over tomatillos to help loosen the dry husks. Peel or rub them off and warm tomatillos with paper towel to help remove sticky residue. Place tomatillos in a saucepan and cover with water. Add the jalapeno and serrano chiles. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for just 5 minutes.

Remove tomatillos and chiles to a blender jar (not a food processor). Add the onion and puree. Add the cilantro, salt, vinegar, 2 teaspoons water and the olive oil. Puree to a hot-sauce consistency.

Place in a bowl and serve with tacos. I like to store the remainder in clean, emptied clear olive oil bottles or even Corona beer bottles. I use a whole jalapeno chile (fresh) as a stopper for the bottle.

Per tablespoon: 10 calories, 0 protein, 1 g carbohydrate, 1 g fat (0 saturated), 0 cholesterol, 89 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
Favorite Red-Hot Salsa

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

This is the perfect salsa to add heat by dashes; it’s not for dipping chips. I have cut the amount of arbol chiles to half of what is typically used in Mexico but it is still hot. Add by droplets to tacos and sandwiches. I even use it to add heat to freshly chopped pico de gallo if I cannot get it hot enough with the over-cultivated wimpy jalapenos now on the market.

* 10 arbol dried chiles, cut in half, stems removed
* 1 clove garlic
* 2 plum tomatoes
* 2 teaspoons white vinegar
* 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

Instructions: Heat up a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add chiles and toast for just a minute. Do not burn. Remove immediately and set aside. Add garlic and tomatoes to pan.

Toast for 5 minutes over medium heat until garlic is slightly softened and tomatoes are blackened in spots. Remove.

Place arbol chiles in blender jar. Add garlic, tomatoes, 1/3 cup water, vinegar and salt. Puree to hot-sauce consistency. Add more water by the tablespoon to thin to desired consistency.

Serve with your fish tacos.

Per tablespoon: 5 calories, 0 protein, 1 g carbohydrate, 0 fat (0 saturated), 0 cholesterol, 46 mg sodium, 0 fiber.

Jacqueline Higuera McMahan’s family lived on one of the last Spanish land-grant ranchos in the Bay Area. She has lived in Mexico and now resides in Southern California, and is the author of “
California Rancho Cooking” (Sasquatch Books, 2003). E-mail her at

This article appeared on page F – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle