The Ultimate Fish Tacos Are Grilled

The fish taco is to Baja as the cheese steak is to Philly or the deep dish pizza to Chicago, and they are sold by street vendors and taquerias everywhere.

Americans think of tacos as having crunchy shells, but this delicacy, wrapped in a soft tortilla, probably comes from Ensenada, a Pacific port in Mexico's Baja California, about 100 miles south of the US border.

Jonathan Gold, the late Pulitzer Prize winning food critic from the LA Times once said "Ensenada's fish tacos are formidable things. And there may be no experience on Earth that quite matches the pleasure of an afternoon spent wandering around the Ensenada fish market, sluicing fish tacos down with oceans of slush-cold Tecate beer and watching locals haggle over yellowtail tuna and horse mackerel."

Eating fish tacos in the salty air enhances the experience, but they're not bad in any dining room, especially in a winter snowstorm when I'm dreaming of sand and sun. There are numerous variations on the theme, and this one is my favorite. 

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The Ultimate Fish Tacos

The traditional recipe calls for mild white-fleshed filets such as snapper, mahi-mahi, grouper, or tilapia, and the fish is usually battered and fried. You can do it that way. But the fish is pretty good when pan sauteed, or my favorite, grilled. Make sure the fish is fresh or freshly frozen and then thawed before you start. The meat should smell like the ocean: Salty, but not fishy.

Make all the toppings except the avocado before you start cooking the fish. Chop the avocado while the fish is cooking or else it will turn an ugly brown.

Put each topping in its own bowl with a spoon and serve so people can assemble their own tacos at the table.

Course. Lunch. Dinner. Entree.

Cuisine. Mexican.

Makes. Enough for 2 people.

Takes. 60 to 90 minutes

Serve with. A lime wedge, an ice cold wheat beer, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, sparkling wine, or a margarita.


2 cups Pico de Gallo

1/2 cup sour cream or mayo or a blend

1 teaspoon chopped canned chipotle in adobo sauce

2 pinches of Morton’s kosher salt

1/4 head of cabbage

2 limes

4 fresh corn tortillas

1 pound fresh, mild white-fleshed fish fillets

Extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon ancho powder

1 tablespoon Morton’s kosher salt

1 tablespoon ground black pepper

1 avocado

Optional toppings. Green or red chili sauce (I like the green), minced jalapeño, shredded cheese, chopped cucumbers, thinly sliced onions, or chopped green onions.


1) Prep. Make the pico de gallo, then set it aside.

2) Make a white salsa by mixing the sour cream, chipotle, and salt in a small bowl. Refrigerate. You can use powdered chipotle, about 1/2 teaspoon, but the salsa will need to sit for about an hour to let the flavors marry. With chipotle in adobo, the marriage is consummated immediately. And I like the flavor better.

3) With a sharp knife, cut the cabbage into thin shreds. Cut the limes into quarters. Place them both on your dining table.

4) Warm the tortillas. Traditional fish tacos are made with corn tortillas, but flour tortillas work just fine here. Either way, you want them warm. You can heat the tortillas by tossing them on the grill for about 30 seconds per side, and them putting them in a warm frying pan. Just heat the pan, take it off the flame, toss in the tortillas, and put the cover on. You can also warm them in the microwave, stacked on top of each other, on high for 20 to 30 seconds. If the tortillas are not fresh, moisten 2 paper towels, squeeze out most of the water, and lay the tortillas between the the wet paper towels in the microwave. Or, better still, go out and get fresh tortillas. Be careful not to dry them out. They need to remain flexible.

5) Set the table. Put out all the toppings except the avocado before you start cooking the fish, so when the fish is hot you can serve immediately.

6) Season the fish. Spread the raw fish fillets on a plate, check for bones, and remove any if you feel them. Then sprinkle the fish with oil and lime juice. Dust the fish liberally with the ancho powder, salt and pepper. Let sit for 10 minutes in the refrigerator.

7) Fire up. Set up your grill for medium-high heat. Oil the fish well so it will not stick, then grill it directly over a medium high heat for 4 minutes on one side. Oil the top of the fish again, flip it, and grill for another minute or three on the second side. Don't worry if it starts to come apart. Alternatively, you could fry fish. To do that, dip it in Tempura Batter rather than a dredge. To pan saute, and cook it in a pan in a mix of 50/50 olive oil and butter over medium high heat with the lid on. 

8) Assemble and Serve. Cut the avocado in half. Remove the pit and with a big spoon, scoop out the flesh. Slice it and place it on a plate near the other toppings. Squeeze some lime juice over it to help prevent browning. Place the plate of cooked fish near the pico, white salsa, avocado, and cabbage on your dining table. Serve by scooping about 1/4 pound of fish into the center of a warm tortilla, add the toppings of your choice, and a generous squeeze of lime juice. If you use corn tortillas, roll up the taco like a cone with the bottom nice and tight to hold in the filling. If you use flour tortillas, they are soft enough to fold to seal in the fillings. In that case, make believe you are wrapping a birthday gift. Fold the bottom side up and slightly over the fillings. Then pull the two sides that are perpendicular to the bottom across and over the fillings, squeezing them together until the sides overlap and the bottom is held in place. Eat from the open top end, leaning forward over your plate so your shirt and shoes stay clean.

"Entire religions have been founded on miracles less profound than the Ensenada fish taco."Jonathan Gold, the late Pulitzer Prize winning food critic at the LA Times

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