“Best fish tacos ever.” And that’s not a groundless claim. You can trust me because I grew up in San Diego with exposure to more than my fair share of freshly-made-by-immigrants-who-successfully-crossed-the-border-and-got-us-hooked-on-their-amazing-cuisine Mexican food. But even so, that statement has been uttered (and, therefore, certified) by a real Mexican who would know even better than a native San Diegan would: Señor Brian Griego.
Just a couple weeks after the Griegos’ cutie pie daughter was born, I made fish tacos at their lovely home (mostly as an excuse to see the little princess, but also to catch up with her fun parents). Everyone enjoyed them so much (except baby Kameron, who was still on a milk-drinking binge at the time) that we actually ran out of fish a little early – a huge compliment to the chef (ahem!) but also horrifying because this chef thinks running out of food when she’s serving others is just so embarrassing!
Anyway, I first got the idea on board a late JetBlue flight from Boston to San Francisco, where I watched Food Network for (no kidding) six hours straight. Tyler Florence was presenting his “ultimate” fish tacos, and I was drawn in by the mango salsa (I love spicy-sweet) and the pink mayonnaise. Yes, pink chipotle mayonnaise is that “special sauce” that makes fish tacos so addictively delicious when you’re eating at a restaurant. Restaurants alone no longer hold the key to that magic because, as Tyler Florence presented it to me, I will now share it with you. But better.
After making these tacos exactly according to his recipe the first time around, I healthed it up a bit the second, third, and subsequent times that I’ve made these, making sure there was absolutely no deterioration in taste, of course. For the chipotle sauce, because the chipotle peppers have such a strong, spicy flavor, I used light mayonnaise, cut down the total ratio of mayonnaise to other ingredients, and substituted Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. Just as tasty, but much more guilt-free – and that’s a good thing because, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably want to slather this sauce all over the fish on your taco.
When it came to the mango salsa, I took out the olive oil altogether; there’s not much acidity in this salsa and (assuming you’re using very ripe, sweet, flavorful mangoes) the lime juice only serves to brighten the other flavors, so the oil really wasn’t necessary. As for the fish, you can bread it or not, but if you do skip the breading, make sure to season the fish with the chili powder, paprika, salt and pepper. Personally, I slightly prefer the crunch of the breading, but I’ve enjoyed it both ways. And if you’re short on time, skip the breading, not the mango salsa.
Finally, I’ve cooked the fish three ways. Tyler’s original method of cooking was to deep-fry the fish. Tastes great, but unhealthy, messy, and if you don’t have a self-monitoring deep-fryer, a bit of a pain to monitor the oil temperature’s fluctuations. I should also mention that if you’re so lucky to have a poorly ventilated kitchen like mine, the smell of oil lingers in the air for at least 24 hours after deep-frying – that was the biggest turn-off for me, personally. Second way to do it is to pan-fry, which is a bit healthier than deep-frying, slightly less messy, easier to do, and doesn’t make my entire apartment smell like a Louisiana fried chicken kitchen. Third way is to bake the fish in the oven. You still get the crispy golden crust, but with far less oil (especially if you use a spray bottle to mist the oil onto the fish), far less attention required (just pop it in the oven, set your timer, and relax), and zero cleanup if you line your pan with foil. Clearly, the baking method is my favorite, mostly because I can relax and not worry about cleanup. But all three methods still give you delicious fish tacos. So if you’re in the mood for a deep-frying adventure, by all means go for it.
Note on leftovers: If you find yourself confronted with the possibility (or reality) of leftovers, rest assured that any remaining mango salsa makes a great little salad when tossed with greens or leftover cabbage from the tacos. I’ve even been known to throw in some of the chipotle sauce for a little kick and any leftover fish for some protein.
Mango-Radish Salsa (adapted from Tyler Florence)
Makes approximately 3 cups
Make sure to use ripe mangoes, otherwise this salsa won’t have the sweetness needed to counterbalance the Pink Chipotle Sauce once they’re both canoodling in the taco.
2 mangoes, diced
4-6 radishes, diced (depending on size)
1 small red onion, diced
1/2 bunch cilantro (or parsley), chopped
juice of 2 limes
2 Tbsp. chili powder
salt to taste
agave nectar (or honey) to sweeten (only if necessary; depends on sweetness of mangoes)
In medium bowl, mix mangoes, radishes, cilantro, lime juice, and chili powder. Squeeze any remaining pulp or juice from mango peel into the bowl. Add salt to taste. If mangoes aren’t quite ripe enough, you may add agave nectar, honey, or fresh mango juice to sweeten a bit. Refrigerate for at least an hour (and up to one day) before fish is done to allow flavors to meld.
Pink Chipotle Sauce: (adapted from Tyler Florence)
Makes 2 cups
The first time around, I jumped right in and used 3 peppers. That insanity led to my tongue burning, my body sweating, and the spiciness completely overwhelming the rest of the meal. The fish is pretty delicate, so when it comes to the peppers, have patience young grasshopper.
1 c. Greek yogurt
2/3 c. light mayonnaise
1 to 3 chipotle de adobo peppers (canned or jarred), plus 1 Tbsp. abodo sauce
juice of one lemon
Combine yogurt, mayonnaise, 1 chipotle pepper, adobo sauce, and lemon juice in food processor. Blend until light pink. Taste, and if desired, add 1 or 2 more chipotle peppers and re-blend.
Fish Tacos (inspired by, but radically changed from, Tyler Florence)
Makes 8 tacos, which should serve 4 people
1 lb. tilapia, cut into strips 1/2 by 1/2 by 4 1/2-inches in size
1/2 c. Pink Chipotle Sauce (recipe above) or 1 c. flour, 1 egg, and 1 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. chili powder
1 Tbsp. paprika
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 c. panko bread crumbs
1 c. savoy cabbage, thinly sliced
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced (I inadvertently left mine in the fridge this time around … whoops!)
Step 1: Prep Work
Preheat oven to 450F if baking (see Step 3, below, for cooking options). Line a large baking sheet with foil, and lightly oil the pan to ensure the fish doesn’t stick.
Step 2: To Bread, or Not to Bread?
You’ve got three options:
(1) The Easy Way: Sprinkle both sides of fish with chili powder, paprika, salt and pepper. Put fish strips into a bowl with 1/2 c. Pink Chipotle Sauce, and mix until all sides of each fish strip are covered. Then dredge each piece through panko crumbs, and set breaded fish at least an inch apart on prepared baking sheet.
(2) The Traditional Way: Mix flour, chili powder, paprika, salt, and pepper in a shallow bowl. In another shallow bowl, lightly whisk egg and water together, and season with salt and pepper. In a third bowl, pour in the panko. Dip a piece of fish into the seasoned flour, making sure to lightly coat all sides. Shake off any excess flour. (Or you can put the seasoned flour and all the pieces of fish into a plastic bag, and shake to coat.) Then, dip the piece into the egg mixture, and allow excess to drip off. Finally, roll fish in panko, coating all sides and shaking off any excess crumbs. Place fish an inch apart on prepared baking sheet, and repeat for remaining pieces of fish.
(3) The Healthy Way: Skip the breading altogether for a healthier version of tacos; but if you do, season both sides of the fish with chili powder, salt, and pepper, and drizzle lightly with olive oil once placed on the prepared baking sheet.
Step 3: Baked or Fried?
Once all the fish is breaded or spiced and placed on a prepared baking sheet, there are 3 options for cooking. In all three, the easiest indicator that the fish is cooked through is the light golden, slightly browned panko crust that will develop.
(1) Bake: This is the cleanest, most hands-off way to cook the fish. Having preheated your oven to 450F, bake on center rack for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown.
(2) Pan fry: In a large pan over medium-high heat, add 4 Tbsp. of vegetable oil. Making sure not to crowed the pan too much, pan fry the fish in a couple batches, 2 to 4 minutes per side until golden brown.
(3) Deep-fry: In several small batches, deep-fry the fish in 3 to 4 inches of vegetable oil heated to 375F, until panko turns golden brown (try to use a really deep pan, or else this gets messy; make sure to use relatively small batches, otherwise the oil temperature drops too much and the fish will take forever to cook). Drain the fish on a separate baking sheet lined with paper towels. Season with salt, if needed, and keep warm until ready to serve.
Step 4: Arrange Tacos
Heat tortillas, either wrapped in a damp paper towel and zapped in the microwave for 20 seconds, or over a low flame on the stove-top burner. Fill each tortilla with fish, cabbage and green onions, mango salsa, and pink chipotle sauce. Serve with beer or a margarita.