Is there anything quite like coming across a really good fish taco?
The best ones are light, refreshing, and reminiscent of a vibrant beach life. (There is a reason this quintessential party originated in coastal Mexico.)
We turned to Austin-based food writer Jessica Dupuy, who knows a thing or two about fish tacos thanks to her Texan roots, to collect essential know-how around throwing an epic fish taco party. Fire up the grill, grab a margarita, and turn up the music…
1. Pick Your Fish
The best fish tacos are made with a mild, firm, white, sustainable fish. A good fishmonger should be able to point you in the right direction with high-quality, sustainable options. Our go-to is barramundi (of course), but mahi mahi, flounder, halibut, and cod are popular options, too. And if you let your fishmonger lead the way you just may discover a great underdog: Lionfish, perhaps? What about Pacific Rockfish? The key is to have an open mind. Be sure to request a meaty cut and to have your selection cleaned and de-boned for you. For the easiest fish tacos, seek out whole fillets with the skin on. Do not be afraid to change things up by using shrimp, octopus or a richer fish such as salmon or arctic char on occasion.
Get more tips on choosing sustainable fish from our post “Shop Like a Pro: Your Guide to Choosing the Best Sustainable Fish.”
2. Consider the Sides
If you want to prepare a couple of side dishes to go along with the fish tacos, consider simmering a pot of black beans and steaming a batch of cilantro-laced rice. These two additions are a great complement to make a full meal out of this classic street food refreshment.
3. Get Your Accoutrements Right
With fish tacos, the condiments are almost as important as the fish itself. You want to serve a few different options that enhance the experience of the fish without overpowering it. The key is to have all of these items prepped and ready to go before you grill the fish as you’ll want to serve it immediately off the fire.
Tortillas: Start with both corn and flour tortillas. While corn is the more traditional option, flour tortillas can add a different dimension. Try to find fresh tortillas from a local restaurant, rather than the gummy, shelf-stable kind at the grocery. (Warm them on the grill for 10-20 seconds on each side and keep warm in a tortilla warmer or wrapped in foil.)
Toppings: The ideal taco toppings all work together to add flavor and texture to the taco. Begin with a spicy chipotle mayo for a little heat and indulgent creaminess. You can find ready-made options at the grocer, but it’s just as easy to make them at home. (See recipe below.) Next, you’ll need to add some crunch. The best is to make a good coleslaw. Skip the creamy versions and opt for a tangy style using rice wine or white wine vinegar and add a little fresh jalapeño for an extra kick. Be sure to make the slaw as close to service time as possible to keep it as crunchy as possible.
Jalapeño Cole Slaw
4 cups cabbage, shredded
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
1/2 fresh jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Combine cabbage, cilantro, onions, vinegar, salt, and vegetable oil in a medium bowl and set aside.
Spicy Chipotle Mayonnaise
1 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons minced chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
Salsas: For a little variety, serve a couple of different salsas. Guests can add a spoonful directly onto the tacos, or use it as a side dip for tortilla chips. Go-to options are a green, tomatillo-based salsa, which has a bright acidity and a little tartness—perfect for a balanced taco; or a sweet and savory avocado-mango salsa.
Avocado Mango Salsa
4 large avocados, small dice (about 4 cups)
3 cup fresh, ripe mango, small dice (frozen and thawed is also ok)
1/4 cup red onion, small dice
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
Combine all ingredients in a medium serving dish. Add more lime juice and salt to taste.
3 lb fresh tomatillos, husks removed
2 serrano peppers, stemmed
2 tablespoon fresh lime juice
4 garlic cloves
2 1/2 cups cilantro
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
Combine tomatillos, peppers, and water to cover in a large pot. Cover and boil over medium-high heat; reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, or until tomatillos are tender. Remove from heat and let cool. Drain and wipe pan clean.
Pulse tomatillos, peppers, lime juice, and garlic in a food processor to coarsely chop. Add cilantro and blend until smooth. Return to pot and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally for 10-15 minutes, or until slightly thickened.
Remove from that; stir in salt and serve at room temperature or chilled.
Finishing Touches: Finally, a sprinkling of chopped cilantro and a squeeze from a fresh lime wedge is the perfect way to finish things off adding just a hint of herbaceous character to the perfect bite.
Set out all of these items in buffet style around a table in festive bowls and plates and include a large bowl of tortilla chips to encourage light munching among guests while the fish is grilling.
4. Start the Fire
There’s no question outdoor grilling adds another dimension to just about anything on the menu. If you have access to a charcoal grill, you’re at an even better advantage for overall flavor and smoky character. But don’t worry, a gas grill will still turn out some great fish for tacos.
Light your grill according to manufacturer’s instructions beginning at a fairly high heat.
5. Prep the Grill
Because you’re grilling fish, starting with a clean grill grate is key to keep the skin from sticking. Once the heat of the fire has had a few minutes to heat the grate, use a grill brush with heavy duty plastic bristles (the metallic bristles can splinter and break off into food), or a sheet of aluminum foil wadded into a loose ball to aggressively brush the grill grate before cooking the fish. Let the heat of the grill come down to a medium-high heat. Using tongs, take a rag dipped in olive or vegetable oil to wipe over the grate until lightly coated. (Pro tip: Instead of a rag, dip half of an onion in olive or vegetable oil to lightly coat the grate—and add a little extra flavor.)
6. Grill the Fish
With your fire ready to go, lay your fresh fish out on a sheet pan and season as you like. (See recipe below.) Use tongs to place skin-side-down directly over the hottest part of the grill grate. Let it cook for 4-5 minutes or until the fillet easily releases the grate when gently tugged with the tongs. (Note: Do not try to pull the fillet too hard. If it is sticking to the grate, it’s not finished cooking.)
Remove the fish from the grill and place fillets on a large serving platter. Set the platter in the center of the buffet table and add a fresh set of serving tongs or a couple of large forks. The fish should be tender enough for guests to pull off and place on tortillas to build their own fish tacos.
Fish Grilled Fish for Tacos
6 six-ounce fillets of any mild white fish
2 teaspoons ancho chili powder
1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
For the fish, combine ingredients for the rub. Pat the fish fillets dry and place on a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Rub fillets with vegetable oil, then evenly distribute the rub and press into the filets to season well.
Place fish filets on grate directly over heat. Cook for about 5-6 minutes on each side until the fish is opaque and flakes apart when prodded with a paring knife. (About 10-14 minutes total.) Place fish on a platter and keep warm to rest for about 5 minutes using a foil tent.
7. Don’t Forget the Libations
The best thing to serve to wash down a fish taco is a classic Mexican-style lager, such as Corona, served straight from an icy cooler. Be sure to have a few of these iced and at the ready. But if you want to add a little more sophistication to the experience, you’re sure to please a crowd with a pitcher of fresh margaritas. If wine is more your style, stick with crisp, refreshing white selections such as a French Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc) or Austrian Gruner Veltliner.
16 ounces good 100% Blue Agave silver tequila such as Herradura or Camarena
8 ounces orange liqueur such as Cointreau
8 ounces fresh lime juic
4 ounces simple syrup
8 lime wedges for garnish
Kosher Salt for glass rim
Take four old-fashioned cocktail glasses and rim the edges with a lime wedge. Place glass rim-side down onto a plate of kosher salt and twist back and forth to line the rim with salt. Fill the glass full with large cubes of ice. (The larger the ice cubes, the less melting you will have. Smaller ice cubes will yield a more slushy consistency.) Place all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and pour into each glass. Serve with lime wedge as a garnish.
All recipes adapted from United Tastes of Texas: Authentic Recipes from All Corners of the Lone Star State, Copyright © 2016 Oxmoor House, an Imprint of Time Inc. Books.