One way to judge a new-to-you Mexican style restaurant is to order their fish taco. They come in every stripe and color, hot sauces, cool sauces and piles and piles of foods that bear no resemblance to the fish taco of your dreams. So here is the skinny on the original fish taco, the ‘country’ of Mexico and their fish tacos notwithstanding.
Back in the 70s a young man named Ralph Rubio made regular pilgrimages to visit friends and relatives in Mexico. He was also a beach (in Spanish playa) kind of guy. His favorite seaside taqueria made a fish taco Ralph loved. Hooked on the fish taco he sat down and worked on his own rendition. In 1983 Ralph rounded up support from family and friends and opened his first RUBIOS, a ‘walk-up’ stand in San Diego’s Mission Bay. This was America’s first taste, in America, of the fish taco, it was love at first bite and the dish quickly spread coast to coast morphing at each stop. Although it is impossible to find an authentic recipe the RUBIOS is as close as you can get. The web is full of ‘authentic’ fish tacos, here is my version collected from many sources. Before this gem is revealed, consider this, when someone shares an ‘authentic’ pasta sauce with you, it’s likely what ‘my Italian aunt’ made. There are as many ‘authentic’ pasta recipes as there are Italian aunts. Curries are the same as ‘authentic’ pasta sauces, they range from the mild Schilling spices version at the grocery store to the cook your tonsils curries of India and Malaysia.
Authentic Fish Tacos
Cook time depends on your skill level and familiarity with the recipe.
Ingredients, cooking and preparation serves 6- two tacos each
Two pounds of firm white fish fillets
Purchase a good quality, firm white fish. Cod fish is always a good choice, Alaskan Pollock is often used but not swordfish or halibut, although they do work. Portioned into twelve generous hunks, about one inch cubes. Set them on a pie plate lined with paper towels in the refrigerator covered.
Yogurt sauce: In a small bowl mix ½ cup plain yogurt, 3 tablespoons mayonnaise, 4 tablespoons sour cream, red pepper to taste, juice from ½ fresh lime, ¼ cup of coarsely chopped cilantro leaves, salt and pepper to taste. Cover and place in refrigerator.
Salsa: Use your favorite prepared salsa, or make fresh, about one teaspoon per taco (12)
Finely shred ¼ head of green cabbage, set aside.
Quarter four fresh limes, each taco will get one hunk
One dozen cilantro leaf sets, stems removed
One dozen corn tortillas cooked in a dry pan and kept warm in a cloth napkin or tortilla holder
There are several ‘authentic’ batters, beer batter is most common, I prefer the crunch of Panko chips.
Pour two cups of Panko on a pie plate, season with salt and pepper
Add two beaten eggs, one cup of milk, set on a pie plate. When all ingredients are laid out, the oil is up to temperature and the plating area is ready for post frying assembly, it is time to fry. Dry any moisture from the cold fish cubes, working with two cubes at a time, give them a bath in the milk and egg mix, shake off excess and roll in Panko chips, repeat if you like more crunch. Carefully add the freshly coated cubes into the hot oil. Most fryers can handle four pieces per fry.
Vegetable oil, two quarts or a minimum of three inches of oil at ‘deep fry’ 375 degrees.
Use a slotted spoon or basket spoon used in wok cooking. Any heavy deep-fry vessel is good, a Fry Daddy type electric machine is excellent, it is clean and safer than open flame frying and the basket is part of the machine.
To maintain frying temperature, cook the cubes four to six at a time, they should dance around in the fryer, not gluing themselves to each other or the fry basket. The cubes will float and turn a golden brown color, two minutes or so. Carefully remove the cubes to rest on a cake rack set in a cookie sheet. Do not let the cubes touch on the rack or they will create a wet spot as they dry. The cooked cubes can be kept in a 200-degree oven until all twelve are done.
Warm six dinner plates and set them on the preparation counter space. Lay out the two sauces, the lime wedges, shredded cabbage, cilantro leaf and the fish cubes. Lay two tortillas on a plate and build the tacos. First a small pinch of shredded cabbage, two fish cubes, a teaspoon of salsa on each cube, a bit more cabbage and top with a tablespoon of cream sauce. Garnish with a cilantro sprig and a lime wedge. Sides could be beans or a compote of freshly roasted corn, sliced off the cob and seasoned.
Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is the former president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association. Look for his column in The Community Voice each week.