Posted Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012, at 2:28 PM
Fish tacos as they should be.
Rachel Arons for Slate.
The prototypical fish taco originated in Baja California, Mexico, and the preparation referred to in this country as “Baja-style” is similar to what you might find on the Mexican peninsula. It usually involves deep-fried white-fleshed fish, shredded cabbage, and a creamy white sauce. This is the holy fish-taco trinity, and as the dish continues to make its way outside of Mexico and into restaurants all over the United States (last week I saw fish tacos on the menu of a restaurant on a lobster dock in rural Maine), one would hope that any departures from this core formula would be made with caution. Why mess with such a good thing?
Too often, though, in restaurants and in recipes for home cooks, the key elements of fish tacos get modified and tampered with in ways that dilute the deliciousness of the final product: blackened fish, overpoweringly smoky chipotle sauce, too-sweet mango salsa, watery pico de gallo. Worst of all are fancy slaws that crowd out the fish and add too much texture to a taco whose success depends upon a delicate balance of different kinds of crunchiness.
So, for several years now, I have resorted to preparing fish tacos myself, and I’ve developed a set of guidelines that, if followed, yield a taco more satisfying than any of the tequila-marinated, jícama slaw-adorned, roasted pineapple salsa-topped options out there. The first rule is that you must beer batter your fish—no grilling, no baking, definitely no blackening. Serving fish tacos without frying the fish is the rough equivalent of showing someone the movie The Score and thinking you’ve fully demonstrated Marlon Brando’s sex appeal. Don’t make this mistake.
The second is that the cabbage must be shredded extremely fine. If you don’t already have a mandolin, it’s worth getting one both for this recipe and for general vegetable slicing purposes (this one is excellent). The last element is the most labor intensive but also one of the most important: Press your own tortillas instead of using store-bought ones, and make them just 4 inches in diameter. Your tacos should be small enough that the ends of the fried fish strips poke out pleasantly at either end.
The other components I add—carefully, restrainedly—are slices of ripe avocado (not guacamole, which is too mushy for this dish) and fresh cilantro. I also add Sriracha to my white sauce for the heat, and for that special half-sweet, half-umami thing that Sriracha dependably brings. The results of this combo are good enough that I once considered starting a fish taco business out of my house to supplement my income, which might say more about my income at the time than about the quality of the tacos. But really—they’re better than most of the versions you’ll find in restaurants or taquerias. Unless you’re in SoCal with a perfect Baja-style joint on every block, in which case you're very lucky and I salute you.
Yield: 4 servings (about 16 tacos)
Time: 1 hour
2 cups Maseca or other masa harina used for making tortillas
1¼ teaspoons salt, plus more for seasoning
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup Mexican crema or sour cream
¼ cup whole milk
1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce, or more to taste
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 quart canola or vegetable oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
One 12-ounce bottle Negra Modelo or other lager
1 pound firm white fish fillets (such as catfish, cod, halibut, or tilapia), cut into 3-inch-by-¾-inch strips
¼ small head green cabbage, very finely shredded, preferably on a mandolin
1 ripe avocado, thinly sliced
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1. Combine the masa harina, ¼ teaspoon of the salt, and 1¼ cups water in a medium bowl and stir until the mixture comes together. If the dough is dry and crumbly, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it comes together. Knead gently for 2 minutes. Divide the dough into 16 balls, each approximately 1½ inches in diameter. Cover the dough balls with a damp cloth to keep them moist. Line a tortilla press with two sheets of plastic wrap. Place a dough ball between the layers of plastic and press until the tortilla measures 4 inches in diameter, then carefully peel off the plastic wrap. (If you don't have a tortilla press, you can use a heavy book and a little elbow grease to press them between sheets of plastic wrap.) Repeat with the remaining dough balls.
2. Put a large, dry skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, cook the tortillas, one at a time, for about 50 seconds on each side. Cover the cooked tortillas with a dishtowel to keep them warm.
3. Make the sauce: Combine the mayonnaise, crema, milk, Sriracha, garlic, and the juice of ½ lime in a small bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Cut the remaining 2½ limes into wedges.
4. Heat the oil to 350°F in a deep pot over medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, beer, and 1 teaspoon salt; the mixture should have the texture of pancake batter. When the oil is hot (if you don’t have a thermometer, you can test it by dropping in a bit of batter and seeing if it sizzles), dip the fish pieces in the batter and fry them in batches until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and season with salt.
5. Arrange the tortillas on a serving plate and place one piece of fish on each. Top each taco with a large pinch of shredded cabbage, a drizzle of sauce, a slice of avocado, and a few cilantro leaves. Serve immediately with lime wedges and cold beer.