The Fish Taco—A Shared Secret Recipe

If you’ve done much traveling in Mexico, you’ve run across fish tacos. This humble delicacy consists of lightly battered, mild white fish that is deep-fried and served in warm corn tortillas along with shredded cabbage, a spicy sour cream or mayonnaise sauce, salsa, and a drizzle of fresh lime juice.

Ensenada, Mexico, claims to be the birthplace of fish tacos. The streets surrounding Ensenada’s fish market are full of small food stands that sell this Mexican version of fast food to both residents and tourists. As it is with any exceptional recipe, everyone wants credit for its creation. And, so, in Ensenada almost every taco stand maintains its recipe is “the” original.

Ever wonder how fish tacos found their way across the border to the United States? Well, here’s the story. While enjoying spring break in Baja, Mexico, in 1983, a San Diego resident named Ralph Rubio happened upon a hole-in-the-wall taco stand. He sauntered up to a ten-foot counter that had just a few stools and purchased a fish taco from its operator, a man who gave his name as only “Carlos.” It was love at first bite for Rubio. He was so taken with Carlos’ tacos he visited his stand every day. When his vacation ended, Rubio tried to persuade Carlos to move to San Diego and partner with him in a fish taco restaurant in California. Carlos refused. He preferred staying in Mexico.

The Baja vendor did agree, however, to share his recipe with Rubio. Carlos yanked a piece of paper from his wallet, scribbled down his recipe, and passed his secret off to Rubio.

Ralph Rubio returned to San Diego, where he established “Rubio’s—Home of the Fish Taco,” serving Carlos’ no longer secret recipe to Americans. This recipe made Rubio the great white shark of the fish-taco world. Today, Rubio had a chain of 35 restaurants that still serve battered,
fried white fish in warm tortillas.

My family doesn’t eat battered, fried foods. So, I’ve created a fish taco recipe that is just as good as Carlos’ but a bit healthier. They love tomatillos, so I used them to make my salsa. It’s served warm or at room temperature. I also like sprinkling cheese over fish tacos. This recipe calls for manchego, which is a rich, golden, semi-firm cheese that has a full, mellow flavor. If you don’t care for manchego, substitute any cheese you like. Since fish tacos aren’t traditionally served with cheese, you can leave this ingredient out if you prefer.

My family thinks this recipe is so good they’re waiting for Ralph Rubio to eat my creation and ask me to go into business with him, just like he did Carlos.

Carol Ann’s Fish Tacos
Makes 8 Tacos

For the sauce:

½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons of your  favorite spicy mustard

In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, sour cream, and mustard. Cover with plastic wrap
and refrigerate until ready to use.

For the salsa:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound tomatillos, husked, cored and quartered
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup red onion, chopped
1 to 2 fresh jalapeño peppers (or 2 to 3 canned), seeded and minced
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add tomatillos and cook about 5 minutes. Remove, chop, and set aside.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil to the same skillet and sauté onion and jalapeño over medium heat until onion is tender and browned.

Transfer the onion mixture to the tomatillos, add cilantro and lime juice and toss gently to combine. Serve warm or at room temperature.

For the fish:

1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound tilapia, skin removed, or white fish of your choice

In a small bowl, combine chili powder, paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper. Rinse fish and pat dry with paper towels. Transfer fish to a large platter and sprinkle both sides of fish with spice mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit 30 minutes while preparing accompaniments.

For the accompaniments:

4 cups red or green cabbage (about ½ cup per taco), cored and thinly sliced
½ cup green onion, thinly sliced
½ cup red onion, diced
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and chopped
Tomatillo Salsa
Prepared mustard sauce
¼ pound manchego cheese, shredded

To cook fish:

1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Place olive oil in an electric skillet or grill pan over medium heat. When olive oil sizzles, add fish and cook about 2 minutes per side. Fish is done when it flakes easily when pierced with a fork. Break cooked fish into bite-size chunks.

To assemble tacos:

8 (6-inch or taco size) flour or corn tortillas

In a small, clean skillet, place tortillas one at a time over medium heat and warm about 20 to 30 seconds per side.

Place tortilla flat on a plate. Top with cooked fish, cabbage, green and red onion, avocado and tomatillo salsa. Drizzle with mustard sauce and sprinkle with cheese. Serve immediately.

Tips on buying tilapia:  Always buy fresh fish that has been refrigerated or properly iced. The best fish is the freshest, no more than 2 to 3 days out of the water. When shopping for any fresh fish, shop with your eyes and nose. Fresh fish should have a firm texture and moist appearance. Avoid fish that is dry and brown around the edges. Fresh fish never smells “fishy” but has a fresh, mild odor. Fish only smells “fishy” or like ammonia when it starts to decompose.

Storing cilantro: Cilantro will keep 1 week when refrigerated in a plastic bag. To keep cilantro fresher a bit longer, place it in a glass of water, cover with a plastic bag, and secure the bag to the glass with a rubber band. Change the water every 2 to 3 days.

Carol Ann Kates is the author of award-winning, best-selling cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market. For more information visit www.carolannkates.com.

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