Discovering fish tacos


A few weeks ago, I wrote that some of the very best food that my wife S and I ate while visiting California on our recent trip were a number of fish tacos. Truth be told, devouring this deceptively simple but delicious dish was no accident. Because we were going to be in Orange County for two days, we had very purposely decided to set aside some time to go searching for some (good) fish tacos.

I first heard about fish tacos from my brother. He’s lived in both Los Angeles and San Diego and became particularly fond of them when living in the latter, where they are especially popular. He talks about them with the same passion and obsession he reserves for only a few other foods. A few years later, I read a wonderful essay about fish tacos in Calvin Trillin’s excellent Feeding a Yen, one of the books that I recommended in a previous post. Having never had one, I became particularly intent on tasting one at some point in my life.

On a particularly gorgeous Spring day, armed with a map of the stretch of Orange County between Newport Beach and Dana Point and a few recommendations from a really nice guy we met in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Laguna-Niguel and the hotel’s concierge, S and I set off in our rented convertible for our first taste of fish taco. Our first stop was a small, clean and busy branch of Baja Fish Tacos, located in a mini-mall off of Crown Valley Parkway. We tried a blackened fish taco and a charbroiled fish taco. After scarfing these down, we jumped in our car and made our way over to Papa’s Taco’s (31622 Pacific Coast Highway, Tel: +19494999822), a cute and very popular roadside eatery just a few minutes away. We had a fish taco (of course) and, at the recommendation of the staff, also ordered a shredded beef taco. Once these had found their ways into our bellies, we drove over to La Sirena Grill (347 Mermaid, Tel: +19494978266; 30862 S. Coast Hwy; Tel: +19494992301), a rather up-market, organic cafe and devoured three more tacos: fish, pulled pork and chicken. We washed these down with a watermelon-strawberry juice and a delicious, rather chi-chi version of Horchata, which had been spiked with organic milk.


All the fish tacos we tried were great. I was surprised though that at all three places we visited, there weren’t any tacos made with fried fish on the menu. Both the tacos that my brother spoke of and the tacos that Trillin had written about were made with battered and deep-fried fish. All the tacos that we tried were made with grilled fish. S enjoyed the charbroiled fish taco from Baja Fish Tacos the most. I liked the one at Papa’s Taco’s best. I also liked this place the most in general. It has a fantastic, local and laid-back vibe that you just can’t fake. While S loved the beef tacos at Papa’s, for overall experience, she’d pick the rather yuppie-ish La Sirena Grill.

I’ve asked a very talented buddy of mine, Chef Ashley James, Executive Chef of the Four Seasons Beverly Hills to share his recipe for fish tacos with us. Ashley worked in Singapore years ago as the head chef at Maxim’s, which was at the Regent Hotel. He’s a wizard chef and has spent a lot of time in Latin America. He serves his rather exceptionally delicious version, made with Mahi Mahi, at his hotel’s poolside cafe. S and I had them one day for lunch and they were pretty darned outstanding. I’m really glad he’s given us this recipe –I think, though, I made quite a pest of myself. I emailed him repeatedly, asking him for it, for two weeks straight. Anyway, I hope some of you try it and enjoy eating these as much as I did discovering them. (Sadly, I can’t get anchiote paste in Singapore, so I won’t be making this anytime soon!)

Mahi Mahi Fish Tacos
Yield 4 servings 3 tacos each

12 corn tortillas
1 pound Mahi Mahi, sliced into thick 1 cm slices
(if you can’t get Mahi Mahi, you can use mackerel, tuna, bluefish, mako shark, pompano, swordfish, or any other grilling fish, adjusting the cooking times accordingly)
Tapatilo hot sauce, to taste
Olive oil
Lemon juice, to taste
Salt and pepper
Shredded cabbage, to taste
Julienne of crispy tortillas
4 ounces chopped cilantro
Lime wedges

Achiote marinade sauce
½ onion chopped
2 ounces red achiote paste
1 piece of chopped garlic
2 tablespoons chipotle chile
1 cup orange juice
1 cup grapefruit juice

Pico de gallo
3 ripe Roma tomatoes, diced
½ chopped onion
2 limes juiced
1 chopped jalapeno
½ bunch chopped cilantro

Marinate fish in the achiote sauce and place in the refrigerator for 4 hours. Heat a nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat. When warm, add 2 teaspoons of olive oil and coat the pan evenly. When the oil starts to smoke, add the fish and sauté gently; avoid pushing the fish around too much as this will cause the fish to break up. When the fish is almost done, deglaze the pan with the pico de gallo. Season with salt, pepper, and Tapatilo. On a warm griddle, heat the corn tortillas for a couple minutes on each side. In a bowl, add the shredded cabbage and mix in lemon juice, salt, pepper, and olive oil. Place the seasoned cabbage in the warm tortilla. Add the cooked fish and include any juices left in the pan. Garnish the tacos with a julienne of crispy tortillas and chopped cilantro. Serve fresh guacamole and lime wedges on the side.

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his three kids!