Whether you’re observing the last Friday of Lent by abstaining from meat or simply looking for lighter dining options now that spring’s officially launched, take a cue from south-of-the-border: serve grilled fish tacos tonight. (The community fish fry will get along just fine without you.)

In coastal Mexico, from the Baja peninsula to the Yucatán, fish tacos are not so much a recipe as an appetizing equation: fish + wrappers + condiments = fish tacos. Consequently, they’re infinitely customizable.

There’s the protein: impeccably fresh fish, minimally or exuberantly seasoned and served hot off the grill. There’s the wrapper: a warm corn or flour tortilla—sometimes two—preferably handmade by someone who knows their masa on a cast iron comal or tortilla press. There’s usually at least one homemade salsa or relish: perhaps a piquant pico de gallo, a bright-tasting salsa verde, or a refreshing jalapeño-spiked pineapple “salsa.”

Additional accoutrements may include very thinly sliced cabbage or crisp head lettuce, fresh avocado or guacamole, fresh or pickled onions (see tips below), sliced or diced radishes, diced bell peppers, fresh cilantro leaves, hot sauce, and perhaps the cooling touch of grated cheese, sour cream, or Mexican crema. Here are some potential variables for the equation above:

For fish, buy the freshest you can find—off the boat if possible. Or make friends with your local fishmonger. Freshness is more important than species. I personally prefer seafood that is wild-caught and sustainable. (For guidance, go to seafoodwatch.org. They even have a downloadable app.) You can buy boneless skinless fillets or even whole fish, gutted and scaled. For the grill, firmer-textured fish works best. Good choices include grouper, mahi mahi, salmon, monkfish, arctic char, cod, swordfish, red snapper, tuna, and sea bass. Lobster and shrimp make excellent tacos, too. (Find my recipe for fiery Green Lightning Shrimp Tacos here.) To serve 4, figure on at least 1 1/2 pounds of seafood.

Prepare any condiments. Chop cabbage or lettuce or other vegetables. Make a salsa or relish. Transfer sour cream or Mexican crema, if using, to a bowl or food-safe squirt bottle.

Immediately before grilling, season the fish or shellfish with coarse salt or your favorite seafood-friendly rub, like my Ragin’ Cajun, a kind of blackening spice mixture. Alternatively, you can drizzle the fish with olive oil or fresh lime juice or orange juice before seasoning. You can also marinate it for up to 30 minutes. For more options, check out my book Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades (Workman, 2000).

If you’re almost ready to cook but are worried that the fish will stick to the grill grate, know there are several things you can do to prevent that from happening. First, preheat your grill to high. Let it get good and hot. Second, brush the grill grate with a sturdy grill brush and oil it well with a grill oiler or a folded paper towel clasped in long-handled tongs. An all-purpose stainless steel mesh grilling basketor a basket made specifically for whole fish enables you to easily turn seafood without sacrificing any to the grill gods. 

While the fish cooks, quickly warm tortillas (corn or flour—your choice) on the grill and keep warm, covered tightly with foil, until ready to serve.

I like to lay out all the ingredients, taco bar style, so guests can assemble their own tacos. Include a bowl of lime wedges for squeezing on the tacos or for embellishing ice-cold longneck cervezas. Rice and refried beans optional.


  1. Wrap fresh fish in plastic wrap and store over a pan of ice in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to a day.
  2. Though it appears to be a sturdy fish in the seafood case (and makes great fish tacos), cod has a tendency to break into big flakes when exposed to the high heat of the grill. Use a mesh grilling basket or screen when grilling cod, or lay it on top of an oiled piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
  3. Make fresh salsas, like pico de gallo, no more than 2 hours before serving.
  4. Quick pickle onions for a crunchy and colorful taco accompaniment: Peel and halve a large red onion lengthwise, then thinly slice it crosswise. Place in a saucepan with 1 cup of water, 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil, then cool. Refrigerate in a covered jar for up to 1 week.
  5. Smoke or chargrill vegetables before using them in salsas or relishes for over-the-top flavor.
  6. Do not marinate fish or shellfish for more than 30 minutes or the acids in the marinade will begin to “cook” the proteins. (Think ceviche.)
  7. Use leaves of butter lettuce or romaine as alternative wrappers to corn and flour tortillas; they are especially good with Asian-influenced tacos. Try them if you make my Korean Fish Tacos, which were inspired by one of Korea’s most popular dishes, bool gogi.
  8. Use a mandolin for professional-looking shredded cabbage. A mix of red and green looks attractive on the plate.
  9. Brining for as little as 15 minutes improves the flavor and texture of shrimp. Make a brine by combining 1 cup of boiling water with 1/4 cup of kosher salt and 2 tablespoons of sugar (optional) in a large heatproof bowl. Stir until the salt and sugar, if using, dissolves. Stir in 2 cups of crushed ice and up to 2 pounds of shrimp. Brine for 15 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water, drain again, and pat dry before cooking.
  10. If using sour cream or Mexican crema (available at Hispanic markets or online), flavor them with ingredients like lime juice, ripe avocado, chipotle chiles in adobo, fresh cilantro, and/or your favorite hot sauce.

Originally published in barbecuebible.com

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