I missed my one chance at San Diego's famous fish tacos. Back when I was a fledgling food fanatic, I made my lone visit to San Diego. I didn't know there was such a thing as a fish taco. That is, until I got home. Then, every magazine I read for the next year had an article about the glories of fish tacos. Doh! I had to learn to make them myself, to find out what I had missed.
Nowadays, instead of the traditional fried version, I grill my fish tacos. Mahi-mahi is my fish of choice. It is sustainable (according to Seafood Watch), easy to find in my local stores, and relatively inexpensive. Mahi-mahi is a firm fleshed white fish with a neutral taste; it works well as a carrier for spice rubs, and the firm flesh does not disintegrate when I flip it on the grill.
Mahi-mahi's neutral taste (read: bland) needs some help. I like my meal to have some punch, so I rub the fish with spices, including chipotle chile powder to bring some heat. Fish tacos are always served with cabbage slaw, and I can see why - the cabbage adds a nice crunch and even more flavor. (I make the slaw with a creamy dressing to simulate the traditional crema and lime topping.) Serve everything in a tortilla, top with salsa or hot sauce, and the fish taco is ready to go.
Why is cabbage slaw traditional with fish tacos? This question gnawed at me for years...until I read the answer, and then it was obvious. Fish tacos originated on the Baja coast of Mexico, before migrating north to San Diego. The little shacks serving fish tacos on the beach don't have refrigeration, and cabbage will hold up much better than, say, lettuce, which would wilt in the heat. Voila - cabbage slaw.
Recipe: Grilled Mahi-Mahi Fish Tacos with Red Cabbage Slaw
Inspired By: Karen Adler and Judith Fertig Fish and Shellfish, Grilled and Smoked
Cook time: 10 minutes
- 4 mahi-mahi fillets (each 8 ounces; about 2 pounds of fish)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt (½ teaspoon per fillet)
- 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons ground ancho pepper powder
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground chipotle powder
- ½ teaspoon brown sugar
- Juice from ½ lime
Red Cabbage Slaw
- 2 tablespoons lime juice (about 2 limes)
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- 1 clove garlic, minced (or pressed through a garlic press)
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pound red cabbage, thinly sliced (1 small head of cabbage)
- ½ medium onion, thinly sliced
- 1 Serrano pepper, halved and thinly sliced
- ¼ cup minced cilantro
- tortillas (You can't have tacos without tortillas!)
- avocado slices
- sliced Serrano (or jalapeno) peppers
- Mexican hot sauce
*For an overview on grilling fish, see my Grilled Barramundi recipe.
1. Prepare the grill: Start by setting the grill up for cooking with direct high heat. Preheat the grill for 15 minutes, then clean the grill grate thoroughly. For my Weber Summit, I turn all the burners to high and wait fifteen minutes. Then I brush the grate with my grill brush, and wipe the grate with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil.
2. Prepare the mahi-mahi: While the grill is preheating, sprinkle the mahi-mahi filets with the salt, black pepper. Mix the ancho pepper, cumin, chipotle pepper, and brown sugar in a small bowl, then rub the spice mix evenly over the flesh side of the fish.
3. Prepare the red cabbage slaw: In a large bowl, whisk the lime juice, brown sugar, salt, pepper, and garlic until the salt and sugar dissolve. Add the mayonnaise and olive oil, and whisk into a smooth dressing. Add the red cabbage, onion, serrano pepper and cilantro to the bowl, and toss until evenly coated by the dressing.
4. Grill the mahi-mahi: Place the mahi-mahi on the grill over direct high heat, flesh side down. Grill for four minutes, then gently work a spatula under the mahi-mahi and flip skin side down. Grill for four to six more minutes, until the mahi-mahi is just opaque in the thickest part; I peek in the natural seam that runs through the fillet with a paring knife. It is OK to let it cook longer on this side; the skin will protect the fish from burning. Once the fish is cooked through, gently work a spatula under the mahi-mahi and move to a platter. Drizzle the fish with the juice from half a lime.
5. Serve: Serve, passing the tortillas and red cabbage slaw at the table. To eat, break large chunks of mahi-mahi from the fillets using a fork, and pile them on top of a tortilla. Top with the red cabbage slaw, whatever other toppings you like, and dig in.
*Other fish: Any firm fleshed white fish works with this recipe.
*Cabbage: I used red cabbage because I like the color in my pictures. I often use napa cabbage in this recipe, and green cabbage also works.
*The cooking time is based upon 1 ½ inch thick mahi-mahi filets, which took ten minutes to cook through. If the fillets are 1 inch thick, they should only take about six to eight minutes total. (And, thank you to BayLobsters Fish Market in Twinsburg for the wonderful Mahi-mahi filets.)
What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.
Karen Adler and Judith Fertig Fish and Shellfish, Grilled and Smoked
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