Cinco de Mayo es muy circa. Yeah, that’s right. This is what 3 years of Spanish in high school got me. Well…that, and “dos cervezas por favor”. And one thing we can all pretty much agree upon. Me gusta los tacos!
Those who know me well and have frequented The Shavens Tiki Bar for dinner and drinks (don’t search this on Google Maps…it’s what we call our lanai), this fish taco recipe is legendary. I actually feel a little awkward posting this in conjunction with Cinco de Mayo as its roots come not from Mexico, but the little Hawaiian Island of Maui. Specifically, the “Fresh Fish Tacos” from Leilani’s in Ka’anapali.
I discovered these culinary wonders while producing the Big Break Ka’anapali series for Golf Channel back in 2008. Up ’till then, I had never had, nor entertained the idea of, consuming a fish taco. I’m a New England guy. There’s not a deep taco tradition up there. Seafood, yes. Tacos, not so much. Your typical options were beef, chicken or pork (all good options!). Now, I’m sure this has changed since my formative years, but growing up, the “fish taco” was a decidedly Cali creation. And that was nothin’ but wicked namby pamby gaaaahbage.
Time, age and worldliness has a way of adjusting one’s outlook on things. And let me tell ya, these tacos from Leilani’s were a life changer. I mean, the whole crew would eat these things for 2 weeks straight and continue to crave ’em upon returning to the mainland. Hell, when my wife and I went to Hawaii the year before we got married, we made a point to go to Leilani’s for the fish tacos.
Since Hawaii isn’t necessarily a readily-accessible destination for us common folk, I needed to figure out how to replicate this back in the good ol’ FLA. Which I did. Sorta. I would come close, but they were never quite the same. It was from these initial copycat efforts, though, where I began to sample with different flavor/ingredient combos until I came up with a taco that supplants Leilani’s as THE best fish tacos. Period.
- 3 tbsp. Light Olive Oil
- 2 – 6 to 8 oz Tilapia or Grouper Fillets (or whatever your favorite mild whitefish is)
- 4 tbsp Blackening Spice (recipe to follow)
- 4 – 6 La Tortilla Factory brand White Corn Tortillas (depends on how “stuffed” you want your tacos)
- Juice of 1 Lime
- 8 tsp (approx) Finely Chopped Cilantro
- 1 Avocado (diced)
- Shredded Cheese (4 Cheese Mexican Blend works great)
- Uncle Ben’s Santa Fe Ready Brown Rice (yup, believe it or not this stuff is KEY)
- Frontera Double Roasted Tomato Salsa (THE best salsa)
- Finely Diced or Shredded Cabbage
- Cholula, to taste (optional, but highly recommended)
BLACKENING SPICE (measurements approximate, but are in the correct proportion)
- 1 tsp. Season Salt (use Lawry’s…it’s the best, Jerry)
- 1 tsp. Onion Powder
- 1 tsp. Garlic Powder
- 1 tsp. Fresh Ground Pepper
- 1 tsp. Ground Cumin
- 1 tsp. Chili Powder
- 1 tsp. Ground Coriander
- 1 tsp. Fresh Market Blackened Spice (basically, it contains salt, garlic, black pepper, thyme, oregano, cayanne and paprika)
LET’S BUILD THEM TACOS!
Start off by prepping your accoutrements. Lightly toast your tortillas in a dry skillet over medium heat, or in a toaster oven. Chop your cilantro. Shred or finely chop the Cabbage. Microwave (GASP!!) the rice according to package directions.
Meanwhile, heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high to high heat. You’re gonna want a very hot pan to, well, blacken the fish. If you’re using a slightly thicker fillet (like Grouper), you may want to keep the heat around medium-high so you can cook the fish all the way thru without burning the spice mixture (it’s a very fine line when “blackening” any form of protein). While your pan heats up, liberally season each side of the fish fillets with the blackening spice. I like to use a fairly generous helping of the spice mixture. That’s just how I roll.
Once your pan is nice and toasty, add the olive oil and the fish fillets. In the case of Tilapia (or any other thin fillet), the cook time is REALLY fast. Like 2-minutes-per-side fast. You’ll know it’s time to flip when the spice mixture turns a very dark brown (nearly black…hence BLACKENING spice). You’ll know the fish is cooked when it starts to flake easily by pressing down lightly on the thickest part.
Once the fillets are cooked, remove the pan from the heat, sprinkle about 2 tsp of the chopped cilantro onto the fish, squeeze the juice from half of that lime into the hot pan (it will make an ever satisfying sizzle) and start breaking apart the fish into bite size chunks while combining it with the cilantro and lime. Set the pan aside and start constructing the tacos. Now, here’s how I do it and I suggest you copy this step-by-step if you truly want THE best fish tacos. After all, it’s all in the details. Amirite?!
Place the warmed tortillas onto individual plates and sprinkle with cheese, add about 1 tbsp of rice to each one and top that with the fish (about 1-2 tbsp each), drizzle with a little Cholula and salsa, top with some avocado, cabbage, cilantro and a squeeze of lime (in that order).
BEWARE: These are messy. These are delicious. These are the perfect fish tacos.
Normally, this is where I’d give you a beer pairing with elaborate tasting notes and what not. Well, for this…uh, not so much. Grab a Corona and enjoy. OR just take a shot or two of Pickle Tequila. I’ve already showed ya how to do that one.