Thanks to a number of driving forces, the fish taco continues to demonstrate serious menu potential. At the perfect apex of the bar-snack trend and flavor-forward seafood momentum, chefs are treating the fish taco with the same thoughtfulness we’re seeing in better burger builds and signature fried chicken sandwiches. Customization is helping propel creativity, as is a world of possibilities in texture and flavor play. Restaurants like Fish Camp in Huntington Beach, Calif., offer customized fish tacos, where guests can choose from 14 species, like halibut or catfish or mahi-mahi. The menu also provides flexibility on technique—from blackened to a la plancha to crusted. At Hello Betty Fish House in Oceanside, Calif., every element is carefully considered, ensuring a craveable experience. “The fish taco is all about the fish,” says Jared Hills, executive chef. “It’s meant to showcase your fresh catch of the day—only to be enhanced by your favorite salsa and crisp vegetables.” Here, he highlights the four components that make up an optimal fish taco build.
Innovation In The Details
Chefs are looking at the fish taco today like they did at the burger 10 years ago—seeing opportunity for premium touches, flavor building and storytelling. We’re even seeing a play in flavor systems, where chefs are applying proven ingredient combinations to fish taco development. As evidence, look to the Al Pastor Taco at Kanaloa Seafood in Oxnard, Calif., which subs in marinated shrimp for the traditional pork, rounding out the profile with grilled pineapple, pickled red onion, cabbage, cilantro, chimichurri crema and queso fresco.
At Taqueria Del Sol, with four locations in Atlanta, Eddie Hernandez, executive chef, pulls from everywhere for inspiration. His fish taco stars tilapia dipped in an egg wash rolled in corn masa and bread crumbs. Poblano tartar sauce and pickled jalapeños add bold flavor and a side of jalapeño coleslaw adds a cool-crisp accompaniment.
The Main Feature
Applying creative flavoring and technique treatments to the protein itself sets the foundation for the overall taco build and gives the star of the show more flavor play.
- Blackened tilapia with creamy chipotle sauce, salsa fresca, and cilantro jalapeño slaw
—Rubio’s, multiple locations
- Pan-fried tuna cubes with arugula, avocado, celery aïoli, habanero-lime confit
—Bien Trucha, Geneva, Ill.
- Mesquite-grilled shrimp with cabbage, cheese, pico de gallo, sauce
—Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, multiple locations
- Kalbi-marinated salmon with kimchi aïoli, pickled cucumber, cilantro slaw, red chile sesame salsa
—Kanaloa Seafood, Oxnard, Calif.
- Lightly breaded fresh lobster with chile ancho sauce, black beans and creamy chipotle-lime coleslaw
—Los Tacos by Chef Omar, Boca Raton, Fla.
Modern Taco Twists
Today’s fish tacos hook diners with developed layers of flavor and signature approaches. Here is just a sampling of the ways chefs are folding surprise elements into this Baja classic:
- Crunchy Fish Taco: Southern encrusted whitefish, creamy apple slaw, chile aïoli, purple cabbage
—The Peached Tortilla, Austin, Texas
- Seared Fish Taco: Alaskan cod, cabbage slaw, roasted poblano crema, pineapple pico de gallo and chile-lime tortilla strips
- Sambal Fish Taco: Tempura fish, pickled red onions, napa slaw, sambal aïoli, flour tortilla
—Del Seoul, Chicago
- Thai Fish Tacos: Sesame seasoned and grilled white fish filet, Thai chile purple slaw, wasabi aïoli and steamed yellow rice
—The Golden Lion Cafe, Flagler Beach, Fla.
- Seasonal Fish Taco: Chile rubbed and blackened, poblano radish slaw, chile lime mayo, Cotija cheese, served on organic white corn tortillas
—Uno Más Taqueria, Denver, Colo.
- The Scallywag: Tender coconut-battered shrimp, bacon, green chiles, shredded cheese and pickled onions, topped with homemade habanero-peach jam and cilantro; served on a flour tortilla
—Torchy’s Tacos, multiple locations
The Next Fish Taco?
We’re seeing octopus making its way into more casual formats, as in a calamari presentation or octopus bar bites, for instance. Tacos may be the next frontier, upping the adventure while tucked into a familiar carrier. And although octopus may be a step too far for some consumers, its growing presence demonstrates an eagerness for flavor discovery.
- Pulpito Taco: Sautéed octopus, pimiento morita-mojo, crispy beets, avocado smash
—A Toda Madre, Glen Ellyn, Ill.
- Grilled Octopus Taco topped with earthy chile de árbol, peanuts, Jack cheese and avocado
—Petty Cash Taqueria, Los Angeles
The fish carries the day in a fish taco, but the supporting characters lend crucial flavor and textural balance. The modern fish taco isn’t about heat—it’s about contrast. Crunchy slaws with acidic notes or long, creamy finishes. Sauces or drizzles that add savory depth or cooling tones. And the flourish of a pickled ingredient both wakes up the palate while playing against the tender bite of the fish—even when that fish is enrobed in a crispy, craveable batter.
Kick Up The Sauce
The pathway to differentiation may lie in the sauce—or the drizzle, salsa or crema. Intriguing ideas include:
- Peanut sauce spiked with sambal
- Green harissa with mint chutney
- Grapefruit-jalapeño salsa
- Blistered peach-cilantro salsa
- Avocado-Greek yogurt crema
- Mango-radish pico de gallo
- Charred Serrano aïoli
Slaw’s crunchy texture and bright acidity make it a natural topping for a fish taco, complementing the soft bite of the fish. Here are a few flavor-forward variations:
- Kimchi slaw
- Beet-cabbage slaw with orange-peel vinaigrette
- Turnip-carrot slaw with turmeric-Greek yogurt dressing
- Parsnip-apple slaw with apple cider mayo
- Jicama-red cabbage slaw with lime-cilantro vinaigrette
- Kohlrabi-celery slaw with whole-grain mustard mayo
- Carrot-dill slaw with spiced honey vinaigrette
The fish taco practically calls out for a pickled garnish. The tangy topping can bring a certain regionality or it can simply crown the taco as a modern American build.
- Pickled watermelon rinds
- Pickled okra & red chiles
- Pickled jalapeño & carrots
- Pickled radish & cucumber
- Pickled pear with ginger
- Pickled peach & Fresno chiles