Fish tacos—batter-fried fillets, topped with cabbage, white sauce, pico de gallo, and red salsa—are possibly the most well-known street food of northern Baja. In Ensenada, fishermen unload from their panga boats hauls of premium fish such as yellowtail and grouper, plus bycatch including small sharks such as angelito (angel shark) and cazón (dogfish). The shark fillets sell very cheaply on the local market, and as a result, fish tacos—made from this exquisitely fresh fish—sell for around a dollar on the streets in town.
In the United States, unless you live near a commercial fishing operation, you probably won’t have a local surplus of small sharks. But you can make a comparably delicious—albeit much more expensive—version using a meaty white fish such as halibut. Or, if you have a good source of shrimp, you can authentically use that; most fish-taco stands in Ensenada also offer the same taco with fried shrimp.
When you make these at home, here’s one little trick to replicate authentic Ensenada street-food style—first, fry all of your fish strips and then, right before you put each piece of fish in a tortilla to serve, dunk that piece back in the hot oil for thirty seconds or so. That second time in the frying pot will crisp its outside and give it the “fresh from the fryer” sensation that really pops!
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Beer-battered fish tacos with cabbage and white sauce
For the beer batter
- 2½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for drying the fish
- ⅔ cups cornstarch
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp yellow mustard
- ¼ cup fresh Mexican oregano, chopped
- 12 oz bottle beer, preferably a Mexican pilsner such as Pacifico or Bohemia Clara
- 2 to 4 cups frying oil, lard is traditional, but any frying oil will do
- 1 pound shark or meaty white fish such as cod or halibut, cut into 10 pieces, each between 1 and 2 ounces and about the size of a lumberjack’s finger, or 1 pound large shrimp (no smaller than 26/30 size)
- 10 corn tortillas
- ½ head green cabbage, shredded
- Baja white sauce, see recipe below
- tangy red salsa, see recipe below
- pico de gallo, see recipe below
- 4 limes, cut into wedges
- To make the beer batter: Combine the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, mustard, and oregano in a large bowl. Mix well.
- Add the beer to the bowl and stir to combine. (Depending on the flour and other circumstances, you may need to adjust the amount a little from what’s stated in the ingredient list. You know you have the right amount of beer mixed in when you start to see small reflective ribbons in the batter. The best situation is if you need just a tiny bit more than one bottle of beer, so you have almost a full bottle remaining that you then must drink while cooking.)
- Push the batter through a fine-mesh strainer into a small casserole dish or serving-size bowl. Discard the solids.
- Put the frying oil in a wok or Dutch oven. You will need enough oil to fully cover the battered fish pieces. Heat the oil to 365°F. Line a plate with paper towels.
- Dry the raw fish pieces with paper towels, then lightly flour them, just enough to wick away any remaining moisture.
- One by one, dredge each piece of fish in the batter. The batter should fully coat the fish and hang off it a little. Working in batches as needed so as not to crowd the pan, submerge the fish in the oil and fry the pieces until golden brown, 4 to 8 minutes. Remove each piece of fish from the oil and set it on the paper towel–lined plate.
- Heat the tortillas on your grill or in a pan. (You can use a comal or plancha if you have one.) Don’t use any oil on the tortillas.
- Place one piece of fish in each tortilla. If using shrimp, use two to three per tortilla, making sure to distribute them more or less equally across each taco. For maximum authenticity, let each diner apply the cabbage, white sauce, red salsa, and pico de gallo to their own tacos according to their taste. Put a lime wedge on the side of each plate when serving.
Baja White Sauce
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- ½ cup Mexican crema, or 1⁄4 cup cultured buttermilk and 1⁄4 cup heavy cream
- Juice of 1 lime
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- Put the mayonnaise, crema, lime juice, and pepper in a bowl and whisk. Add the salt, adjusting to taste, while whisking as needed. The final sauce should be thin enough to easily spoon (or to dispense from a squeeze bottle as they do at the taco stands) but thick enough that, once dispensed, it sits firmly in place and doesn’t run off the fish.
Tangy red salsa
- 2 dried arbol chiles
- 4 dried guajillo chiles
- ¼ cup neutral cooking oil, such as canola oil or grapeseed oil, or as needed
- ½ red onion, peeled and quartered
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 large tomato, or 2 small tomatoes, stemmed and quartered
- Juice of 3 limes
- ¼ bunch cilantro
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- Stem all the chiles and then pour out and discard the seeds. You don’t have to worry about getting every last seed removed; it’s fine if some end up in the salsa.
- Warm the cooking oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Make sure the oil is at least 1⁄16 inch deep—a little more than just a coating.
- Once the oil is hot, add the chiles. Stir them continually so they cook evenly until they are soft, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the onion and garlic and continue to stir lightly about 5 minutes more, enough to soften them and infuse the oil with their flavor. Add the tomato and cook just until warm, about 3 minutes more.
- Remove the pan from the heat and put its contents in a blender or food processor. Add the lime juice and cilantro and blend until smooth. If the consistency stays lumpier than you would like, add water as needed. Season with salt and pepper and blend a little longer.
- If you like a very smooth salsa, you can strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve at this point.
- Let the salsa cool to room temperature. Serve immediately or store in the fridge for up to 1 week
Pico de gallo
- Juice of 2 limes
- 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ bunch cilantro
- 1 serrano chile
- 1 onion, peeled
- 2 tomatoes, stemmed
- Kosher salt
- black pepper
- With a fork, mix the lime juice and olive oil in a small bowl or glass and then set aside.
- Remove the heavy stem bases of the cilantro. Chop the remaining leaves and thin stems as fine as you can without trying particularly hard. (You wouldn’t want any stress to make its way into the dish.)
- Remove the stem of the chile. If you’d like to make sure the pico de gallo isn’t very spicy, also slice the chile lengthwise and remove the seeds, ribs, and pith. (Be sure not to touch your eyes afterward or it will burn!) After the chile is stemmed and optionally de-ribbed and seeded, cut it into a very fine dice.
- Cut the onion and tomatoes into pieces 1⁄3 inch per side or less; I think 1⁄4 inch per side is ideal.
- Put the tomatoes, onion, and chile in a large bowl and toss them together, seasoning with salt and pepper. Add the lime juice mixture and toss a little more. Use immediately or keep in the fridge for up to 1 week.
Reprinted with permission from The Baja California Cookbook by David Castro Hussong & Jay Porter, copyright © 2020. Photographs by Oriana Koren. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.