Change up the Taco Game

Fish tacos are simple, refreshing, and perfect for summer
June 19, 2019 Updated: June 19, 2019

Simple and clean fish tacos are a fabulous change of pace from meat tacos, and a choice of toppings makes them even more terrific.

My kids have had such a love affair with the meat-filled variety—ground turkey, beef, pork, chicken—that it caused me some apprehension to rock the boat with fish tacos. Fish impinging on taco territory? That was looking for trouble.

The first time they encountered a fish taco was in Florida, at an open-air restaurant near the ocean, and they happened to be extremely hungry. I ordered the fish tacos, and after cajoling them to take a bite, a second bite followed and suddenly my fish tacos were gone and we had to order another round. So lo and behold, fish entered the taco lexicon. We are now an equal opportunity taco family.

Even now that my kids are much older, when they ask what’s for dinner and the answer is “fish,” it’s greeted much more enthusiastically when the word “taco” is attached.

Building Your Tacos

You can use any flaky white fish to make these tacos, and if you can find fish from Alaska, grab it. Pollack, cod, black sable, halibut … Alaskan seafood is amazing. And as we all focus more and more on responsible seafood consumption, supporting Alaska’s very sustainability-oriented fishing industry is a seriously delicious and smart thing to do.  

The quick, tart cabbage slaw makes these tacos. It can be made just before you cook the fish, and even the short time that the cabbage marinates in the citrus-based dressing transforms it into a nice, pickled topping. The dressed cabbage can be made a day ahead of time and refrigerated, covered.  

If you have an avocado and an extra five minutes, make the avocado crema, which is simply a silky puree of avocado, lime juice, and sour cream (or Greek yogurt or crème fraiche). You must have a ripe avocado for this; you can speed up the avocado ripening process to placing them in brown paper bags, folding down the top, and leaving them on the counter. Toss a banana into the bag to speed up the process even more. If you wanted to throw a small handful of fresh cilantro leaves into the blender or food processor with the other crema ingredients, that would be a great addition.

To warm corn or flour tortillas, you have a few choices. The best option, if you have time, is to warm tortillas individually for about 20 seconds on each side in a dry skillet over medium-high heat, until they start to brown lightly in spots. This brief pan-toasting brings out the flavor of the tortillas really nicely. This is particularly noticeable with corn tortillas. If circumstances allow, you should definitely also try grilling them, giving them about 15 seconds on each side, directly on the grill rack.

A quicker method is to wrap a stack of up to 12 tortillas in a very slightly dampened clean dish towel or paper towel and microwave 45 to 90 seconds, until heated through. You can heat a few wrapped stacks at once, side by side, but add 10 seconds for each stack. You can also wrap them in a slightly damp paper towel and then in aluminum foil and heat them in a 350 to 400 degree F oven for five to eight minutes.

The fish is best made right before serving, but leftover cooked fish can be refrigerated and quickly warmed in the microwave the next day.

Soft shell crab tacos. (Courtesy of Toloache)
Soft shell crab tacos. (Courtesy of Toloache)

What the Kids Can Do

Kids can help select toppings, sprinkle the fish with seasonings, toss the cabbage with the dressing, and dice or slice the avocado with an age-appropriate knife. They can also assemble their own tacos, selecting additional toppings as they please.  

For the crema, they can peel and cut up the avocado, juice the citrus, and blend in a food processor with supervision.

A Note on Sustainable Seafood

Did you know that Alaska is the only state with a mandate for sustainable seafood written right into its State Constitution? And amazingly, about half of the wild-caught seafood in the United States comes from Alaska, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.  

Each year, scientists conduct surveys of the available fish and shellfish and use this data to calculate conservative catch limits—Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC). Then, fishery managers set harvest quotas—Total Allowable Catch (TAC)—that never exceed the sustainable ABC. All of this is to prevent overfishing, and to ensure that the seafood supplies in the surrounding waters continue to thrive.

You can view a list of the best and worst fish and seafood, in terms of sustainability, to make conscientious choices about what to buy and eat at

Fish Tacos

Serves 4 to 6

For the tacos:

  • 4 cups very thinly shredded cabbage, preferably napa
  • 2 tablespoons cider or rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons canola or vegetable oil, divided
  • Kosher or coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 1/2 pounds flaky white fish fillets, such as cod, halibut, or red snapper, cut into about 3/4-inch-thick slices
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice (from about half a lime)
  • 12 corn or flour tortillas (6 inches in diameter)

To serve (pick and choose):

  • Diced or sliced avocado
  • Fresh cilantro leaves
  • Thinly slivered red onion
  • Lime wedges
  • Tomatillo or regular salsa, and/or pico de gallo
  • Sour cream or avocado crema (recipe follows)

In a medium-sized bowl, toss the cabbage with the vinegar and 2 teaspoons of the oil, and season generously with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Sprinkle the pieces of fish all over with the cumin, chili powder, salt, and pepper.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, swish it around, then add the fish without crowding (in batches if necessary), and cook until cooked through, turning it as needed, about 5 minutes in all. The pieces may fall apart a little as you cook them; that’s perfectly fine. Remove with a slotted spoon or spatula and place them on a serving plate and sprinkle with the lime juice.

Just before serving, warm the tortillas, either in a pan, in the microwave, or in the oven (see above for more details). Place them on a plate and cover them with a clean dish towel to keep them warm.

Place the toppings you like in individual bowls. Serve the warm tortillas with the fish, cabbage, and toppings and let everyone assemble their own tacos.

Avocado Crema

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

  • 1 avocado, preferably Hass, peeled, pitted, and cut into chunks
  • 1/2 cup sour cream, crème fraîche, or plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon or lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher or coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place the avocado, sour cream, juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth.

Katie Workman is a food writer and recipe developer in New York City. She writes the popular blog, contributes to many publications, and has written two cookbooks: “The Mom 100 Cookbook” and “Dinner Solved!”