When I'm making fish tacos, I'll take them crunchy and fried over grilled any day. Grilled fish tacos always just seemed like a sad, semi-health-conscious replacement to me. Like ordering a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a fried chicken sandwich or a light beer instead of a regular. Tacos have never been health food, so why pretend they are?
All that was before I had the incredible whole roasted snook tacos at Coni'Seafood in Inglewood, California, part of our 25-bite tour of LA It made me realize what had been wrong with every grilled fish taco I'd eaten up to then: portioning. Specifically, portioning before grilling is the problem.
At Coni'Seafood, a Sinaloan Mexican restaurant, you order your fish whole. It comes butterflied and grilled on a large tray, allowing you to pick at the juicy, succulent meat with your fingers, stuffing it into warm tortillas as you go.
I don't know why it never occurred to me to grill fish whole for tacos. Fish are almost universally better when grilled whole. Grilling fish fillets is tricky business. First, there's the inevitable sticking issue. Second, it's really hard to nail that just-cooked-through-but-not-yet-dry texture.
Grilling whole solves these problems, making the whole process easier (and usually cheaper to boot!). Skin and bones act as heat buffers, ensuring that you have a plenty-large window of time to take your fish off before it starts to overcook. That skin also makes it far easier to flip the fish on the grill than bare flesh, and even if a bit of skin sticks to the grill and tears, who cares? Just serve the fish with that side facing down.
I originally toyed with butterflying the fish, as they do at Coni', but it proved to be far too unwieldy to do well without considerable practice and a bit of special equipment. Instead, I decided to go with the method that Daniel demonstrated in his guide to grilling whole fish, changing up the flavors to work better with my tacos.
I seasoned my fish (the fish in the photos is a red mullet; I also tried it with a whole red snapper and a branzino, with good results) with salt, pepper, ancho chili powder, cumin, lime juice, and olive oil, then stuffed its cavity with lime slices and cilantro before placing it on the grill to cook.
As soon as the flesh flaked away easily from the bone, it was ready. (And yes, I poked my fork right into it, presentation be damned!)
I topped the whole thing off with a quick lime vinaigrette I flavored with tons of cilantro, chilies, and scallions, and served it with cucumber slices, lime wedges, some cucumber pico de gallo, and a stack of warm tortillas.
You can use your fork to get the meat off the bones, but I find that fish tastes even better when you pick it with your fingertips. The last scraps of a tortilla form perfect, edible napkins.
Don't worry—we ate the cheeks in the end, too. Saving the best for last.