Fish tacos started out on the West coast, but we’re seeing more and more of them here in Arkansas. There are several places serving fish tacos that we love to eat – La Hacienda in Benton and the Flying Fish in Little Rock’s River Market being our two favorites. We love those two versions of fish tacos for a few reasons: both use breaded and fried fish instead of grilled, La Hacienda tops their taco with a spicy, marinated pico de gallo, and the Flying Fish uses cole slaw instead of lettuce. We like fried fish instead of grilled because a crisp, fried fillet adds a nice element of flavor and texture to the taco, while grilled fish often winds up being mushy and flavorless. Cole slaw is a far superior topping when compared to the shredded iceberg lettuce most places use on their fish tacos – let’s just be honest here and all admit that iceberg lettuce really never added anything to a dish it’s taken part in. We’ve been making our own fish tacos for awhile, combining our favorite aspects into one tasty dish.
To recreate our Southern-style fish tacos, you’ll need to make up some pico de gallo, a spicy mix of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cilantro marinated in lime juice. We use red onions for this version of the pico, since red onion is a traditional accompaniment to fried fish in the South. Make your pico a few hours in advance if you can; it certainly benefits from some time in the fridge. The same can be said of your cole slaw, which can be made in advance as much as the day before:
Spicy Cole Slaw
- 4 cups slaw mix. You can, of course, shred your own, but there are plenty of pre-made slaw mixes out there that are great to use. We like one that combines green and red cabbage with shredded carrots.
- 1/2 cup dijon-mayonnaise. The best thing to do here is to make your own. Put 3 egg yolks and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard into a blender with 1/2 teaspoon salt, two tablespoons lemon juice and a teaspoon of black pepper. Blend one cup of canola oil very slowly into the yolks and mustard (similar to our instructions for making aioli). Otherwise, use a store-bought mayonnaise and mix with mustard and black pepper.
- 2 tablespoons Crystal hot sauce. Don’t use Tabasco.
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper. We prefer to buy whole pepper pods and grind them ourselves – you can take the crushed red pepper you buy at the store and pulse it a few times in the food processor. It gives the pepper a nice, sneaky nature to grind it fine.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
Stir all ingredients together, being sure to get a good mixture of dressing and ingredients. You can adjust the amount of dressing you use – some people prefer a more “wet” slaw, while others prefer a drier version. Cover and let sit in the refrigerator until needed.
For our fish, we’re using catfish – easily the most popular fish available in Arkansas. You can use any sort of lean, white fish for these tacos – most restaurants these days are using tilapia (a very cheap, but rather flavorless fish). Whatever fish you choose, slice the fillets into thin strips and bread them in a mixture of cornmeal, flour, and spices. You can certainly make your own breading mixture, but I’ll admit that one of the best tasting fish breading mixes I’ve come across is called Louisiana Fish Fry: it’s flavorful, perfectly spiced, coats the fish well and fries up crispy and good. This stuff is so good that I’ve never needed to salt or pepper my fish after I’ve pulled it from the grease. As for cooking oil, canola oil is perfectly fine to fry in, although peanut oil is superior – in any case, use a heavy bottomed pan (cast iron is preferable) on medium-high heat. Fry until the fish is nicely browned but still nice and chewy. Build your tacos with hot flour or corn tortillas; top with the slaw and pico de gallo. The combination of flavor and texture present in one single taco is pretty amazing, and this is a dish that you’ll find yourself craving again and again. There are plenty of variations to the basic concept, so it’s a great opportunity for creativity – most of all, be sure to enjoy!