Flatlay shot of 3 plates of fish tacos topped with cabbage, shite sauce and cilantro, with hot sauce bottles, glasses of water and a pinch bowl of cilantro scattered across the table

Ensenada-Style Fish Tacos

Soft, flaky white fish deep-fried in a light, crispy, beer-batter is the star of these Ensenada style Baja fish tacos when paired with fresh, easy, accompaniments: a creamy homemade white sauce, shredded green cabbage, diced white onion, a squeeze of lime and, if you’re a lucky cilantro-doesn’t-taste-like-soap-to-me person, a generous heap of chopped cilantro. Pile it all into flour tortillas and you’ll have a taco night perfect for taco lovers who don’t love spicy food. But you can always add a dash (or more) of your favorite Mexican hot sauce or some spicy pico de gallo if you’ve gotta have that heat!

What Makes a Fish Taco an Ensenada Fish Taco?

Ensenada-style tacos are a style of taco popularized sometime in the mid twentieth century by street vendors looking to feed vendors and shoppers at a seafood market in the coastal village of Ensenada in Mexico’s Northern Baja region. Some say San Filipe is the real birthplace of the fish taco, though this is more likely merely to be where American tourist Ralph Rubio discovered the fish taco, and then went on to use the dish in his Chain of American restaurants. 

The first Ensenada tacos were made using a species of small shark that was, at the time, treated like a waste product and was first served grilled. Eventually, deep fried fish won out in popularity over the grilled preparation, an innovation possibly inspired by the tempura fish frying method brought to the region by an earlier wave of Japanese immigrants.

Looking for something else to make with your fried fish? Try these Fish Sandwiches with Tahini Sauce and Tomato Relish

Ensenada tacos are relatively paired-back. They feature mild flavors and textural contrast. Crispy beer-battered and deep-fried fish, fresh shredded cabbage and a creamy white sauce are key components, but, like any food this popular, there are plenty of variations on the style that feature additional toppings like pickled red onions, pico de gallo, avocado slices or an additional creamy sauce like an avocado or chipotle crema.

Corn VS Flour Tortillas.

Unlike most of the country, in Northern regions of Mexico flour tortillas are most commonly used for tacos. Ensenada fish tacos, though, are generally made with corn tortillas. Food and Wine says this is because a sturdy tortilla is needed to hold the battered fried fish and that the flavor of the corn tortilla shines through with the mild toppings of a Baja taco. Rick Piña, owner of Ricky's Fish Tacos in Los Angeles, has a different explanation. Making an even finer distinction between types of corn tortillas, he advises home cooks to avoid handmade or heirloom corn tortillas when making Baja-style tacos. He says to use white corn tortillas instead, so that the tortilla is merely a vessel for the toppings, not a flavor component in itself. 

I gather from all this that, unless you live in Northern Mexico with plentiful sources of fresh corn tortillas (in which case you are probably buying your tacos from a street vendor, not making them at home),it may be better to use flour tortillas for your Ensenada tacos after all. I find that my homemade corn tortillas aren’t substantial enough to hold battered fried fish, and the store-bought corn tortillas I have access to locally are often relatively dry and brittle - a recipe for a crumbling taco. For me, flour tortillas are the best option, which is why I’ve included them in the ingredient list below. If you live near a purveyor of freshly made sturdy white corn tortillas, go for corn instead.

How to Choose and Cook Fish for Tacos

  • For these fish tacos you want to use any firm, flaky mild white fish that is available near you. I often use either halibut or cod, though I prefer cod because it is thicker and firmer, so it holds up better to the battering and frying process. You could also use tilapia, sole or flounder. Look for evenly shaped fillets that will be easier to divide into evenly-sized portions. 
  • If you really wanted to, you could make these tacos with grilled, or even baked or pan-fried fish and they would still taste great. This would certainly be an easier (and healthier) option. But, if you’ve got the time, I recommend deep-frying your fish instead. The batter gives the taco additional texture and the feeling of a more substantial meal. Plus, deep frying the fish in a beer-batter is really essential to what makes a taco an Ensenada-style fish taco. They’re wildly popular for a reason - they’re delicious!
  • I like my batter on the thicker side. This makes for irregularly shaped large fried fish pieces with lots of craggy bits and extra deep-fried crunch. If you would prefer a thinner layer of batter around your fish, add a bit more beer to your batter, aiming for a thinner-consistency than described in the recipe below.
  • I’ve described my best tips for deep frying at home in detail in this fried fish sandwich recipe. In short: use the right equipment (including a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven with tall sides and a thermometer ), monitor the temperature of the oil as you cook and never leave it unattended, and familiarize yourself with kitchen fire safety. Safety first!
  • Your goal while frying is to maintain a temperature of 350F. However, each time you drop fish into the oil, its temperature drops. To adjust for this, wait for the oil to reach about 360F before adding fish to the oil. Monitor the temperature of the oil as you cook, making sure it does not exceed 375F, and allow the oil to return to 360 before adding each batch of fish. If it gets too hot or begins to smoke, carefully remove the pot from the heat and allow the oil to cool before returning it.
  • Try the Double Fry technique. Fry your fish in batches until it is all cooked. Then, just before you place each piece into a tortilla to serve, dip them back into the oil for a second fry, for about 30 seconds. This is going to re-crisp any pieces that softened as you cooked the fish and give you something closer to a straight-from-the-taco stand street food feel at home. 

What Sides go with Fish Tacos?

Fish tacos can be an entire meal in themselves. Sides are not really necessary. But if you’re feeding a lot of people or want to make the fish go further, there are plenty of options for sides to accompany your tacos. Since Ensenada-style tacos already involve a relatively time-consuming and indulgent deep-fried component, I’d stick with sides that are quick to make and feature fresh fruits and vegetables or healthy legumes or grains. Try: 

  • Mexican Street Corn or street corn salad
  • A simple cucumber salad
  • Rice - try cilantro lime or tomato-based Mexican rice
  • Refried Beans
  • Guacamole, pico de gallo or salsa verde with corn chips

Ensenada Fish Taco Recipe

Serves 4 generously, 6 with sides

Ingredients

For the Fish:

  • 1 pound cod, haddock or other firm white fish fillet(s), cut into long thin pieces, about 1-2 ounce each.
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, divided 
  • ½ cup cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt, plus more for seasoning the fish 
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1- 1 ¼ cup light beer, kept cold until needed
  • 1 ½ quarts canola oil

For the White Sauce:

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt

For Serving:

  • ½ white onion, diced 
  • ½ small green cabbage, shredded thinly
  • Flour tortillas
  • A handful of cilantro, chopped finely
  • Lime wedges, for serving

Instructions

  1. Prepare the Fish: pat dry the fish pieces with paper towels. Try to get as much moisture out of the fish as you can. Season the fish pieces with salt and pepper and set them on a wire rack inside a baking tray. Transfer the tray to the fridge while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, for at least 15-20 minutes or up to several hours, if you have time to do this step earlier in the day. 
  2. Make The White Sauce: In a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise, sour cream and lime juice. Season with salt and pepper and set aside, covered, in the refrigerator. 
  3. Prepare the Batter Station: Set two large bowls on your counter. Add ½ cup of flour to the first bowl. In the second bowl, whisk together the remaining cup of flour, cornstarch, baking powder, Mexican oregano, salt and pepper. Add the Dijon mustard and 1 cup of the beer to the second bowl and stir to combine. Add more beer, if necessary, until you reach the consistency of a slightly thick pancake batter. Dredge each piece of fish through the first bowl, containing only the flour, shake off the excess, and return to the wire rack.
  4. Batter & Fry the Fish: pour the oil into a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven with high sides over medium heat. Set a wire rack inside a baking tray next to the oven, alongside tongs and a pinch bowl of salt. When the oil reaches 360F, begin to fry the fish. Working one piece of fish at a time, in 2-3 batches of 3-4 pieces of fish, dip each piece of fish into the batter, shake off the excess, and then dip for a second time into the bowl of flour. Then, carefully drop the fish into the oil, and fry for 4-8 minutes, turning every few minutes. When the batter around the fish is puffy and golden brown, carefully remove it from the oil and place onto the wire rack. Salt both sides of the fish and ensure the oil has returned to 360F before carefully placing the next batch of battered fish into the oil. 
  5. Assemble & Serve: Just before serving, dip each piece of fish back into the oil for 30 seconds each. Place into a flour tortilla (warmed, if you like) and allow each diner to help themselves to their toppings.
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