It wasn’t long ago that beef cheeks and pork cheeks went from being a throw-away cut of meat to a highly sought-after delicacy served in some of the priciest restaurants. I’m willing to wager that fish cheeks will be next in line for this trend.
So why do cheeks taste so good? Whether it’s a cow or cod, the cheek muscles get a lot of exercise and they also store a lot of fat. Just as chicken leg meat has more flavor than breast meat, muscles that get exercised have more flavor. In the case of fish, the cheeks are plump and moist, with a pleasantly fibrous texture that’s a dead ringer for scallops.
Seasoned with spices and coated in a light crispy beer batter, fish cheeks make the best fish tacos! Since tacos are really about the main ingredient, I like to keep them simple. In the case of fish tacos, a small bed of shredded cabbage, big chunks of crispy fish and a spicy allioli is all it takes to make something truly spectacular. Oh, and you can’t forget the cerveza and limes!
The cheeks need to come from a good sized fish, otherwise there’s just not a lot of meat there. Flounder and Cod both produce sea scallop-sized medallions, so try asking your local fish monger if they can set some aside for you the next time they fillet a few fish. If you can’t find them, you can substitute any white meat fish fillets to make these Baja-style fish tacos.
Make it better.
Use the leftover batter to fry up some onion rings, green beans or red bell peppers. Sprinkled with a little sea salt, they make a great side, but they’re even better added into the tacos.
Part of the appeal of a really great fish taco is the crisp crust of batter encasing each morsel of fish. To ensure that the fish stays crisp even after being doused in allioli and lime juice, it’s important to fry the fish twice. This not only ensures the coating stays crisp, it also gives the fish a golden brown color. If you’re making a large batch for a party, you can do the first fry ahead of time, then store them in the fridge after they’ve cooled. Give them a second fry just before people are ready to eat. The crispness should last for at least 30 minutes as long as they’re sitting on a wire rack, so have your guests build their own tacos.
The allioli takes a bit of time to make, but it makes a lot more than you’ll need for these tacos and the spicy, garlicky, citrusy condiment is great spread on sandwiches or as a condiment for french fries. As for the tortillas, descent corn tortillas are becoming easier to find, but nothing beats a piping hot homemade tortilla
- Wipe the Guajillo chilies with a damp paper towel. Roast the peppers until fragrant in a toaster oven. Be careful not to burn them or they will be bitter. Remove the stem and seed and put them in a bowl and cover with boiling water for 5 minutes.
- Drain the chilies, and put them in the small work-bowl of a food processor along with the egg yolks, lime zest, lime juice, garlic, salt, and sugar. Blitz until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
- Add the olive oil in 5 additions, processing until smooth each time. If your food processor has a feed tube, that will work best. When the mixture is smooth and free of any chunks, your allioli is done.
- Combine the salt, ground cumin, black pepper, and Mexican oregano in a small bowl and sprinkle evenly onto both sides of the fish. Shred the cabbage with a mandoline or sharp knife, and cover with ice water.
- Add 1 1/2" of oil into a heavy bottomed pot and heat to 360 degrees F. Prepare a wire rack lined with a few layers of paper towels.
- Dust the fish evenly with 2 tablespoons of flour. Put the remaining 1/2 cup in a bowl. When the oil is up to temperature, add the beer to the flour, and quickly whisk together. It's okay if there are a few lumps but be sure not to overmix.
- Batter the fish and fry it in batches until light brown. Drain the fish on the paper towel lined rack. Once all the fish is fried, increase the heat of the oil to 375 degrees F. Fry the fish again until the crust is golden brown. The second fry ensures that the fish stays crispy.
- To build your fish tacos, heat the tortillas and drain and dry the cabbage. Put down a tortilla, and add some shredded cabbage, top with some fried fish and the chili lime allioli. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing.