Tender grouper cheeks, breaded and fried, in a crisp taco shell.

I had an awful dream the other night. I was at a classy seaside Mexican joint and was served fish tacos. What made the dream a nightmare was that they were made with frozen fish sticks and dressed with ketchup!

Making fish tacos isn’t rocket science. The most difficult part of the process is deciding what sort of fish to feature—and what to use for garnishes. For me, the fish decision is easy, especially when my friends at Gainesville’s Northwest Seafood call and say they’ve just unloaded a boatload of grouper. Whole grouper mean lots of things to lots of people, but to me it’s “cheeks.” Grouper cheeks are the most delicate part of the fish and are often discarded by anglers at the cleaning table. That’s not so for fish houses and retailers who handle whole fish. Often, though, the cheeks rarely make it to customers’ tables. Unless you ask.

It's easy to remove grouper cheeks and so much better than wasting them.

It takes a certain size fish to get significant cheek meat. Keeper grouper will provide two small medallions, each weighing only an ounce or two—20 pounders will provide enough for a sandwich. Excising the meat is easy. Using a very sharp, flexible blade, fillet knife, simply cut the cheek away from the head. If you leave the cheek attached by a slight tab of skin, you can then remove the entire skin in just one additional move of the knife. For fish tacos, allow three or four small cheeks each. And don’t forget, while you’re working on the fish’s head, that there’s also some good meat to be found in the throat. Like cheeks, throats are sometimes overlooked or ignored, but they also provide a nice piece of tender meat that’s also good for tacos.

I’m a firm believer that tacos should crunch. That means hard-shell corn tacos, crisp veggies and fried fish. For breading, I prefer using equal amounts of crushed Saltines and all-purpose flour, seasoned with a bit of Cajun spice and some salt and black pepper. If you heat your oil (canola or peanut) to about 375 degrees and don’t crowd the pan, you’ll get perfectly fried fish in just a few minutes. As soon as the cheeks are golden brown and drained on paper towels, it’s time to assemble your tacos. Start with a layer of spicy salsa—my favorite is made with avocados, tomatillos, onions and cilantro. Then, add some slaw and the fried fish. A topping of sour cream is optional and something I usually leave up to my guests. I’ve also found that while my Avocado and Tomatillo Salsa works well as the base layer for these fish cheek tacos (We call them “Cheek-Os”), that it’s also a popular stand-alone appetizer, served with salty tortilla chips.

As is the case with many recipes, mine for fish cheek tacos should serve as a basis for creating your own version of this tasty entrée. Try soft tacos, grilled fish, and vary the toppings, depending on what’s available locally or seasonally. But no matter what your do, prepare just a few more than what you think your guests might eat. I’ll bet they eat them all! Here are my accompaniments for fish tacos with grouper.

Cilantro Slaw

1 package (or 1.5 cups) shredded cabbage
½-cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
¾-cup sour cream
1 tbsp. prepared horseradish
Juice of one lime (Key lime if available)
Salt and black pepper to taste

Avocado and Tomatillo Salsa

6 tomatillos
1 medium white onion
4 ripe Roma (plum) tomatoes
1 cup cilantro leaves
2 ripe Florida avocados
¼-cup olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt and black pepper to taste

Remove husks from tomatillos and chop, with the onion, in a food processor. Remove to mixing bowl. Repeat with tomatoes and cilantro. Then chop avocado in food processor, taking care not to puree. Add to contents of mixing bowl, adding the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper as you fold ingredients together with a spatula. Cover and refrigerate overnight to allow the flavors to meld. Serve with tortilla chips as an appetizer or as a dressing for fish tacos.

Cucumber Salad

I’ve never understood why anyone would want to put sugar into a cucumber salad. That said, thinly slice some small Kirby cucumbers and a bit of red onion and then toss them with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Season to taste with salt, black pepper, dried oregano and crushed red pepper. And no sugar!

From Florida Sportsman magazine, print edition.

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