One of Executive Chef Jaime Herrera's best menu inspirations came while visiting family in Ensenada, a coastal city on Mexico's Baja Peninsula, just a couple hours' drive south of Tijuana.
At the end of the road? The ultimate fish taco experience, which Herrera brought back to share at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
“There's a big fish market, and at the edge there are little bars, restaurants and food stands,” he says. “My relatives took me to this one spot that had a very simple, very great tempura-fried fish taco. It was amazing.”
Back at UC Santa Barbara, Herrera grills tilapia or catfish with a chile rub on a flat top before nestling the succulent fish into a soft corn tortilla with some fresh cilantro and just a drizzle of chipotle-lime aioli.
It's that straight-from-the-ocean “surfer food” experience that onsite chefs look to recreate when serving fish tacos, ceviche and other south-of-the-border seafood menu items.
When chefs talk about Mexican seafood, the words you hear again and again are reminiscent of the ocean surf itself: fresh, clean, exciting.
“It's about using a good product and keeping it simple, clean and fresh,” Herrera says. “You shouldn't have something fried, over-breaded and drowned out with sour cream and a lot of toppings.”
Shredded cabbage is a classic fish taco accompaniment, and that's available to customers when they build the tacos themselves. A great salsa bar offers fresh and tangy flavors: a choice of tomatillo, avocado and roasted chili salsas along with pickled vegetables that make for the perfect customizable condiments.
Another popular Mexican seafood dish is a plated entrée made with California bass (UC Santa Barbara has developed a sustainable seafood program that coordinates with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch).
This sophisticated dish incorporates an avocado and shiitake mushroom salsa and is served with a starch on the side. Other times, Herrera has paired the fish with a fresh fruit salsa that includes papaya, red onion, cilantro and a little lime.
While West Coast college students may be very accustomed to the idea of Mexican seafood, Andy Towler, Flik Independent School Dining foodservice manager for the Village Community School in New York City, is introducing younger eaters to the flavor profile a little bit at a time.
Students there recently tried cod with a chili-lime butter for lunch and it went over very well, Towler says.
“We use a select group of fish for kids (tending toward the milder ones, like cod and tilapia), and we introduce Mexican flavors mainly through salsas,” he adds. “For the younger kids, we don't use very much jalapeno, but some of the older kids are more adventurous.”
Recently, Towler had the chance to create a very grown-up dish, Bay Scallop Ceviche, for a board membership meeting last fall.
“It was such a hot day — unseasonably so — and I wanted some very refreshing flavors,” he says. He developed a cool, enticing ceviche using scallops and a simple rundown of ingredients (lemon juice, jalapenos, tomatoes, garlic, cilantro) and served it in glass tumblers to make the most of the bright colors. The same approach would fit well in a catering or B&I setting.
Ceviche is a Latin American dish that uses citrus juice to “cook” fish, turning it opaque. Since the citrus doesn't kill bacteria as well as actual cooking, it's important to use only the freshest, cleanest seafood you can find. Check your local health codes and make sure customers know what it is.
In a unique crowd-sourcing experiment, students came up with the name for the new Mexican food concept at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Since we're in Wisconsin, land of the ‘cheese heads,’ they decided to call it Queso Cabeza (translates to Cheese Head in Spanish),” says Jeffrey C. Orr, CEC, executive chef, dining and culinary services. “Two new dining halls are going up now, and we're revamping service into a mini-restaurant style.”
Students will be able to sample shrimp quesadillas at Queso Cabeza, Orr says, describing a super fresh snack or small plate that combines shrimp, chorizo sausage and Jack cheese, all topped with a pineapple, red onion and jalapeno salsa.
“The shellfish-and-chorizo combo blends just the right flavors,” he says. “The chorizo doesn't overpower the shrimp and the cheese is creamy and mild.”
Another idea Orr has been working on involves sourcing seafood from a local trout farm.
“It can be hard to get great seafood in the middle of the country, so when we can source locally, that's ideal,” he says.
Smoked trout lends its unique flavor to fish tacos, which will be topped with a cabbage slaw and Orr's special Sriracha Crema.
Lime and lime zest come into play in the crema, “for that clean, bright flavor that seafood lends itself to so well,” Orr says, adding that “Mexican cuisine uses such a fresh approach that it's something especially exciting to do with seafood.”
Chupe de Camarones Bay Scallop Ceviche Grilled Red Snapper Tacos with Bistro-Chipotle Spread Sauteed Shrimp and Avocado Torta Gulf Shrimp with Spicy Golden Raisin-Avocado Mayonnaise Baked Fish Taco Tilapia Mango CevicheSpicy Shrimp Tacos with Blueberry Corn Cilantro Salsa Sriracha Crema Grilled Pasilla Rellenos