Fish tacos are a staple during lunch and dinner service at University of Montana’s Food Zoo, the college’s main dining hall, where about 800 students at the Missoula, Mont., school dine daily. Although the menu item met several important criteria—sustainability, ethnic flavors and ease of execution—chef Tony Martinez wanted a fish taco that would appeal to students’ spice-seeking palates. So Martinez brought in a different type of fish, cross-utilized the pickled condiment served on a Food Zoo signature banh mi and turned up the heat with a spicy housemade sauce.
1. Cod vs. halibut
Previously, Martinez used sustainable wild cod for the tacos, but the texture and flavor didn’t have enough character for this preparation. Sustainability was a priority, so he tried frozen, prebattered Alaskan halibut instead. “The halibut is a moister, fattier fish that holds up better in the fryer and adapts better to spicier flavors,” he says.
2. Cabbage vs. pickled veggies
As a counterpoint to the fried halibut, Martinez pickles shredded carrots and radishes in a Southeast Asian prep called Do Chua. “The shredded vegetables sit in a vinegar mixture for three days,” says Martinez. “And the acidic notes cut the richness of the fish and punch up the flavor with bright acid notes.”
3. Salsa vs. Baja sauce
Baja sauce is the final bold component in the makeover. Also made in-house, it’s a blend of yogurt and vegan mayonnaise with fresh jalapenos and chipotle powder. It has less bite than a hot tomato salsa, and the creaminess and chili heat are just the right counterpoint to the fish, Martinez says. Capers and cilantro in the sauce balance the flavors.