notes from the mexican kitchen

Taco Tuesday: Fear Not the Grilled Fish

TacoTuesdayLogo_blueMany of you know I’ve opened a new restaurant in Chicago called Leña Brava, which is all about the elemental flavors of cooking over wood fire.

For this week’s Taco Tuesday, we’re bringing the experience home with one of the restaurant’s signature dishes — butterflied striped bass a la talla with a lightning-quick marinade of red chile adobo.

We begin by butterflying a whole fish. Here, I’m using sea bass but snapper and branzino are good substitutes. (Intimidated about butterflying the fish? Have your fishmonger do it for you. For the less adventurous, you can absolutely make this dish with filets.)

Anytime you’re grilling fish, it’s essential to preheat the grill grates to prevent sticking. I like to use a hinged grill basket (widely available online or where grilling equipment is sold), which also needs to get hot for the same reason.

If you’re feeling showy — and if you’re attempting this recipe, I have a suspicion you are — remove the grilled fish to a big platter and top it with lime-dressed frisee and sliced red onion.

Fork a big piece of your prize into a warm tortilla, hit it with a squeeze of lime and spoonful of salsa, then declare victory.

Lubina a la talla con red chile adobo


  • For the Red Chile Adobo
  • Scant 1/2cup good-quality ancho chile powder (the amount in a typical 2-ounce spice jar)
  • 8 peeled garlic cloves
  • 1/2teaspoon ground cinnamon, preferably Mexican canela
  • 1/4teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/8teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1teaspoondried oregano, preferably Mexican
  • 3tabslepoons apple cider vinegar
  • For the Fish
  • 1 sea bass (or snapper or branzino), butterflied
  • 1/4 red onion, sliced (for garnish)
  • 1/2cup frisee, pulled into small pieces (for garnish)
  • 12 warm corn tortillas


Heat the grill: Heat a gas grill to medium-high on one side, medium on the other, or light a charcoal fire and let it burn until the charcoal is covered with white ash.

Butterfly the fish: To prepare a whole fish for cooking it a la talla in their style, scale it, cut off the fins (I find a kitchen shears works good for that) but don’t gut it.  Then, use a sharp knife to cut along one side of the dorsal fin (the one on top of the fish as it swims), from the back of the head to the tail, cutting into the fish along the spine until you reach the backbone. Use your knife to cut through the rib bones that surround the viscera. Flip the fish over and do the same on the other side.  Now the two fillets should be separated from the spines and back bone, but still connected at the head and tail.  Holding the backbone firmly, break it (or cut it) from the head and from the tail; discard or save for stock.  With a cleaver or heavy knife, split the head without cutting all the way through it.  Pull out and discard all the viscera, then rinse the fish well. You now have a completely butterflied whole fish (butterflied from the top down, not the bottom up), with only the lower rib bones attached.  Feel free to cut them out.

Make the red chile adobo: Scoop the powdered ancho chile into a blender or small food processor. Bring 1 1/4 cups water to a boil, pour over the chile, loosely cover the blender or secure the top of the processor and pulse to blend thoroughly. In a small microwave-safe bowl, collect the garlic, cover with water and microwave at 100% for 1 minute. Drain and add to the blender or processor, along with the spices, oregano, vinegar and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Process until smooth. Remove about 1/3 cup of adobo to a bowl and scrape the remainder into a pint-size jar and store, covered, in the refrigerator, where it will last several months.

Brush both sides of the fish with oil, then gently spread a thin layer of adobo over the fish. Place the fish flesh side down in a preheated grill basket, then place the basket on the hottest part of the grill for about 6 to 7 minutes. Flip them onto their skin side and cook for about 3 minutes more until the fish flakes under firm pressure.

Remove from grill and garnish with frisee and red onion. Serve with your favorite salsa, limes and warm corn tortillas.

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