Yesterday was Tuesday, so of course that meant tacos for dinner. I adore the flavors of Vietnamese cuisine, but since it can be difficult for me to eat safely in restaurants I usually make my own version at home when I have a craving. Seeing a friend’s recent photos of her Vietnamese dinner reminded me that I haven’t had it in a while, so I decided to have a little fun and make tacos inspired by bánh mì sandwiches.
A classic bánh mì typically consists of a Vietnamese baguette filled with assorted cold cuts, pâté, pickled vegetables, mayonnaise, chilies and cilantro. In this taco version, homemade flour tortillas stand in for the baguette and serve as the perfect neutral and sturdy base for a host of flavorful toppings. Fish replaces the assorted meats, and I’ve selected mahi mahi for its mild flavor and firm texture to allow the garlic, ginger, shallot and chilies in the marinade to shine. I sautéed the fish this time because I wasn’t in the mood to mess with batter and frying, but feel free to coat your fish in a simple seasoned rice-flour tempura batter and fry it instead for a crispy element. Sliced avocado contributes fat and silkiness to the otherwise lean toppings, Vietnamese carrot and daikon pickles add tangy sweetness and crunch, and fresh cabbage slaw tossed with a lemongrass-spiked dressing may not be traditional but it adds even more complexity and sneaks a fresh veggie into your meal. (Plus, I personally don’t think a taco is complete without slaw.) Instead of plain mayonnaise I’ve amped up the flavor and heat by mixing in some sriracha, fresh lime juice and a pinch of salt, and I top off the whole thing with plenty of fresh cilantro, sliced chilies, and a sprinkle of creamy, mild queso fresco.
My favorite thing about tacos is the variety of flavors and textures you can bring together into a perfectly composed bite, so as you can see I’m not shy when I assemble mine – pile it on!
When cutting the carrot and daikon for pickles, be sure to make them at least 1 ½ to 2 inches long and ¼ inch thick. You want sturdy batons that will hold up to massaging and have a substantial presence when you eat them in the taco (or straight from the jar with your fingers as an addictive snack).
See that char on the tortillas? That’s from an open flame – I use the gas burners on my stove. Please exercise caution when doing this! Don’t turn the flame too high, and use heat-safe tongs to handle the tortillas. As you pull them off the burner, stack them on a plate and cover with a clean kitchen towel.
A note about ingredients: if you’re strictly gluten-free I recommend using Red Boat brand fish sauce and your own homemade tortillas, and make sure your sriracha is GF (I use the ubiquitous Huy Fong rooster sauce). Everything else in the recipe is naturally gluten-free. Now go make some tacos!
- For Pickled Vegetables
- 1 tsp plus 2 Tbsp sugar, divided
- ½ tsp Kosher salt, divided
- 4 oz daikon radish, cut into 2” x ¼” batons
- 1 large carrot (4-5 oz), peeled and cut into 2” x ¼” batons
- 60 ml (¼ cup) warm water
- 75 ml (5 Tbsp) distilled white vinegar
- For Fish
- 15 ml (1 Tbsp) fish sauce - I recommend Red Boat
- 30 ml (2 Tbsp) neutral oil
- 4 oz (¼ cup) coconut water
- 1 tsp coconut sugar
- 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced (about 1 tablespoon)
- One-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated (about 1 tablespoon)
- 1 small shallot, peeled and minced (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 whole Thai bird chile, minced (discard seeds if you prefer less heat)
- 1 tsp lime zest
- 1 lb mahi mahi or other firm white fish cut into 1-inch cubes
- 13-26 grams (1-2 Tbsp) coconut oil for cooking
- For Sriracha Mayonnaise
- 4 oz (¼ cup) mayonnaise
- 15 ml (1 Tbsp) sriracha - I recommend Huy Fong
- 8 ml (1 ½ tsp) freshly squeezed lime juice
- ¼ tsp kosher salt
- For Slaw
- 15 ml (1 Tbsp) freshly squeezed lime juice
- 5 ml (1 tsp) fish sauce, or more to taste
- 15 ml (1 Tbsp) neutral oil
- 15 ml (1 Tbsp) coconut water
- 2 tsp finely minced fresh lemongrass from 1-2 stalks*
- ½ tsp minced garlic
- 1 small Thai bird chile, very thinly sliced
- 1 lb green or red cabbage (yield after core is removed), thinly sliced
- ½ sweet bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 2 green onions, white & dark green parts only, thinly sliced
- Cilantro leaves from 4 large sprigs, roughly chopped
- For Assembly
- 1 ripe avocado, thinly sliced
- 4 large or 8 small soft tortillas, store-bought or homemade
- 2-3 oz queso fresco, crumbled
- Fresh cilantro
- Lime wedges
- Sliced green onion
- Sliced chilies
- Pickle the vegetables: Put matchstick-cut vegetables in a fine-mesh sieve and toss with ¼ teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar. Massage vegetables gently with your fingers until they begin to release their liquid, 2-3 minutes. Rinse well with cold water, and press gently but firmly against the sides of the sieve to release excess liquid. Set aside. In a small jar or bowl, combine warm water, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons sugar and vinegar; whisk or shake well to dissolve sugar and salt. Add vegetables and marinate for 30-60 minutes before serving. (Vegetables will keep for up to a month in the refrigerator.)
- Make the marinade: In a non-reactive bowl, whisk together the fish sauce oil, coconut water and coconut sugar until liquids are emulsified and sugar is dissolved. Whisk in all remaining ingredients except fish, taste for seasoning, and adjust to taste if desired. Add fish to marinade and toss to coat well. Cover the bowl or transfer the fish and marinade to a ziploc bag; refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
- Make the mayonnaise: Whisk all ingredients together.
- Make the slaw: In a large bowl whisk together lime juice, fish sauce, oil, coconut sugar, lemongrass, garlic and chile. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired. Add cabbage, bell pepper, green onion and cilantro, and toss well.
- Char the tortillas: This step is optional, but I love the variation in texture and flavor that you get from charring the tortillas. To do this over an open flame on a gas stove, turn on the flame to medium. Working with one tortilla at a time, use a pair of tongs to hold the tortilla over the flame, moving it around and flipping it occasionally to distribute the char in various spots. See my photo for reference - you don’t want to torch the entire thing, you just want it to get it nicely blackened in several spots and around the edges. If you don’t have access to an open flame, you can broil the tortillas for a few minutes, or toast them in a cast iron pan. Once all the tortillas are charred, stack them on a plate and cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel until ready to serve.
- Cook the fish: Set a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1-2 tablespoons coconut oil, and heat until shimmering. Remove fish from marinade, shaking off (not wiping!) excess liquid. Carefully add the fish to the pan and sauté for 2-3 minutes, tossing frequently, just until cooked through (fish will turn opaque in color and just firm to the touch).
- Assemble the tacos: Build your own flavorful masterpiece however you’d like. I start with a couple of avocado slices, followed by a small bed of slaw and pickles, several pieces of fish, more slaw, a sprinkle of crumbled cheese, some torn cilantro leaves, a generous drizzle of mayo, and a squeeze of lime.