11 Fish You Should And 7 Shouldn't Use In Fish Tacos

Fish tacos are a favorite for a reason. Crisp and fresh, this street food has become beloved far beyond its origins in Baja California, a region that boasts a veritable culinary tapestry distinct from other regional Mexican cooking styles thanks to the region's geographical separation from the rest of Mexico and the plentiful local seafood. 

In its most traditional form, the fish taco is made by piling hot, crispy fried fish on a charred corn tortilla and pairing it with chile, avocado, and cabbage slaw. A creamy sauce and fresh pico de gallo are usually added in tandem for even more flavor. Of course, some will toy with this model, opting to grill the fish for their taco rather than fry it. Chef Samantha Deleon of Pink Taco says she loves this option "when I want to take a healthier route," but most of the time, fried is the way to go. "It gives the taco a different texture and holds much better on a tortilla," she says. "Grilled fish can make the tortilla a bit more soggy."

Executive Chef Blaine Welsh of Destino and Las Gemelas agrees. "I prefer a lean fish that has been deep-fried," he says. "My preference is less so for the flavor, and more because a deep-fried lean fish has a more exciting textural element."

If you want that perfect crispy deep-fried bite, here are the fish our experts recommend for fish tacos — and the ones they eschew.

You should use halibut

Our experts agree: When it comes to the ideal fish taco, a flaky, mild white fish is the way to go. "I prefer a firm, flaky white fish for fried fish tacos," says Carmen Miranda, the Senior Director of Culinary Innovation at Tacombi. "It delivers the best flavor and allows the garnishes to really shine."

And while there are loads of different fish to choose from in this category, our experts are fairly united in their love of halibut, known for its mild, slightly sweet flavor and naturally lean nutritional profile. "Halibut is my favorite fish to use for fish tacos because it's a very lean fish and great for frying!" says Deleon.

Welsh agrees, noting that halibut is "very lean and flaky," making it perfect for deep-frying. And because halibut has a mild flavor, it's perfect, he says, for taking on "whatever flavor profile you would like to use." In other words, it's the ideal blank canvas to serve as a base for your fish taco creations.

You should use mahi mahi

Despite a name that translates to "very strong" in Hawaiian, mahi mahi is a fairly mild fish with a faintly sweet flavor that can occasionally have a slight crawfish flavor due to the diet of the fish itself. With a moist, firm texture and a lovely flakiness when cooked, it's one of Deleon's favorites for fish tacos.

Welsh echoes Deleon's suggestion of mahi mahi, putting it on the same level as halibut in terms of lean, flaky, mild fish perfect for fish tacos. And for Miranda, should you decide to venture away from the fried route, mahi mahi also lends itself particularly well to grilling.

If you'd like to run with this fish as the star ingredient of your fish tacos, it could be fun to include some other Hawaiian flavors too. Consider adding a pineapple salsa instead of a more typical pico for a touch of sweetness that will marry perfectly with the delicate fried fish.

You should use haddock

If a flaky, mild, white fish is what you seek for your fish tacos, haddock is yet another great option — and it's one of Miranda's favorites.

"My favorite fish to use in a crispy fish taco is a flaky white, mild fish, like cod, haddock, or hake," she says. "It's mild, sweet to taste, and is perfect when making fish tacos!"

As compared to other white fish like cod or halibut, haddock does have a slightly more pronounced flavor, but that's not a bad thing. If you don't want the fish to get lost in the jumble of other toppings and flavorings, haddock is a great contender for the starring role — and it also means you may be able to get away with a slightly more assertive sauce spiked, perhaps, with smoky chipotle chile. Or consider topping haddock tacos with a roasted corn salsa to echo some of the sweetness naturally present in the fish.

You should use sea bass

While nearly any flaky white fish is an excellent contender for fish tacos if flavor is your top concern, when it comes to authenticity, the choices taper off a bit. Namely, many of the aforementioned fish are not native to the Pacific waters of Baja. However, as Welsh explains, sea bass certainly is.

Despite suspicions to the contrary, recent research shows that sea bass remain plentiful in the Pacific waters surrounding Baja California. The fish boasts a mild flavor and a tender texture that holds up wonderfully once fried. It's perhaps no surprise that sea bass is the fish taco filling of choice for American chef and Mexican food expert Rick Bayless, who loves this option not just for a classic fried fish taco, but also for grilled fish. In the latter, it stands up to the grill particularly well when marinated in red chile adobo to add even more flavor and a lovely reddish hue.

You should use cod

Another slightly more authentic offering for fish tacos, according to Welsh, is cod, which Deleon and Miranda also love. This option, particularly when wild-caught in the Pacific, is a sustainable choice that stands up particularly well to frying, as evidenced by its regular appearances on chip shop menus in the U.K. It's perhaps no surprise, then, that cod is the fish of choice for quite a few Brits, including British celebrity chef Rick Stein and The Guardian's Felicity Cloake, who finds it firmer and thus more pleasant than softer white fish like hake or sea bass.

Luis Herrera of Ensenada NYC is a particularly big fan of cod in fish tacos, noting that at the restaurant, he opts for Alaskan cod. "I love how delicate and flaky the meat is," he explains, "so when perfectly fried, it contrasts really well with the crispiness of the batter."

You should use catfish

Southern diners are already well aware that catfish is perfect for frying (often with a cornmeal crust and a dash of Cajun spice), and its lovely texture stands up just as well to fried fish tacos, according to Deleon. Mild and moist at its very best, catfish can sometimes have a bit of the muddy flavor frequently associated with river fish, which is why many prefer farmed catfish over wild. Opting for farmed also reduces the chance that the catfish in your taco will bring environmental pollutants to the party — certainly not the most sought-after seasoning for a fish taco.

To put a slight Southern spin on a fried catfish taco, consider using homemade blackening spice to season the fish itself and topping it with a Southern-style coleslaw. The fusion approach may not be the most authentic to the taco's Baja origins, but it'll definitely bring a whole lot of flavor.

You should use hake

Hake is a popular white fish beloved by both Miranda and Herrera for fish tacos. Inexpensive, lean, and mild, it ticks all of the boxes as far as our experts are concerned when seeking out the ideal fish taco filling. Hake stands up particularly well to frying, which is undoubtedly one reason why, much like the aforementioned cod or haddock, Brits love it for fish and chips.

That said, from a textural standpoint, hake is not everyone's cup of tea. The Guardian's Felicity Cloake finds it a bit soft as compared to many other fish, a characteristic that could lead to your finished taco lacking the textural contrast most of our experts claim is the whole point of the dish. If hake is your jam, however, consider offsetting its softness with an extra crunchy topping, such as a flavorful slaw made with fresh celery root or jicama.

You should use tilapia

Deleon recommends tilapia as a good choice for fish tacos, a suggestion echoed by Herrera, who notes that he's seen fish tacos made with "any flaky white fish ... even tilapia." 

The skepticism we detect in his response likely stems from the fact that tilapia is far from the most flavorful fish out there. Indeed, often denigrated as bland, tilapia nevertheless shines in fish tacos for a number of reasons. First off, tilapia boasts thin fillets, which fry up well and nestle perfectly into the relatively small corn tortillas preferred for this street food dish. And tilapia is also an excellent option for the seafood averse: If you have folks in your household who are afraid of a fish taco tasting too fishy, tilapia may be the ideal jumping-off point to help them embrace this delicious dish. Add some flavorful toppings like spicy mayo or fruity papaya and you're far more likely to conquer the hearts of those who turn up their noses at fishier fish.

You should use shrimp

If you're interested in making fish tacos but would rather use something with a bit more oomph than flaky white fish, filling your taco with seafood like shrimp is an interesting path to explore. Sweet and flavorful, shrimp also have a pleasantly firm texture that stands up well to sautéeing or grilling rather than frying, which means that you can cut down on the fat in a more traditional fish taco should you so choose.

That said, according to Herrera, when you venture out of fish territory, you're in murky waters — at least as far as nomenclature is concerned. "We make some pretty good grilled shrimp tacos at the restaurant," he says, "but you wouldn't call them fish tacos right?"

Can you call a shrimp taco a fish taco? When it's this delicious, does it even matter? We'll let you be the judge.

You should use octopus

As long as you're embracing adding seafood to your fish taco, Deleon also loves venturing into deeper waters to include octopus as an eye-catching option. "I love a good octopus taco!" she says. "It's a fun visual and has great flavor."

Indeed, the tentacles of the octopus don't just make for a cool-looking taco, but they're just the right size so that you're sure to get toothsome morsels with a delightful crunch from the crispy fried coating.

That said, octopus can tend to be a bit tough, which makes for a less pleasant eating experience unless you do a bit of advance prep. Experts recommend a few different techniques for tenderizing octopus, ranging from using a meat mallet to Bobby Flay's cork braise technique. Taking the time to do this before lightly battering and frying the octopus will result in a showstopper of a taco that's perfect for more adventurous eaters.

You should use scallops

To turn your fish tacos into a slightly more special occasion offering, scallops may well be a perfect choice. Welsh loves scallops as a taco filling, "especially pan-seared with a nice salsa verde or salsa aguacate," he says. The former is a green salsa made with fresh, zingy tomatillos; the latter is a creamy green sauce made with avocados. Either will pair wonderfully with the sweet, tender scallops, especially if you take a page out of Welsh's book and round it out with toppings of cilantro and onion.

Of course, scallops are a bit more expensive than some other taco fillings on this list, and since they're easy to overcook, it's best to be prepared. Check out some of the most common mistakes people make when cooking scallops before you begin to ensure that this taco filling ends up sweet and tender rather than rubbery. No one wants a pencil eraser taco.

You shouldn't use tuna

When it comes to choosing fish for tacos, it's fairly clear after speaking with our experts that nearly any flaky white fish will do the trick. But the same doesn't hold true for "tougher or darker meat fish," according to Herrera. "It's just gonna overpower the balance in texture of the taco," he says.

For Herrera, meaty tuna is one dark fish to avoid. Tuna doesn't stand up nearly as well to battering and deep-frying as flakier, lighter fish. When cooked properly, tuna can be moist and very tasty, but it's also easy to overcook, rendering it dry. Add to these issues the fact that tuna is not necessarily the most sustainable choice, with rampant overfishing plaguing the industry, not to mention the potential risks of mercury poisoning linked to eating too much tuna, and it's from the ideal filling for the perfect fish taco (via Medical News Today).

You shouldn't use swordfish

Swordfish has some of the same properties as tuna, according to Herrera: Its big, meaty flavors may make it perfect for the grill, but it's slightly less ideal when battered, fried, and added to a taco.

Like tuna (and, for that matter, other big, carnivorous fish), swordfish is not as sustainable as smaller seafood and poses similar risks of mercury contamination to tuna, per WebMD. And to add insult to injury, swordfish is far from the least expensive offering at the fish counter, clocking in at an average of $30 to $40 a pound.

While swordfish is certainly fine to eat once in a while, it's perhaps best to enjoy it in other recipes where it can be the true star, like a simple pan-seared swordfish, which will allow you to fully enjoy its delicate flavor and meaty texture. When it comes to fish tacos, however, it's best to steer clear.

You shouldn't use monkfish

Monkfish is also known as "poor man's lobster," and it does indeed have a similar sweet flavor and toothsome texture to the prized crustacean. That said, monkfish is far from the ideal filling for fish tacos, and that's not just because it's scary to look at (it's not known as the sea devil for no reason). Rather, much like tuna and swordfish, meaty monkfish, according to Herrera, can be guilty of overpowering the delicate flavors and textures of fish tacos.

Monkfish shines in dishes like monkfish ragù, where its texture helps it stand up to a cooking method that would make milder fish crumble under the pressure. But this assertiveness is its downfall in fish tacos, where not only can it overwhelm the other more delicate flavors, but its toothsome texture makes for a far less pleasant eating experience than if you'd opted for a flakier fish.

You shouldn't use salmon

This one might be a bit contentious, but our experts agree: Salmon is far from the ideal fish taco filling — particularly if you're going a traditional route with a fried fish filling. "Fish you want to avoid are those which are too fatty and tend to come out oily when fried like salmon," says Deleon. 

Welsh echoes this advice. "Anytime I've had someone make or order tacos that use a fish like salmon or something similar I've always disliked it," he says. "The fish usually is too dry, leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, and has a mealy texture." Miranda, too, suggests you stay away from oily fish like salmon. "They are very assertive, and can take away from the other flavors that go well with fish tacos," she says.

That said, other taco lovers from Megan Markle to Mashed's own Maren Epstein love salmon tacos (via Today). Their secret? They don't fry the rich, fatty fish, opting instead to grill or bake it. If you opt for one of these cooking methods, salmon can be a tasty, if controversial, choice for fish tacos. But for the classic fried fish taco, you're better off sticking to a flakier white fish with a milder flavor.

You shouldn't use clams

If you ask Herrera, a clam taco is not a fish taco, and he's quick to note that nomenclature is not the only reason he eschews the mollusk as a taco filling. "Personally, I would avoid proteins that come in shells," he says. Indeed, while fried clams and mussels are indeed tasty on their own, their chewy texture can easily make consuming your taco a bit of an exercise in futility.

Miranda agrees — with a caveat. "I would prefer to stay away from really oily fish and some shellfish, like clams or mussels," she says. "Although, with a great homemade salsa, a fried clam taco would be delicious!"

If you want to take his suggestion for a spin, there are loads of different salsa recipes that could pair nicely with clams, from a mild, fresh pico de gallo to a habanero-spiked salsa with loads of heat. Just be sure you've got a pile of napkins at the ready.

You shouldn't use calamari

The texture is the main reason why Welsh steers clear of using squid or calamari in fish tacos. "The texture of calamari is just too tough and too chewy to work in taco form," he says. "The tortillas are too delicate and it becomes an exercise trying to finish your meal."

Indeed, calamari or squid has a tendency to become quite chewy when fried — especially if it's over- or under-cooked (two common mistakes people make when cooking squid.) Even when made just right, fried calamari is toothsome enough to make enjoying your taco a chore without even bringing that much flavor to the party.

Look, we're not saying fried calamari isn't delicious, especially when paired with a homemade marinara sauce for dipping. But trust our experts and keep it out of your taco if you want to keep its structural integrity intact — and keep your taco-eating experience from turning into an even messier venture than usual.

You shouldn't use oysters

Oysters are nothing if not divisive: While some love the briny, sweet flavor of the mollusk, others are turned off by their slippery texture. Indeed, Deleon is anything but a fan of the idea of featuring oysters in a fish taco. "I would probably avoid using oysters," she says. "It's the texture for me."

The slipperiness of a raw oyster firms up significantly when breaded and fried; it's for this reason that oysters are such a favorite in po' boys. But while oyster fans might have fun toying with the inclusion of these fried golden seafood nuggets in a fish taco, we have to admit: As compared to some of the milder suggestions on this list, oysters, with their brininess, may risk overpowering the other delicate ingredients and flavor balance. In short, look elsewhere for the crowning pearl of the perfect fish taco.