Foodservice operators say the right ingredients can make seafood a favorite for consumers who otherwise may be looking for more assertive flavors.
Even mild white fish can be bold, as demonstrated by chefs who are employing such items as herbs, spices, citrus fruits, garlic and sauces in an effort to appeal to a broader range of consumer tastes. Consumers are seeking high quality, all-natural seafood, and they are also looking at what flavors chefs are adding to the fish.
All-natural tilapia, with its mild favor and pleasing texture, is a favorite among consumers and chefs. “It is such a versatile platform to do things with,” says Dennis Lombardi, president of Insight Dynamics, a Columbus, Ohio, restaurant advisory service. “When the center of the plate is strong, you have to be concerned with what goes around it. But when the center of the plate is mild, there are a lot more things you can do with it.”
There are almost limitless ways to add flavor to tilapia, Lombardi says. If the customer wants something spicy, he suggests a glaze with spices, soy sauce and brown sugar. Cajun spices, which generally include coriander, cumin and paprika, appeal to consumers seeking a hotter flavor profile. Citrus also works well — such as baked fish with lemon slices and capers. The fish can also be crusted in parmesan cheese, or baked or broiled with lemon garlic.
“The versatility of tilapia is not limited by the tilapia,” he says. “It’s limited by the imagination and creativity of the people making up the recipes.”
Operators must be creative, not just in the ingredients that add flavors, but also with cooking techniques. Plancha Tacos, with two locations in the Los Angeles area, serves two types of fish tacos: grilled and beer battered. Both feature fresh tilapia fillets. The grilled fish taco comes with guacamole, onions and cilantro, and is topped with a chipotle cream sauce and served in a butter lettuce leaf instead of a tortilla.
“It is extremely popular not only for the fantastic, fresh taste but also for the healthy and light aspect of the low-carb lettuce leaf shell,” says Peter White, owner of Plancha Tacos.
White says the best way to prepare fish for tacos is to cook the fish in a sauté pan, because it sears in the juices and gives the tilapia a crispy texture. “Use a tad of olive or vegetable oil in the pan. Drizzle a little red hot sauce or balsamic vinaigrette on top of the fish to give it a little more flavor, and sprinkle with salt and pepper,” he says. “Always use sea salt for food that comes from the sea.”
Meanwhile, Plancha Tacos’ beer-battered taco is prepared more in the classic Baja California style. The batter is made with Mexican beer while the taco contains fresh chopped cabbage, pico de gallo, and is topped with chipotle cream sauce. The taco is served in a fresh, hot, corn or flour tortilla.
Consumers also like flavors that fit a certain theme. At Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant in New Orleans, the menu has a beach vibe. One popular item is the Todos Santos Tacos, which contain a mahi mahi fillet. The fish is smoked and the tacos are dressed with chipotle and red cabbage slaw with avocado cream.
Jorge Henriquez, chief operating officer of Kirkendoll Management's Restaurant Division, which runs the restaurant with its founders, says every item on Lucy's menu is inspired by a global surf destination, including places that the restaurant founder Bruce Rampick, the “original retired surfer," visited. For example the Todos Santos Tacos feature smoked mahi mahi, avocado crema and coleslaw, and are served on a flour tortilla.
“The Todos Santos Fish Tacos are inspired by a small taco shack in Todos Santos that served smoked fish mixed with sweet coleslaw,” Henriquez says “Todos Santos is a small coastal town near the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains on the Pacific side of the Baja California Peninsula, about an hour's drive north of Cabo San Lucas.”
Citrus is another good flavor for fish, especially if the fruit is in season. Chef Jason Hotchkiss, director of culinary operations for Patio Restaurant Group, with restaurants in San Diego, says over the winter they prepare the tuna with blood oranges for sweetness and grapefruit for tartness. The cooking method also contributes to the flavor. “Grilling is a very simple form of cooking,” he says. “It gives fish a little bit of a char, and the fish is actually pretty sweet, so there is a balance.”
The restaurants also serve poke tacos with napa cabbage and pickled vegetables. The fish is marinated in sugar, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, mirin cooking wine, ginger juice, and pineapple juice. “Those are really delicious,” Hotchkiss says. “We do those year-round.”
Another operator who menus tilapia with citrus is Houlihan’s, which offers Tilapia with Citrus Crab Salad — pan-seared tilapia and a salad of lump blue crab, oranges, cilantro, red peppers and green onion, and charred pineapple brown rice. Houlihan’s, with 71 locations, says on its website it is “an American restaurant and bar serving quality food and drinks,” and it makes “every effort to choose ingredients that are free of preservatives, antibiotics, hormones and other nasties.”
Ethnic flavors are popular too. At Ackee Bamboo Restaurant in Los Angeles, the Brown Stew Tilapia is partially fried, and then simmered in the traditional Jamaican brown tomato base sauce. Café Brasil in Los Angeles offers salmon, white fish or picante catfish marinated with Brazilian spices, grilled and served with white rice, black beans, fried plantain, and a choice of picante or mild salsa. At Bahama Breeze, an American restaurant chain with 37 locations in the U.S., the tilapia is available grilled or sautéed and served either almond crusted, mango glazed, chimichurri, classic or creole. It is accompanied with a choice of green beans, yellow rice, mashed potatoes or cinnamon mashed sweet potatoes.
“There are just a lot of options out there,” says consultant Lombardi. “What matters is, what do your customers want.”