Andrew Gruel wants you and your family to eat more seafood – and not just because he’s the founder of Slapfish, a chain of fast-casual seafood shacks with locations in 10 states, including SoCal restaurants in Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, Irvine, Brea, San Clemente, Tustin and LAX. “Environmentally, it’s a good choice and from a health perspective, children especially should eat a lot more seafood,” says the father of three.
The original Slapfish, launched in 2011 as a fast-casual food truck turned modern seafood brick and mortar, grew out of his work as director of the nonprofit “Seafood for the Future” program at Aquarium of the Pacific. To Gruel, who had spent years as a chef, a franchise focused on sustainable seafood was the next logical step. He fears people aren’t eating as much seafood as they otherwise would because they worry about things like overfishing and aren’t sure how to choose something sustainable. “We’ve made seafood so confusing. People just look at the menu and say, ‘Give me the chicken sandwich,’” he says.
But seafood has plenty of known health benefits, such as omega-3 fatty acids that have been shown to boost brain and eye health and reduce risk of chronic diseases. And more seafood in the diet means fewer meals built around less-sustainable, less-healthy proteins. “We’re consuming less beef, chicken, etc.,” says Gruel.
Ready to buy some fish? You could hit a trusted seafood source like Santa Monica Seafood, but Gruel says even grocery stores such as Albertsons carry wonderful ocean-frozen seafood options. Make sure your fish comes from a sustainable source by choosing only wild-caught fish caught in the U.S. – where legislation requires sustainable fishing practices – or farmed fish that carries the Best Aquaculture Practices logo.
To make sure the fish you’re choosing is fresh, Gruel advises following your gut. “We have a natural instinct to know what’s good,” he says. The fish should look moist and shiny and, while it might smell like fish, it shouldn’t smell putrid or unpleasant. If you poke it (or ask the person behind the fish counter to), the flesh should be firm enough that your finger doesn’t leave a dent. “You want it to have a little bounce back,” says Gruel.
Don’t shy away from fish that is labeled “previously frozen.” “When I see fish at the counter that says previously frozen, I actually opt for that fish,” Gruel says, explaining that current flash-freezing technology means many fish are frozen immediately after they come out of the water. This hits the pause button and keeps the catch as fresh as possible. He also points out that all sushi and sashimi is deliberately frozen because this kills harmful parasites and bacteria.
Gruel says that most Americans eat their seafood in restaurants, but it is easy to cook at home. And this fish taco recipe is a good start. “It’s just so simple,” he says. “The key to a good recipe is that everyone is going to have their own version of it.” That means you should feel free to change things up, using different sauces, different toppings or even different fish.
His kids, who are 4½, 8½ and 11 months old, are big fish taco fans. “They just really love eating anything with their hands,” says Gruel.
Fish tacos are also a great recipe for cooks who don’t feel confident judging when fish is cooked through. “Don’t be afraid to cut the fish open and look at it,” Gruel says. After all, it’s going to be wrapped up in a tortilla. What you’re looking for is fish that is firm and starting to flake. It’s OK to take the cooking slow. Gruel says that, unlike with beef or chicken, fish doesn’t need a hard sear to build flavor. That means you can start with a pan that’s relatively hot, then turn down the heat for a leisurely finish.
Another cool trick he uses at home: Season the fish, then place it on an oiled baking sheet and cook it in a 275-degree oven for 20 or 30 minutes (until it is basically done), then pull it out and put it in the skillet for a few seconds to sear it.
Baja Tacos from Slapfish
Makes 4 Tacos and Serves 4
1 lb. tilapia, cut into ¼-lb. pieces
4 5-inch yellow corn tortillas
2 teaspoons grapeseed oil
For the spice mix, combine:
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon granulated onion
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
For the sauce, combine:
½ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon chipotle powder
Zest from ¼ lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
2 cups finely shredded cabbage
½ cup thinly sliced red onion
1 avocado, sliced
Fresh cilantro to garnish
Toss the onion with the juice from the limes and a touch of salt. Set aside.
Dust the tilapia with the spice mix. Heat the oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat and sear the fish on both sides, then turn down the heat and let the fish cook through. Remove the tilapia, wipe the pan clean and add a touch more oil. Toast the tortillas in the same pan for about 8 seconds a side (until warm and slightly toasted).
Place a few avocado slices on the base of each tortilla and top with one piece of seared tilapia. Top the fish with a good amount of cabbage and some onions, drizzle with the sauce and garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve with a wedge of lime.