how to make sobo’s killer fish tacos
posted: May 4, 2014
When Texas-born chef Lisa Ahier moved to Canada, against popular advice she opened a food truck, and in doing so created a fresh fish taco recipe that put both her and the charming surf town of Tofino on the international culinary map. Now she’s sharing that recipe across North America with her new cookbook, The SOBO Cookbook. A more perfect way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo we couldn’t imagine.
When singer Sarah McLachlan is happy to endorse your recipes, you gotta be doing something right
It was a case of love at first sight for Texas-born chef Lisa Ahier and the town of Tofino.
Lisa had left the Lone Star State upon graduating high school, and spent the next 12 years in Miami Beach cooking for lawyers, doctors, yachtsmen and their crews in an Irish pub, before she made a short-lived move to New York City. But it was too hot in the south for Lisa’s husband, Artie, and too cold in the north for Lisa.
So in the early 2000s, the free-spirited pair searched a map of North America for a temperate climate, spotted Tofino on the west coast of Canada, and went on the hunt for job offers in the remote outpost known for fishing, forestry and surfing. Their plans were, eventually, to make their way farther north to Alaska.
“But when we got to Tofino I looked at my husband and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m home,’” remembers Lisa. “I would have pumped gas at the local gas station to stay in Tofino if I couldn’t cook anymore.”
Though her career had been leaning towards fine dining, Lisa took a good look around Tofino and realized that wasn’t what her neighbours—surfers, kayakers, hiking guides, fishermen, etc. with an average age of 34—needed.
She decided to open a food truck in the tiny town, which has a permanent population of fewer than 2,000 people. (Keep in mind, this was more than a decade ago, before food trucks had any kind of culinary cachet, and the ones that did exist were usually slinging greasy burgers and fries.)
“My friends were really concerned for my future when I decided to open a food truck,” Lisa says. “There were tears and stuff, like I’d decided to throw my career away, but I hadn’t. This wasn’t about what was going to feed my ego or be cutting edge, I let all the stuff go that most chefs think about. This was about how I could raise my family in Tofino; what would work long term, and what people would come back for day after day because it feels good for them and they could afford it.”
Lisa named the purple food truck SOBO—short for sophisticated bohemian—and opened for business in the back of a gravel parking lot off the only road that leads into Tofino. The plan? To serve small, affordable plates of “exciting, healthy, powerful, forward food using really fresh ingredients.”
Her Killer Fish Tacos were an immediate standout on the menu. (Ed’s note: I’ve been eating Lisa’s food since she first swung open the window of her food truck. There is not an ounce of exaggeration in the word “killer” in describing how incredible these tacos taste.)
Chef Lisa Ahier’s recipes have been published in 13 cookbooks, but The SOBO Cookbook holds all of her own culinary secrets
“Our fish tacos are not Baja fish tacos. When you say fish taco in North America or Mexico they’re usually done with a soft shell tortilla, fried fish, crema sauce, shredded cabbage and maybe some pico de gallo. Ours are sautéed, not fried, and finished with fresh fruit salsa,” Lisa explains.
She’d originally created the tacos to satisfy her own hunger the days she got stuck cooking on the line for hours on end. “I need something I can eat really fast, and fish and fruit is all I usually want, so I shoved it all in one shell and went, ‘Hey, that works.’ And nobody else was doing it.”
In 2003, the year after SOBO opened, Air Canada’s onboard magazine, En Route, named the purple food truck one of “Canada’s 10 best new restaurants.” The accolade set off a tidal wave of attention; media began calling, tourists began to flock to the little truck off the side of the highway, and soon some big job offers rolled in for Lisa—offers that would have meant moving out of Tofino. She turned them down.
“It’s not always about money, and for me it’s never about money,” she says. “What are the five most important things in your world, and if you had one day left what would you do? I’d grab my family, a great bottle of wine and great food, jump on my paddleboard or kayak and be right here in Tofino, out on the water.”
Since its modest beginnings, SOBO has grown out of the purple truck, and now has a bricks-and-mortar location right in Tofino, but the casual, comfortable vibe is the same, and Lisa’s dishes—from tasty tofu pockets and savoury shiitake miso through to her Killer Fish tacos—are as tasty as ever. Even though her menu can now be sampled around the world, Lisa is steadfast that she’ll never leave Tofino.
“I love it here, and I hope this cookbook reflects that. It’s about the culture of Tofino and this whole area.”
Just in time for Cinco de Mayo, we are stoked to share the recipe for Lisa’s Killer Fish Tacos with you. For more of Lisa’s unique, healthy and conversation-worthy food, just pick up The SOBO Cookbook.
SOBO KILLER FISH TACOS
I’ve always adjusted this recipe according to what fish is readily available. In New York I used snapper, and in Texas I used bass. In BC, salmon and halibut have become my all-time favourites. (And thank God for Whole Foods, because now our BC product is available at their stores throughout North America; ask for it!) This salsa should reflect the season, so don’t be a slave to the recipe. I mix it up all the time, combining fruits like peaches and blueberries with watermelon, or pineapple with avocado—buy what’s fresh! Combine all the ingredients and refrigerate until ready to use. This salsa will stand up for about 24 hours, after which time the fruit begins to break down.
Ingredients (makes 16 tacos):
1 lb wild salmon, boneless and skinless
1 lb halibut, boneless and skinless
2 tbs salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup small-diced red onion (about 1 onion)
1/2 cup puréed canned chipotle chilies in adobo sauce
16 crispy hard taco shells
4 kiwi fruits, diced small
1/2 pineapple, diced small
1 mango, diced small
1 small papaya, diced small
2 avocados, diced small
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Prepare the fresh fruit salsa. The fruit in this salsa should be diced smaller than for a fruit salad, but not so small that the fruit turns to mush. It should amount to 5–6 cups all together. If you intend to prepare the salsa in advance, don’t add the avocado until immediately before serving as avocado turns brown quickly. This salsa will stand up for about 24 hours, after which time the fruit begins to break down.
Cut the salmon and halibut into 1-inch cubes and season with the salt. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté for 1 minute. Add the fish and fry for about 3 minutes, until just cooked. Add the chipotle chilies and sauté for 2 to 3 more minutes. Remove from the heat.
Fill the taco shells halfway with the fish mixture, then top with the salsa. Serve immediately, two tacos per person.
Kate is a writer, editor and fast-talker (literally), who thinks that life is profoundly better when she’s outside—especially when there’s a board beneath her feet. Join her on the ride on Twitter and Instagram.