Restaurant Copycat: Torchy’s Baja Shrimp Taco

It wasn’t until my foodie friend visited Texas for the first time, that I realized I take breakfast tacos for granted.

It was only after she lamented “Why are there no breakfast tacos in California?” that it struck me—after being transplanted in Houston from my California hometown, I’ve really only been eating breakfast tacos for five plus years, but it already seems like a way of life. Houstonians, grab your breakfast tacos and hold them close because it appears that other geographies have work to do when it comes to the most important meal of the day.

I’d be hard-pressed to argue against the statement that breakfast tacos are one of the most perfect foods known to man, but really, almost any taco will do. Whenever people visit me in Houston, one of the first places I think to take them is Torchy’s Tacos. The biggest bone I have to pick with them is that I can never decide which two among my four favorites tacos I’m feeling. To order there is to indulge in a serious soul-search (for me, at least) about whether this will be the time I finally pair the blackened salmon with my beloved shrimp taco or if my staple Migas taco will have to make an appearance (it usually does).

I decided to tackle this issue head-on by figuring out how to recreate my absolute favorite taco there—the Baja Shrimp—at home. I’m not a fan of deep frying, so even though there’s no true substitute for deeply crusty, deep-fried shrimp, you can come very close with the help of some double-breading and shallow-frying.

The ingredient list may look overwhelming, but all the individual components are easy to throw together. Of course, you don’t have to make all the components, but they work together so well if you do—the sweet-tangy bite of the pickled vegetables perks up tufts of lightly fried cabbage; a crumble of queso fresco provides salty highlights to creamy avocado sauce dabbed over nuggets of juicy, breaded shrimp. Do they stand up to the original? Try this and find out!

Torchy’s Baja Shrimp Tacos

Yield: 6-8 tacos

Ingredients

For the pickled onion and jalapeno:

½ cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
1.5 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1 red onion, sliced thinly
5 jalapenos, de-seeded and sliced thinly

For the cabbage:

4 cups sliced green cabbage
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper
squeeze of lime

For the avocado sauce:

1 avocado
juice of half a lime
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped finely
dash of garlic powder
salt

For the shrimp:

1 pound small or medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ cup flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

6-8 tortillas, corn or flour
queso fresco
cilantro, for garnish

Instructions

For the pickled onion and jalapeno:

Whisk together the vinegar, water, sugar and salt. Add the sliced onion and jalapeno and let sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour. You can also make this ahead of time and refrigerate it overnight.

For the cabbage:

Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the cabbage and fry over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, or until cabbage has softened and started to brown slightly. Season with cumin, salt and pepper and remove from heat. Squeeze a bit of lime over the top.

For the avocado sauce:

Mash all ingredients together with a fork until very smooth.

For the shrimp:

Rinse the shrimp under cold water and pat dry with a paper towel. Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, salt, garlic powder and pepper and add the shrimp. Toss to coat. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in the same skillet you used to fry the cabbage over medium heat. Once the oil is hot but not smoking, toss the shrimp in the flour mixture (reserve the excess flour) and lay them out in the pan in a single layer—avoid overcrowding the pan (you may have to fry the shrimp in several batches. Add more oil to additional batches if necessary.). Increase the heat to medium high and cook for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Remove cooked shrimp and set on a paper towel to drain while you fry the rest of the shrimp. To double-fry the shrimp, toss the cooked shrimp in the leftover flour mixture and cook over medium-high heat in another tablespoon of oil.

To assemble:

Warm the tortillas in a dry skillet if desired. Sprinkle a handful of shrimp and cabbage on top of a tortilla. Add some pickled vegetables and a dollop of avocado sauce. Top with queso fresco, chopped cilantro and an additional squeeze of lime.

Erika Kwee

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