If you’ve ever seen a lionfish, eating it was probably the last thing on your mind. With its red-and-white tiger stripes and halo of venomous spines, this ornamental fish seems better suited to an aquarium than to a plate. But at DK Puerto Morelos on Mexico’s Yucatan coast, it’s the only fish on the menu. The casual beachside eatery, housed in a repurposed shipping container, serves lionfish either sandwiched in a bun, beer-battered and fried, grilled and served over coconut rice, or wrapped in a taco—all in the name of marine conservation.
You see, lionfish don’t belong here. They’re an invasive species that were introduced to the region in the last few decades. “The urban legend goes that in the ’80s, a hurricane hit South Florida and an aquarium with a large population of lionfish was dumped into the ocean,” says Luis Rodriguez, co-owner of DK Puerto Morelos. Whether or not that’s true, it’s generally agreed that humans were responsible for the spread of lionfish from their native habitat in the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the waters of the Atlantic and Caribbean. In this new environment—with predators that don’t recognize them as food and prey that doesn’t recognize them as a threat—the population exploded. The fish’s impact is most obvious in the southeast United States, the Gulf of Mexico, and across the Caribbean, where they are decimating reef ecosystems at an alarming rate.
Lionfish are not picky eaters: They’ll swallow anything they can fit their mouths around. In Bermuda, they’ve reduced the local fish population by 65 percent in two years; in Florida, they’ve almost exhausted their supply of prey and have turned to cannibalism. In the face of what scientists are calling an unprecedented threat to marine biodiversity, conservationists are urging seafood lovers to fight fire with fire. In other words, eat the lionfish before they eat everything else.
Rodriguez doesn’t remember exactly when he first encountered lionfish. It may have been in New York, where he spent a decade managing fine dining restaurants like Mario Batali’s Babbo. But it wasn’t until he relocated to Mexico’s Riviera Maya a few years ago that Rodriguez learned the extent of the impact of the species in the area. Seeing the fish at a local market and becoming curious about it, he took some fillets home to try.
“I remember thinking ‘Well, I’m going to do my part for the planet; let’s hope this isn’t too bad,’” he recalls. He then discovered what many restaurateurs in the region are starting to realize: Lionfish is delicious. “It’s similar to grouper—it has a white, mild-flavored flesh and a nice flaky texture when cooked. My last job in New York was at Oceana, one of the best seafood restaurants in town, and [this lionfish] was at the same level as the fish I would serve there,” he says.
When Rodriguez and partner Andres Barragan opened their self-styled dive kitchen in late 2015, they included a few lionfish dishes on the “pan Ameri-Asian” menu—a term they coined for their catchall cuisine that encompasses seafood tostadas, pulled pork sandwiches, and Thai chicken salad. Rodriguez says he had anticipated some hesitation from customers with less-adventurous palates but didn’t expect that the unusual fish would become one of the restaurant’s biggest draws. Perhaps due to the many five-star Tripadvisor reviews, visitors now make a pilgrimage to this quiet spot between Cancun and Playa del Carmen specifically for the lionfish.
Occasionally the trip is in vain; some days, lionfish just isn’t available. The market is still relatively small, so supply can be spotty, but the appetite and demand for the fish are definitely growing. Rodriguez says the price per kilo has gone from 70 to 290 pesos in the past two years, and lionfish have started to appear on more menus around town and at a few resorts. It’s a promising development since experts suggest that incentivizing fishermen to catch lionfish commercially is our best (and perhaps only) shot at keeping their numbers under control. Rodriguez is committed to doing his part by serving DK Puerto Morelos’s signature fish tacos for as long as he can. He hopes that one day the demand will outstrip supply. “We joke that when we have to tell people ‘Sorry, but we just can’t get any lionfish,’ we will have achieved our goal,” he says.
While you’re planning your next trip to Mexico, you can still help eat the Atlantic back to health and make your own version of DK Puerto Morelos’s famous fish tacos at home. Look for lionfish stateside at Whole Foods stores in Florida, northern California, the Rocky Mountains, and southwestern and southern areas. You can also order it from New York–based supplier Norman’s Lionfish. Buen provecho!
100 grams lionfish fillets (about 3.5 oz)
4 teaspoons Sofrito
1/2 Hass avocado
2 lime wedges
2 tablespoons cabbage
2 teaspoons cilantro
1 teaspoon finely chopped jalapeño
Salt and pepper
Guajillo chili powder to garnish
Brush lionfish fillets with canola oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place lionfish skin-side down on a flat-top grill for 3 to 4 minutes, making sure to exert pressure on the fillet with a spatula. Grill the other side for 2 minutes.
Use two tortillas for each taco. Spread 2 teaspoons of sofrito on each taco and place the grilled fish on top. Add the avocado in slices and season with salt and lime juice. Top with cabbage, cilantro, and jalapeños. Dust with guajillo chili powder and serve with more lime wedges if desired.