Backyard BBQ: How Hexagon chef Rafa Covarrubias makes his al pastor fish tacos

Backyard BBQ: How Hexagon chef Rafa Covarrubias makes his al pastor fish tacos

Now that it’s officially barbecue season, we’re asking Toronto chefs to show us what summer dishes they’re grilling (or frying) in their own backyards, on their balconies or in their kitchens

Don't be stingy with the sauce

Like many of us, Hexagon chef Rafa Covarrubias is at home more than usual these days. We asked the social-distancing chef what summer dishes he’s grilling. His recipe: al pastor fish tacos with BBQ guacamole.

More Backyard BBQ

For chef Rafa Covarrubias of Oakville’s Hexagon, summer is all about barbecue. And while he’s definitely keen on the classics—steaks, burgers, sausages—he likes to mix things up with this grilled sea bream taco recipe. “It’s a lighter dish than other barbecue fare,” says Covarrubias. “I drew inspiration from what we do at Hexagon, where I take the techniques I’ve learned over the years and use them to transform humble, seasonal ingredients into something special. This fish dish just hits every note: it’s tart, spicy, charred, full of umami, fatty and herbaceous, all at the same time.” And every bite reminds him of home. “It’s a taste of Mexico, and a terrific meal with to share with friends.”

Because it’s delicate, fish can be a fickle ingredient to grill. “Take the fish out of the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for about 10 to 15 minutes before grilling it. It will take less time to cook and it will cook more evenly,” says Covarrubias. He also recommends grilling the fish skin side down first. “Doing this means you can see the cook going up the flesh as it changes colour. Once it hits the middle of the fish, you’re good to flip it and grill it for another minute or two.”

As for sides, Covarrubias recommends grilled corn on the cob (when it’s in season, of course) or a tomato salad with plenty of herbs. And to drink? “White wine is a must,” he says. “I have two top picks, both of which are from the Niagara region: Leaning Post’s Clockwork and the 2018 Raw Chenin Blanc from Big Head. Because this is a flakier fish cooked over charcoal with spices, it contrasts nicely with the fermented flavours in both of those wines.”

Chef Rafa’s shopping tips: He got all the spices and peppers listed below from Perolas, his go-to spice source in Kensington Market, and the tortillas are from Maizal on Ossington. “They are sustainable, and made in the traditional way using 100 per cent nixtamalized corn. They truly taste how tortillas should taste. You can order them on their website or by sending them a DM on Instagram.”

Here’s what you’ll need

1 sea bream (cleaned, gutted and butterflied)
Fresh herbs (cilantro, mint, parsley)
XOXO sauce
Fresh tortillas

Pastor marinade
2 dry guajillo peppers
2 dry pasilla chilies
½ white onion
1 garlic clove
2 tbsp achiote paste

BBQ guacamole
1 avocado
2 roma tomatoes
½ white onion
1 jalapeño pepper
Olive oil
White currants and gooseberries (optional garnishes)

The recipe

In a small pan, toast the chilies, onion and garlic with a touch of oil. Cover with water and simmer for five minutes.

This is what they should look like before adding the water…


Transfer to a blender, add achiote and process until smooth. Set aside. Note: any unused marinade can be jarred and stored in the fridge for up to a week, or frozen. It’s also great on poultry and pork.

…and after


Prepare your grill. Covarrubias likes to add a mix of charcoal (about two kilograms) and cherry wood (two to three branches) to the bottom, for touch of smokiness.

Once the coals are at the right temperature (they should all be an even white), clean your grates with a grill brush and start your guacamole. Cut your avocado in half, and in a small bowl, season it with salt and olive oil. Do the same with the jalapeños, onion and tomatoes.

Grill it all on high heat, as you only want to char the veggies, not cook them. Once everything is charred, transfer it to a tray and let them cool for a few minutes.

Soon, this will all be guac


Mash one half of the avocado and dice the rest of the ingredients. Top with the XOXO sauce and fruit. Season with salt (to taste), a bit of olive oil and lime juice. Set aside.

As promised


Place your fish on a grilling basket, skin side down. If you don’t have a basket, just place the fish directly on the grill (also skin side down). Brush the fish with the pastor marinade.

Don’t be stingy with the sauce


Cook for about three minutes until the skin is nice and crispy. Flip the fish and allow it to cook for two more minutes. Set it aside.

You don’t need a basket, but it definitely helps


While the fish rests, heat up your tortillas on the grill.

Before taco-fication…


Time to assemble your taco: spoon or slice some of the fish onto the tortilla, add some guac, then garnish with mixed herbs.

…and after



Thanks, chef Rafa!