LIONFISH TACOS IN MEXICO
STORY BY ELIZABETH KARP-EVANS
PHOTOGRAPHY + ILLUSTRATIONS BY ADAM JAMES TURNBULL
Aware of the impending misery that August heat waves inflict on New York and with a slightly unhealthy love of Mexican food, my boyfriend Adam and I recently boarded a plane to Tulum. We didn’t have to search long for the centuries-old ruins, beautiful beaches and great margaritas Mexico’s Mayan Riviera is known for. But finding good food, homegrown and flavorful matched by a degree of culinary adventure, proved nearly impossible.
Gynn’AK is the exception. Their unique lionfish tacos finally ended our week long search for authentic and inspired Mexican cooking.
The unassuming outdoor restaurant is located twenty minutes north of Tulum in Akumal, a town known for the giant sea turtles that feed in its bay. A thirty-minute walk down the sundrenched main road brought us to our destination: a plastic banner announcing the restaurant, a cornucopia of weather-beaten tables and chairs and a man with a gold grill who seemed to be the only employee.
Décor withstanding, what we found was a modest but legitimate operation. Chef and founder Gynna Sainz is a local who attended culinary school in the US and returned to open the small Mexican/Thai fusion eatery. An expert hunter, she catches the venomous lionfish used in her exceptional tacos.
Released into the wild off the coast of Florida in the 1980s, lionfish are a pest in the Atlantic and Caribbean waters they inhabit. Their poisonous venom leaves them with no natural predators and is what makes the fish a culinary delicacy. If stung, symptoms can range from nausea and vomiting to paralysis and seizures. Symptoms also occur when ingesting the venom so preparation is a crucial part of the cooking process. Sainz detoxifies the lionfish on site by removing the head and poisonous spine. After carefully filleting to make sure no poison remains, the fish go straight onto a charcoal grill.
If stung, symptoms can range from nausea and vomiting to paralysis and seizures
The finished tacos are a perfect mix of taste married to texture. Lionfish is similar to grouper or snapper but when grilled is delicate and meaty and perfect with lime. The tacos come with cilantro, avocado and a few pieces of shredded red cabbage. All of this sits atop a warm, homemade corn tortilla. Three generously sized tacos come in an order, as does a side of Thai slaw with a subtle ginger and sesame dressing. The slaw is best consumed as an additional topping along with the house salsa, a habanero, chipotle and tamarind blend that ads a delicious smoky finish.
Other lionfish options on the dry erase menu include a grilled whole Lionfish, ceviche, sashimi, an untraditional spin on fish and chips and lionfish tempura sushi with avocado and scallions. Each dish looks better than the last but the tacos are the true standout.
Despite the influence of other countries, unusual ingredients and untraditional preparation, the food exiting the small kitchen at Gynn’AK remains true to the area. Sainz has elevated Mexican cooking, but upon tasting Adam and I remained firmly planted on the small dirt floor of her restaurant, surrounded by palm trees, far from home.