Wood-Fired Fish Tacos with Papaya Salsa
A native of Rock Hill, Chef Rob Masone’s high standards, conscientiousness and creativity in the kitchen have earned him a reputation as one of South Carolina’s most vibrant chefs and a spot on the roster of the 2023 South Carolina Chef Ambassadors.
“I got a call from my director of operations that there was a spot in Rock Hill I might be interested in,” says Masone on finding the location for his restaurant. “I was looking for an event space, so we walked in the back door, and I thought it would be great. As we got closer to the front of the building, I realized there was a kitchen.”
It turned out that the building, a former five-and-dime that had been vacant for several years, was the site of the Friendship Nine’s famous sit-in.
“In 1961, ten African American gentlemen sat down at the counter and ordered lunch,” says Masone while sitting at the same counter. “They were refused service, arrested and given the choice between paying a $100 fine or 30 days of hard labor on the chain gang. One of the gentlemen did pay so that he wouldn’t lose his scholarship to Friendship College. The other nine decided to do the time, coining the phrase, ‘jail, no bail.’”
To honor the memory of the Friendship 9 and their courageous role in the Civil Rights movement, Masone named the restaurant Kounter. The original stools, footrail and pink Formica top, complete with coffee stains, remain in use, and each stool has an engraved sign with one of their names.
Growing up, Masone spent a lot of his time fishing along the coast and learned how to live off the bounty of the sea.
“We didn’t go out to dinner,” says Masone, “we went out on the boat, or we pulled the clams out of the water in our front yard. That’s how I was raised, and that’s why this resource is so important to protect for my kids and grandkids.”
Mark Marhefka, owner of Abundant Seafood in Charleston, agrees and is committed to working both on and off the water to ensure that the populations of fish he relies on, and the habitat they rely on are managed so that there will be plenty of fish for generations to come.
“I’ve spent over 40 years on the water,” says Marhefka, “and it's changed a lot. It’s important to have a balanced ocean where a little bit of everything is caught, not just one species, but they all need to be protected as well.”
Marhefka uses a rod and reel system to catch fish—no nets—and fish that don’t meet regulations are released healthy and alive. Off the water, Marhefka ensures every fish is graded and scaled to minimize the chef’s prep time.
“We don’t have to do a whole lot to this fish for it to be what it was meant to be,” says Masone. “I have everything I need right here to make a full dining room happy.”
Wood-Fired Fish Tacos with Papaya Salsa
“We used fresh herbs and citrus with a black garlic and pepper compound butter on top. You don’t have to do much to it. I think cooking is scary to some folks, but we really didn’t have to do a lot for this. Sometimes the best things are simple, clean and fresh.”
2-3 pound whole red snapper, scaled and gutted
½ cup Roasted Shallot & Chipotle Compound Butter (see below)
1.5 pint Papaya Salsa (see below)
1 fresh banana leaf, 18-20” in length
½ bundle fresh cilantro leaves
1 thinly sliced lemon
1 thinly sliced lime
1 thinly sliced orange
Roasted Shallot & Chipotle Compound Butter
(yield approx. 1.5 cups)
1/2 pound room temp unsalted butter
3 ounces chopped roasted shallots
2 fine chopped chipotle peppers in adobo
Whip butter in a mixer for 3 minutes to aerate the butter and add lift and heft.
Add roasted shallots and chipotle peppers, whip another 3 minutes on high speed.
Place butter in airtight container in the refrigerator.
Note: Bring butter to room temp before using in this recipe.
(yield 1.5 pint)
2 shallots, finely diced
4 jalapeños, seeded, finely diced
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chiffonade 1 cup rice wine vinegar
4 tablespoons sugar 2 large ripe papayas
Peel, seed and dice papaya.
Add all other ingredients and combine thoroughly.
Refrigerate and let rest so flavors can meld for a minimum of 1 hour.
- Score the surface of the snapper in a shallow crosshatch pattern.
- Liberally rub each side of the fish with Roasted Shallot & Chipotle Compound Butter (room temperature).
- Stuff the cavity of the fish with fresh citrus and cilantro.
- Wrap the stuffed fish in a fresh banana leaf.
- Place on 500-degree grill. I prefer to use a Kudu Grill with white oak and charcoal.
- Grill wrapped fish for 5 minutes, then rotate 45 degrees and cook another 5 minutes.
- Carefully flip wrapped fish and repeat the process for a total cooking time of about 20 minutes on the grill. Note – the outside of the banana leaf should start roasting, blister and begin to blacken.
- Remove wrapped fish from grill and let rest for 5 minutes.
- Slice banana leaf length wise to expose the meat of the fish.
- Serve family style with papaya salsa and warm tortillas.