Crushed tortilla chips make a great breading for fish! My Tortilla Crusted Tilapia is a cinch to make on the stove, in the oven, or in the air fryer. Top the crispy fish fillets with Pico de Gallo and a drizzle of Cilantro-Lime Sauce for a festive, restaurant-quality seafood dinner.
I always seem to have a surplus of tortilla chips in the house. While I love dipping into a good bowl of salsa or queso, leftover chips (especially the fragments at the bottom of the bag that are undippable), make a delicious coating for chicken and fish.
They also make dinner easy. Just toss the chip crumbs with your favorite spices, and you have a crunchy, flavorful breading that’s quick enough to pull together even on a busy night.
Served with Cherry Tomato Pico de Gallo and Cilantro-Lime Sauce, this Tortilla Crusted Tilapia is a fresh, full-flavored dish that can double for a weeknight dinner or a casual dinner party.
Tilapia is a firm, mild, freshwater white fish. Since it doesn’t taste “fishy,” you can easily use it in a variety of cuisines. Tilapia great with Asian flavors, Mediterranean sauces and marinades, and served with a Latin flair, as I’ve done here.
No tilapia? You can substitute most firm white fish fillets in this recipe; flounder, cod, pollock, and haddock would all work well. It’s best for the fillets to be on the thinner side so they cook quickly and evenly.
Shopping for Tilapia
Tilapia is one of the most consumed fish in the United States, but you might’ve read some discouraging press about it over the past few years. There has been a lot of debate about its healthfulness and sustainability.
Here’s where there’s concern: tilapia is most often farmed. Unfortunately, not all producers across the globe employ acceptable farming practices.
In these cases, the poor environment in which the fish are raised (and what they feed on), can introduce them to toxins, pollutants, and hormones. These practices can also damage freshwater ecosystems in developing countries.
The key here is to be a smart shopper. I like to buy tilapia that has “Best Aquaculture Practices” (BAP) certification from the Global Aquaculture Alliance. This ensures that farmers adhere to rigorous standards for responsible and sustainable production.
If you’re buying frozen fish, look for the BAP seal on the package. If you’re buying it fresh at the grocery store or seafood market, ask for the tilapia’s sourcing, and if it’s certified.
Note that some stores have their own certification system. At Whole Foods Market, you’ll find farmed seafood marked with their 3rd-party verified “Whole Foods Market Responsibly Farmed” seal. When in doubt, ask!
What Kind of Tortilla Chips Should I Use?
You can use whatever variety of corn chips you have on hand for breading. That said, I’ve found that using all blue corn chips makes the coating a little tougher in texture.
When I have both varieties available, I like to use a mixture of yellow/white and blue corn chips. The confetti-like appearance makes a festive presentation on the dinner table.
If you have flavored tortilla chips, like sea salt and lime, they make a great breading too! Just be sure to adjust the seasonings in the recipe, to taste, based on the type of chip you’re using.
You can either pulse the chips in your food processor, or pop them in a plastic storage bag and crush them with a rolling pin. Crush them finely, but not so much that they become powdered.
Ways to Cook Tortilla Chip Breaded Tilapia
Just like my Coconut Shrimp, you can cook these breaded fish fillets by shallow-frying them on the stove, baking them in the oven, or air-frying. Pan-fried fillets will be the most golden and crispy, followed by air-fried, and finally, baked.
For the best results when pan-frying and air-frying, don’t crowd the fillets and cook them in batches. I can fit one fillet at a time in my air-fryer basket, and two at a time in a large skillet.
While the pan-fried fillets are cooked directly in oil (it’s best to change it between batches), I like to spray the breaded fish on both sides with vegetable oil before baking or air-frying to help with browning.
All three methods will take less than 20 minutes of cooking time, depending on the thickness of the fillets. Fully-cooked tilapia should read 145 degrees F at the thickest part of the fillet and flake easily with a fork.
Serving Tortilla Crusted Tilapia
We absolutely love the contrast of Cherry Tomato Pico de Gallo, and creamy Cilantro-Lime Sauce against the crispy fish. The sweet tomatoes and tart lime bring freshness and acidity that lightens the overall feel of the dish.
As a variation, I’ve also topped these fillets with a simple cabbage slaw (such as the one served with Chef Evan Blomgren’s Buffalo Chicken Meatballs) and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. To add sweetness, my Grilled Pineapple Salsa or Mango Salsa are also delicious alternatives to the Pico de Gallo.
Regardless of which you choose, I would definitely not skip the fresh topping component here; we find that it really pulls the dish together, elevating very good breaded fish to a delicious meal.
Tortilla Crusted Tilapia
- 4 tilapia fillets (6 ounces each)
- 1/3 cup all purpose flour
- 1 -1/2 cups finely-crushed corn tortilla chips
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (depending on how spicy you like your fish)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon cool water
- 1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil , divided (for pan-frying) OR
- vegetable or canola oil spray , for air frying or baking
- kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Cherry Tomato Pico de Gallo
- 2 cups cherry tomatoes , halved if small and quartered, if large
- 1/4 cup chopped yellow onions
- 1 small jalapeño pepper , finely chopped (seeds removed for mild)
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
- 1 -1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
- 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
- kosher salt and freshly ground pepper , to taste
- 1/2 recipe Cilantro Lime Sauce
Prep the Tilapia
- Prepare 3 dishes suitable for breading. Place the flour in the first. In the second, whisk together eggs and water. In the third, mix together crushed tortilla chips, paprika, cayenne, cumin, garlic powder, and onion powder. Season crumbs to taste with salt (this will depend on how salty your chips are). In a bowl, whisk together eggs and 1 tablespoon lime juice.
- Season tilapia fillets with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Dip into the egg mixture, letting excess drip off, and then into the seasoned chips, pressing to adhere the crumbs.
To Pan Fry
- In a large skillet over medium high heat, warm 1/4 cup oil until shimmering (enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan). Add 2 breaded fillets to the pan and cook until fish is cooked through and breading is golden, about 4-5 minutes per side. (Cooking time will vary by the thickness of your fillets. The USDA recommends an internal cooking temperature of 145 degrees F for fish, or until opaque.)
- Remove from pan and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. I like to sprinkle the fillets with a pinch of kosher salt when they're hot out of the oil.
- Carefully drain the oil to a heat-proof container and clean the pan with a paper towel. Repeat the frying process with remaining 1/4 cup oil and fillets.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with foil and lightly oil it. Place the breaded tilapia in a single layer and spray the tops with vegetable oil. (I use an oil mister.)
- Bake for 15-18 minutes, flipping once, until the thickest part of the fillets register 145 degrees F and the fish flakes easily.
To Air Fry
- Spray breaded fillets on each side with vegetable oil. Air fry in single-layer batches at 400 degrees F, until the thickest part of the fillets register 145 degrees F and the breading is lightly-browned (about 10-12 minutes total).
- Cooking times will vary by air fryer brand – keep a close eye on your first batch to determine the correct cooking time for the model you're using.
Make the Cherry Tomato Pico de Gallo
- In a bowl, mix together cherry tomatoes, onions, jalapeño pepper, cilantro, lime juice, and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- To serve, top each tilapia fillet with a scoop of the Cherry Tomato Pico de Gallo and a drizzle of the Cilantro-Lime Sauce. The Pico de Gallo and Sauce can be made ahead, but the tilapia is best served immediately.