By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2000 Gourmet Magazine
In the kitchen of RUBIO’S BAJA GRILL in La Jolla Village Square, north of San Diego, Ralph Rubio lifts a soft, steaming corn tortilla off the griddle. “Look how thick it is,” he says, gently flapping the tan circle up and down to demonstrate its earthy opulence. It is so dense that it scarcely bends as the slow, undulating motion sends hot corn aroma radiating like some come hither preprandial perfume. Using the tortilla like a small oven mitt, Rubio picks up a piece of fish that has just emerged from the deep-fryer. It is a hefty length of white fish with a brittle, gnarled crust. When Rubio uses two fingers of his free hand to break it in half, it comes apart with appetizing ease: Although crunchy on the outside, it is amazingly tender. The meat inside the crust falls into glistening flakes.
“This is the key to a fish taco,”Rubio says, holding forth the broken fish on the thick tortilla. “Mouth feel. You want a tender corn tortilla with enough substance to be a tasty cushion, and your fish needs to absolutely crunch. Those two things together—soft and crisp—are what make it good. The texture itself is so pleasing that once your mouth knows it, you crave to bite into it again and again.”
San Diegans have been getting hooked on fish tacos since 1983, when Rubio opened his first Mexican restaurant in a defunct burger joint in Mission Bay. But few San Diegans had even heard of fish tacos in 1976, when Rubio, then a sophomore at San Diego State University, traveled down to Baja with his pals on spring break. He was looking only for sun and surf but was smitten by the fish tacos he found at stands all along the water in the village of San Felipe. “We ate fish tacos every day we were there,” he recalls.
There was one Baja vendor Rubio especially liked, a man named Carlos, who ran a hole-in-the-wall taco stand with a ten-foot counter and a few stools. “He fried fish to order and put it on a warm tortilla,” Rubio explains. “It was up to each customer to add white sauce, salsa, cabbage, guacamole, and lime juice. He charged 50 cents per taco in those days.” Rubio was so enamored of Carlos’s little fish stand that he pleaded with him to come north to San Diego and open a fish-taco restaurant there. “Mexican food in San Diego was so bland in those days,” Rubio remembers. But Carlos was happy where he was and would not budge. One day he agreed to share his recipe, which Rubio jotted down on a scrap of paper pulled from his wallet. After working at several San Diego restaurants, Rubio finally took the recipe he had acquired and opened his own place with a sign that said “Rubio’s—Home of the Fish Taco.”
The fish taco he introduced there spawned a small empire. Three years after it opened, Rubio’s sold its millionth fish taco and a second restaurant was opened across from San Diego State. In those early days, enthusiastic customers who had discovered the simple joy of Rubio’s specialty drove in from as far away as Los Angeles just to eat fish tacos. Today more than 90 Rubio’s Baja Grills serve San Diego and much of southern California and beyond, most appearing as efficient fast-food outlets decorated with Mexican tiles, surfboards, photographs of San Felipe, and road signs that tell how many kilometers it is to Ensenada. In less than two decades, the fish taco, copied by scores of Rubio’s imitators, has become San Diego’s most famous dish. Although it is almost always served on disposable plates with paper napkins, it is one cheap-eats splurge with a curiously epicurean reputation. Abe Opincar, a city native who writes about local culture for the San Diego Reader, told us, “There are a lot of serious food people in this town whose only fast-food indulgence is a fish taco.”
Although the concept is as uniform as that of any franchise, each restaurant makes its own food every day: whole avocados are scooped for guacamole, salsas are mixed fresh, chips are made from noon to night, and fish is trimmed by hand and fried to order.
Beyond a soft tortilla and a crunchy piece of fish, there are other vital elements that compose the buck-and-a-half meal that Rubio brought to town. The fillets’ batter has a jolt of mustard and oregano that puts a tingly halo around the mild white meat. The fish is bedded on a spill of white sauce made from mayonnaise and yogurt—which adds its own creamy texture to the mix—and atop the hot fish are rough-cut shreds of cool white cabbage. Each fish taco comes with a wedge of lime, a spritz of which is as necessary to a fish taco as salt is to popcorn.
As served, Rubio’s fish taco is, quite simply, a perfect food. Like the taco stands in Baja, Rubio’s offers several salsas for customers to apply as desired, including a salsa picante made from smoky chile de arbol, but delicious as this hot sauce is, it cannot improve the package. (Use it for chip dipping.) Similarly, Rubio’s deluxe fish taco with guacamole, cheese, onion, and cilantro also packed inside the tortilla, is the gastronomic equivalent of trying to improve the Venus de Milo by adding a clock to the statue’s stomach: not merely unnecessary but actually a detraction from the transcendent beauty of the original.
The fish burrito, sold at Rubio’s as well as at many of the region’s other quick-service Mexican restaurants, proves fish tacos rule. Every fish burrito we have encountered comes fully wrapped in a large, thin flour tortilla instead of folded into a thick circle of corn. The fish, cabbage, and traditional white sauce are augmented by refried beans, guacamole, cheese, and heaven knows what else. Enclosure in the tortilla and the surfeit of condiments tend to make the fish crust soggy—a disaster, by Ralph Rubio’s definition of excellence.
While waiting to meet Rubio inside the La Jolla Village Square location one lunch hour, we spotted him through the window walking toward the door and noticed that he stopped, bent down, and picked up a chewing-gum wrapper from the sidewalk, throwing it in the trash before he entered. Rubio runs a tight ship. A successful entrepreneur and 1993 inductee into the San Diego Business Hall of Fame, at 44 he still looks a lot like he must have when he first went down to Baja as a college student. And when he tells about that life-changing trip to San Felipe, he rhapsodizes with the fervor of a man who has enjoyed a spiritual awakening.
Ralph Rubio believes in the fish taco, the way only a young man who fell in love on spring break can believe: heart and soul. It vexes him that there are millions of people who have never tried one, even people in San Diego! Recognizing that the very word fish is scary to many eaters in the U.S.—and eager to attract as many mouths as possible—he recently rechristened his restaurants Rubio’s Baja Grill and added many non fish items to the menu, including came asada (grilled marinated steak), shrimp quesadillas, and a whole roster of low-cal, low-fat “Health-Mex” tacos and burritos. Still, Rubio’s unswerving goal is to bring fish tacos to America and the world. “The Baja Grill concept gets people in the door,” he explains. “Once that happens, sooner or later they will try a fish taco. If you try a fish taco, you will love a fish taco.”
Nearly all of San Diego’s fish tacos are cheap, fast food. There are stands near the surfing beaches that sell them for 99 cents each, and there are a handful of local connoisseurs who say that EL INDIO’S are the finest. Acknowledged by everyone with taste buds to make the best tortilla chips on the planet, El Indio is a quick-service take-out shop adjacent to Interstate 5 that has set a high standard for inexpensive Mexican food in San Diego since 1940. Its fish taco, introduced in the late ’80s, comes enclosed in foil—a heavy load—with a wedge of lime that falls out as soon as you begin to unwrap it at the counter or table (or on your car’s dashboard). When the foil is pulled back, you find a double layer of warm corn tortillas loosely wrapped around crisp-fried cod with a golden crust. The fish is nestled on a bed of ruggedly shredded cabbage, tomato, and a faintly peppery pink sauce. The whole package is excellent, and quite similar to Rubio’s fish taco, though the earthy savor of El Indio’s corn tortillas is differently complemented by its pink salsa.
For an exceptional upper-crust fish taco, we recommend lunch at THE COTTAGE, in La Jolla village. At this oasis of warm muffins and breezy salads, best known for the oatmeal pancakes and buttermilk coffee cake served at breakfast, the humble fish taco attains a certain elegance. There is nothing at all fancy about it—a fancy fish taco is oxymoronic—but it does come on a china plate with linen napkins and metal utensils, and the restaurant itself exudes the upmarket serenity of old La Jolla. Sunlight streaming in the windows makes pale-yellow walls glow; mellow jazz wafts through the dining room and into the palm-shaded patio; pretty waitresses carry fruit-garnished dinners of healthy California food. The Cottage builds its tacos around slabs of mahimahi that are grilled rather than fried, but because the tiles of fish are thin and the fire is hot, each piece attains a succulent crispness that fulfills the Rubio requirement for textural drama. Furthermore, the plump, warm-water mahimahi has a savor that the mild cod of ordinary fast-food tacos can never reach. Instead of simple white sauce, The Cottage adds a cilantro-avocado sauce and accompanies the plate with bowls of creamy black beans and chunky papaya salsa. The tortilla is a thin one, making these tacos nearly impossible to eat by hand (there are three to an order, held together with a wooden skewer), but the wonderful flavor of the mahimahi and all its condiments will make even the fish-taco purist ask forgiveness for the heresy and pick up a fork.
Rubio’s Baja Grill