Jeff Smith noon, March 8
Batter Up: Ralph Rubio Returns to His Roots
[Full disclosure: As part of this story, I was given a fish taco (pictured), for tasting purposes. Also a soda, for drinking purposes. Scroll down to bottom for special bonus video of Ralph Rubio frying fish for said fish taco.]
“I’ve had a lot of good fortune,” says Ralph Rubio, founder of Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill. “I just have a knack for seeing opportunities with food.” It’s hard to argue: we’re sitting at a table outside Rubio’s first restaurant, the fish-taco joint on Mission Bay Drive that he opened with his family in 1983. Today, there are 200 such restaurants, as far north as Sacramento and as far east as Denver. “I never wanted to have just one fish taco restaurant,” he says. “I wanted a chain, and I knew it could be a chain if we could make the first one work. There were other fish tacos being sold in San Diego in 1983, but we were the first ones to really introduce it to America. And we are, by far, the global leader in fish taco sales. We calculate that we’ve sold maybe over 150 million of them.”
Rubio’s has sold a lot of other things, too – the chain’s carnitas street taco, for example, is a fine corporate appropriation of rusticated, inexpensive street food. “I get my inspirations from all over,” says Rubio. “The idea for our street tacos came from a trip I took to Mexico City with my dad – he was doing business down there. There was this taco stand right on the street. The guy, all he was doing was chopping and grilling carne asada. He had a little stack of tortillas – a little guacamole, a little steak, a little cilantro and onion and some salsa on top, and he hands it to you.” More recently, he says, “We got our inspiration for our grilled gourmet tacos from a little taco stand in Tijuana. Six, seven years ago, they were doing these gourmet tacos with New York steaks, lobster, shrimp…they took street food to another level. We char-grill large shrimp, then put that on a corn tortilla that’s got toasted cheese on it. A slice of avocado, Habanero salsa, chipotle white sauce, cilantro and onion – it’s amazing.”
In these tougher economic times, fish is back at the forefront. “Our heritage is fish tacos. It’s always been our number one seller. We want to continue to build on our foundation of great seafood tacos, so we’re developing extensions of that original signature product. We’ve got a few things in test – a farmer’s market taco, which is beer-battered fish with a chipotle white sauce and an avocado corn relish: roasted corn, some poblanos, some red peppers, some onions. Things like that. You’ll see Rubio’s start to invent more and more seafood tacos, and put them on the menu permanently. The menu what I spend most of my time working on these days – there’s a team of about five of us, and we have a test kitchen at our offices in Carlsbad.”
And besides creating new fish taco recipes, Rubio has returned to an old technique: the original practice of battering the fish onsite before frying, as opposed to battering before it’s frozen and shipped to the restaurants. “The way I established it was that we would cut our own fish, then flour and batter it, just like it was done down in Mexico.” Cutting the fish prior to freezing and shipping proved a good labor-saving move. Then, six years ago, the company tried to save even more labor - and maybe ensure consistency during a period of rapid expansion - by adding batter to the pre-freezing regimen.
“The intentions were good," recalls Rubio. "We tested it, and we ran with it for a few years. But from my own experience with the food and some comments we were getting from other people…they didn’t think it was as good. Then our growth slowed down – you know, the recession. We thought, ‘Let’s go back to the way it used to be. It’s just a fresher product that way.’ Now, the spices and flour come in to the store in a proprietary blend, you add water and beer, whisk it, and you’re off and running. There was a lot of training involved, but the team in the kitchen loves it. There’s a degree of difficulty that they like, and it’s more handmade. They eat our food, and now, they’re closer to it.” (This may sound like managerial cheerful-speak, but Rubio says he tries to visit every one of the company's restaurants every year, "too see what's going on, and most importantly, meet the team.")
The response, he says, “has been fantastic. And I can taste the difference. The texture is different, on both the fish and the batter.” Rubio finds more crisp crunch in the batter, “and I think the fish is firmer using this system. I’m big on contrasts in textures and flavors – layers of texture and flavor. The tortilla in a fish taco is soft. Then, when you bite into it, you get a crunch from the crispy batter on the fish. Inside that, you want a mild firm fish. And all that is before you get to the cabbage.”
While all those elements are crucial, the batter is first among equals. “In my opinion, a great fish taco garners a lot of its flavor from the batter. That’s where you’ve got the spices. You want the fish to be a platform of sorts.” Famously, the batter was there in the very beginning, when Rubio first conceived of his restaurant. (He’s told the story before, but it bears repeating.) “As a college student at SDSU in the 1974 – before I even imagined Rubio’s – I was sitting by my favorite taco stand next to Club Miramar in San Felipe during Spring Break. I was eating fish tacos and drinking Coronas with my roommates and a lot of other college students. And right at that moment, it occurred to me: you have all these college students who love fish tacos and Coronas, and nobody is doing anything like this in San Diego. I thought, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to make these.’ I was already in the restaurant business – bussing and waiting tables at the Old Spaghetti Factory – and I liked it. My Spanish was just okay, but I asked this guy, Carlos, ‘How do you make these tacos?’ I had this pocket phone directory. I opened it to the inside cover and wrote down what he told me to put in the batter: beer, flour, oregano, mustard, and pepper. He didn’t give me proportions. I carried that recipe around with me for years.”
Six years later, Rubio had college behind him, as well as a restaurant manager stint in Seaport Village. And he still had the batter recipe. “I talked to my father about opening a restaurant together. He liked the idea – he’s from Mexico, and he knew fish tacos, and he could relate to what I was doing. I didn’t have any money, so he provided the funding. He said, ‘Go find a restaurant.’ This place on Mission Bay Drive was an old Orange Julius that had been converted to a Mickey’s Burgers by this guy from Chicago. But his business was failing, so he listed the place for $78,000 in the Union. It seemed like a lot, so I checked it out. I would park my car across the street and watch his traffic. A couple of times, he would be sitting at an outside table during what was supposed to be the lunch rush, reading the paper. There was no business.”
Rubio reported what he’d seen to his father. “He said, ‘Call him up and offer him $15,000 cash.’ I said, ‘Dad we can’t offer him that. He’ll be insulted.’ But Dad said, ‘Make the call.’ I called, and the guy got pissed off and hung up on me. But 15 minutes later, he called back and said, ‘I’ll take it.’ He was so desperate that $15,000 in cash was a good deal for him.”
Rubio’s had its first location. Now it needed a product. Out came the old directory with Carlos’ ingredient list on the inside cover, and Ralph and his brother Robert set to work in the kitchen, trying to figure out the proportions for the batter. “We probably spent two days on it, going through 10 different versions before we had the right texture and flavor.”
Then it was on to the fish. “We started by experimenting. In Mexico, they use whatever they catch. Down in San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez, it was typically sea bass or shark. Here, I tried red snapper, but people thought it was too strong, too fishy. I tried shark, but texturally, shark can be steak-like – so substantial that it hides the virtues of the all-important batter. He eventually settled on Alaskan Pollock, despite the geographic displacement. “It’s very affordable, it’s firm, and it doesn’t get in the way.”
At first, the brothers stuck with the standard Mexican white sauce made from mayonnaise and water. “But a few years into it, a friend suggested we add a little yogurt to give it a more tangy flavor. We did that in ’85, and it was a huge success. So now you’ve got the creaminess from the white sauce, the tomatoes and peppers and onions and cilantro in the salsa, the cabbage, and the lime – all these things going on in terms of flavor before you even bite into the fish.” From the get-go, the notion of layering was key to the taco's appeal.
Success was not immediate. “We made a lot of mistakes early on, and the business kind of struggled.” But Rubio persevered, adjusted, and eventually prospered. Now, he’s adjusting again, changing the battering practice, the fish taco's name (“Original” instead of “World-Famous”), and even the presentation. “We used to be more functional. Before, if you ordered a fish taco a la carte, we would wrap it in paper and give it to you. And that’s fine. But now, we’re presenting them open-faced, in a cardboard boat. People eat with their eyes, and a freshly made fish taco is beautiful.”