Rubio's Coastal Grill turns 35 this year. I've always known it better as Rubio's fish tacos. Some might also remember a time it was called Rubio's Baja Grill. When the first location opened back in 1983 on Mission Bay Drive, it was apparently called Rubio's Deli-Mex, and shortly thereafter overcame a shortage of esses on its marquee to stake the claim, "Rambo eats fish burritoz."
4504 East Mission Bay Drive, Pacific Beach
The original restaurant is still there, and these days the marquee uses proper spellings to promote the chain's latest seafood special. One sign calls the place Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill, and another denotes its original location status.
However, 35 years later, the OG SD Rubio's is joined by 30 fellow restaurants in San Diego, part of more than 200 scattered across six states. While its "coastal grill" status reflects a move into healthier, grilled seafood dishes attributed to more than just the Baja region, the publicly traded chain reports it has sold more than 200 million of its original, batter-fried, Baja-style tacos.
Right now in the world, or at least our little corner of it, tacos are hotter than ever. Fast food… is not. I try not to eat a lot of fast food personally because I'd rather spend at locally-owned businesses — and that's especially true for taco shops. However, since founder Ralph Rubio still calls San Diego home, I'll sneak in a couple of his massive company's fish tacos here and there. Usually when I go to the mall to see a movie.
This time I paid a visit to the Mission Bay Drive location. Rumors used to float around that you could get the "real" original fish tacos here, as opposed to those made with the same ingredients sent to those couple hundred other shops. But not so. It has the same, company provided menu as all the rest, describing it signature recipe," "original fish tacos" as being "Wild Alaska Pollock, beer battered by hand, and crisped to perfection."
That's kind of the point. Old Ralph didn't succeed in evangelizing the glory of fried fish tacos to the nation because it's a tough recipe to replicate. Fast food or not, Rubio's originals still get the job done: crispy batter; moist, flaky fish. Living in a city blessed with a dozen outstanding fish taco destinations, we can rightly nitpick about the tortillas. But you can't sell 200 million tacos serving corn tortillas you hecho a mano.
I rarely root for national chains, but it's hard not to appreciate one of San Diego's biggest success stories, which helped define a dining obsession. If my first fish taco experience wasn't at Rubio's, my second or third was, and it helped set in motion a sequence of experiences that have made it nearly impossible to give up eating fried food.
At the very least, I'm thrilled to find one when I'm traveling out of state.