Fish tacos are part of our civic DNA. The beer-battered delicacy has become as representative of San Diego as the world-famous zoo, sun-kissed beaches, Balboa Park, Hotel del Coronado, and the superhero spectacle of Comic-Con. Ralph Rubio didn’t invent fish tacos. He’s San Diego’s Marco Polo, an explorer who made a fin-tastic discovery, hooked the recipe, and reeled the concept into local hearts, minds, and menus.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Rubio’s Coastal Grill empire. His first taco shop opened in 1983 in Mission Beach. Company history includes a shaky opening day. Then came massive expansion, a successful IPO, and a return to private company status. Most recently, the chain survived a pandemic-induced bankruptcy. Today, there are still more than 150 namesake eateries in California, Nevada, and Arizona. More than 270 million fish tacos have been sold.
Rubio is telling me tales about his early forays south of the border. We’re sitting on a shaded patio with an idyllic pool view behind the recently renovated manse in Olivenhain he shares with his wife, Dione.
Flashback to the mid-1970s: Rubio’s now-gray hair is jet black and he’s on the five-year graduation plan at San Diego State University. He likes to load his station wagon — nicknamed “Rhonda Honda” — with tents and surfboards.
Rubio recalls road trips to Mexico that wear out music cassette tapes. Songs included prophetic titles: “Show Me the Way” by Peter Frampton, and “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” and “Fins” by Jimmy Buffett. Sometimes he takes the Transpeninsular Highway to the southern tip of Cabo San Lucas. Most of the time, Rubio and crew join dozens of spring breakers pitching tents on a Gulf of California beach. That’s where the magic moment happens.
“We camp south of San Felipe on a beautiful, pristine, virgin beach,” Rubio says. “We create our own village. At night, we go to Club Miramar for drinks. When we get hungry, the fish taco stand is out the back door to the left.”
Rubio doesn’t recall the stand’s name. A cook named Carlos volunteers the fish taco batter ingredients (sans portions). Flour, beer, water, salt, pepper, garlic, and mustard. Rubio writes it down and carries the list around in his wallet for years. Eventually, it becomes the centerpiece of a wildly successful business plan.
Do you remember your first fish taco? It took five years of coaxing and cajoling for me to try one. I had this cartoonish image in my mind of a whole fish — head and tail still attached — wrapped in an ill-fitting tortilla towel.
Rubio laughs and admits changes in latitude bring change in attitude about the fish taco. It becomes a harder sell as you go farther north from the border. Personally, though, he quickly took the bait. “I’ve always been a pretty adventurous eater,” he says. “It’s a Rubio trait. My family was raised that way. I was super open to the idea. When I took my first bite of a fish taco, I fell in love.”
Love was in his eyes when he opened that first Mission Beach shop.
“I was looking at it through my lens,” he says. “‘If you build it, they will come.’ Well, I didn’t realize people had this aversion to the notion of a fish taco. In 1983, I built it and they didn’t come. It was like crickets chirping.” Hours would go by without a single customer coming in. It took Rubio a solid year to build the business by word of mouth. One intrepid eater at a time.
Looking back, Rubio wonders what might have transpired if he’d done market analysis. “Thank goodness I wasn’t smart enough to do the research,” he says, smiling. “I wonder if I’d surveyed a thousand people and asked ‘Hey, what do you think of a Baja fish taco?’ I think 90 percent would have said ‘thumbs down.’ I guess I was a little naive.”
Naive like a fox. Once Rubio committed to the business, he worked harder than a salmon swimming upstream.
Initially, the restaurant staff was all family, plus one paid employee. Jenny Alexander was a holdover from the Mickey’s Burgers and Orange Julius operations that had previously occupied the storefront. While Alexander got a weekly paycheck, the family was working for sweat equity. Rubio recalls working double shifts during the early days.
To survive and revive between lunch and dinner shifts, Rubio kept a dark green chaise lounge in the kitchen. The recliner was made of woven plastic. It had a metal ratchet that clicked when the head and the leg portions were unfolded. “Some days I’d open the shop in the morning and close at night,” he says. “Between lunch and dinner, I’d put the chaise lounge in the prep area where nobody could see me. I’d catch a few z’s if I could.” During those hours, Rubio left the front door unlocked and put a bell on the counter with a note that instructed customers to ring it for service. “I’d wake up, splash water on my face, go out there, and take their order,” he says.
Rubio turns 68 on June 4. He’s earned the right to sit by the pool and reflect. Instead, he’s heading off after our meeting to the company’s Carlsbad office. He goes in a couple days a week. There’s a meeting with the real estate committee on his calendar. And a fish taco contest to judge.
His schedule isn’t rigorous, but his outlook is reflected in the lyrics of a favorite Jimmy Buffett song: “Oh, yesterday’s over my shoulder, so I can’t look back for too long…There’s just too much to see waiting in front of me and I know that I just can’t go wrong.”
Rubio is still engaged and involved. And a 40-year anniversary is a big deal. Right?
“It is and it isn’t,” Rubio says. “I’m a forward-looking person. On occasion, I’ll sit out here with my son or daughter. We’ll have cocktails, I’ll smoke a cigar and we’ll reflect. But 40 years is just a milestone. Let’s move forward. I want the brand to grow, again. So, I’m looking ahead.