Ralph Rubio admits he was "naive" in the beginning. The year was 1983. He was about to launch a new eatery in a former Orange Julius stand near the beach in San Diego, backed by his father. The featured attraction: a fried fish taco. It was simple and, he thought, delicious — a flaky white fillet dipped in batter, nestled in a soft-corn tortilla and topped with creamy white sauce, a dollop of mild salsa and shredded cabbage. He discovered the delicacy a decade earlier, on college spring break trips to the Mexican beach town of San Felipe on the Baja California peninsula.
For Rubio, the fish taco was love at first bite. He thought the masses would be similarly hooked.
"Nobody was doing them in the United States," Rubio says. "I thought everybody would like it. But those first two years were touch and go. It took a while for people to catch on."
Eventually, people did. That single stand spawned offshoots, including ones at San Diego State University, his alma mater, and Jack Murphy Stadium, where the MLB's Padres and the NFL's Chargers played (and where I happily chowed down on Rubio's fish tacos as a visiting sports writer in the 1990s). Scores of Rubio's Fish Tacos opened across Southern California. After that came dozens more restaurants throughout Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado, along with name changes to Rubio's Mexican Grill and Rubio's Coastal Grill.
Thirty-four years later, Rubio says the chain has sold nearly 210 million fish tacos. He is considered the godfather of the fish taco in America. And now, his version has finally arrived in South Florida.
In December, Rubio's Coastal Grill opened in Fort Lauderdale, Coconut Creek and Miami, part of a wave that will bring eight restaurants to Florida and the company's national total to 200. Two more restaurants will open in Miami by spring. It is part of a takeover of eateries that once operated as Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, and it is the Rubio brand's first expansion into a new market in 16 years. The Florida stores are the company's first locations east of Colorado.
"Fish tacos have become ubiquitous. You can find them everywhere," Rubio says in a recent phone interview. "But we're the worldwide leader. There's a reason for that."
Rubio, 61, born in New Jersey to Mexican immigrants, is rightfully proud of his version. The fish tacos — beer-battered and made with wild Alaskan pollock — are very good. I was reminded of that when I recently ate a coastal trio platter ($9.49) at the immaculate new Fort Lauderdale store at 1535 N. Federal Highway. The combination platter features a grilled shrimp taco, a blackened or grilled mahi-mahi taco and Rubio's original fish taco.
Rubio's original fried fish taco ($3.29 individually) is crunchy, creamy, soft and authentic. "It's really simple," Rubio says.
There's the fish, the shredded cabbage, the white sauce made from sour cream and mayonnaise, the mild salsa and the corn tortilla, which tastes better and fresher than most others I've had. Rubio says it's a proprietary recipe of white corn steeped in water, lime and salt. He says the tortillas are made artisanally in a central location and warmed at the store.
Patrons can jazz up their tacos with a six-option salsa bar of varying flavors and spiciness, including tomatillo, roasted chipotle, picante and jalapeno citrus. Even though he no longer runs the company (which went public and then private again), Rubio still oversees its culinary concepts and sits on the board of directors.
Rubio says he's excited by the Florida expansion, because seafood is so popular with the state's residents and visitors, and because Rubio's Mexican and Latino flavors are a natural fit with Florida's large Hispanic population. Southern California transplants are excited, judging by the reader emails I've received. But Rubio knows that success in the Sunshine State is not assured, because so many Easterners are unfamiliar with the restaurant, and seafood-averse diners may shy away from it.
Patrons at the fast-casual eatery order at the front counter, and food is delivered to tables or packed for takeout. Rubio's Coastal Grill has a full slate of nonfish options, including steak, chicken and veggie tacos, burritos, quesadillas and salads. But seafood is its bread and butter. There's beer-battered pollock, grilled and blackened shrimp, mahi-mahi and Alaskan coho salmon. Rubio says the company is looking into using grouper in Florida.
Times have changed, and tastes have gotten more sophisticated since Rubio opened his first stand. In the early 1980s, tacos for most Americans meant packaged, crunchy hard shells and simmered ground beef. A few authentic Mexican eateries featured soft-corn tortillas with strips of braised pork, beef, or chicken. After Rubio saw so many fellow college kids on spring break downing fish tacos from a popular street vendor in Baja, he figured it would only be a matter of time until Americans took the delicious bait closer to home. It turns out he was right.
Rubio's Coastal Grill is open daily in Fort Lauderdale (1535 N. Federal Highway, 954-200-6490), Coconut Creek (the Promenade Shops, 4425 Lyons Road, 954-200-6677) and Miami (7 W. Flagler St., 786-655-8250). Hours vary by location.