Ralph Rubio, a student at San Diego State University at the time, bit into an authentic fish taco at a restaurant in Baja California, Mexico and fell in love.
More than 30 years later, Rubio has been credited with starting the fish taco phenomenon in the United States and has sold more than 200 million Original Fish Tacos at his Rubio’s Coastal Grill restaurants.
On Thursday, Rubio will open his newest restaurant on Herndon Avenue near Clovis Avenue in Clovis, bringing the total number of restaurants in California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Florida to more than 200.
“Rubio’s is growing,” Rubio said. “Our River Park location in Fresno is doing well and (the Clovis location) has been a long time coming. Eventually we’ll have a third restaurant in the (Fresno-Clovis) marketplace.”
Rubio, the oldest of five siblings, was born in New Jersey and grew up there and in Connecticut until his father took a job in the Los Angeles area and moved the family to Santa Monica. While Rubio attended college in the ‘70s, he and his roommate worked as busboys at The Old Spaghetti Factory.
“I didn’t envision myself working in restaurants, but here I was,” he said. “I moved up to waiting tables.”
He was also enjoying California’s beautiful beaches and surfing back then.
“I realized after my freshman year that it was too good of a gig to give up too soon,” Rubio said. “So I put myself on a plan to graduate college in five years, not four. I was working in restaurants, living at the beach … I had a really fun lifestyle.”
Throughout his college career, he harbored intentions of starting his own business. He combined his “love affair with fish tacos” with his desire to be a business owner and cofounded the first Rubio’s Coastal Grill with his father in 1983, at the age of 28.
“We took over an old Orange Julius on Pacific Beach,” he said.
The family grew the menu from its Mexican roots, always focusing on quality and freshness, Rubio said.
“Both of my parents hail from Mexico … and my mom in particular knew how to cook great Mexican food,” Rubio said. “I traveled to Mexico quite a bit in college and spent a lot of time in Baja California and Puerto Vallarta. I came away with the notion that what was passing for Mexican food in California wasn’t authentic, fresh or delicious.”
While the inspiration for Rubio’s Coastal Grill was to introduce fish tacos to America, Rubio incorporated additional items like seafood burritos, enchiladas, nachos, quesadillas and salads. Menu items are available with grilled steak, chicken and veggies.
Responsibly sourced seafood such as shrimp, Wild Alaska Coho Salmon and Wild Mahi Mahi are grilled-to-order.
“I use soft shell corn tortillas, not the crunchy corn tortillas used at other restaurants,” Rubio said. “When we started I was the only one in California using cilantro in dishes, fresh Hass avocados, beans and rice from scratch — and they’re still made from scratch.”
All of the mouthwatering choices make it hard for even Rubio to decide what to eat while visiting his own restaurants.
“I always stand in front of the menu board for a long time because there are just so many delicious options,” he said. “But 33 years later, if you told me I could only eat one thing, the Original Fish Taco would be it.”
That taco comes with beer battered Alaska Pollock, Rubio’s white sauce, mild salsa and fresh cabbage on a soft shell corn tortilla. Rubio adds red salsa picante from the self-serve salsa bar.
“Our goal is to develop food that is craveable,” he said. “It’s food that you eat and then a few days later you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to have that again.’ It’s a high bar to create food that is very craveable.”
The Langostino Lobster Burrito is a limited-time item on the menu that will disappear in early January, Rubio said. It features lobster drizzled with basil butter and topped with citrus rice, black beans, handmade guacamole, creamy chipotle sauce, salsa fresca, and crisp lettuce wrapped in a toasted flour tortilla.
“When that goes away, we have people asking for it all year and waiting until we bring it back in December,” he said.
With craveable food comes fantastic service, Rubio said.
“We built the business on that culture of family; the Mexican culture is very open and welcoming,” he said. “We want to treat you as a guest in our home … we greet you when you walk in, deliver the food to your table in a friendly manner.”
Rubio’s Clovis restaurant will showcase décor that draws inspiration from the sea and features elements and aesthetics reminiscent of the brand’s beach heritage. Established restaurants have been redesigned to feature the new interior, including hues of cobalt, green, indigo and sand. Modern pendant lighting illuminates natural wood pieces and community seating, while artwork that highlights the brand’s philosophy, ingredients and cooking techniques are spread throughout the dining room.
“Rubio’s is California-centric,” Rubio said. “Of the about 200 restaurants, most of them are in California. We’ve been expanding throughout the state as north as San Francisco and Sacramento and we’ve done really well in the Central Valley. We’ll open a second location in Bakersfield in a couple of weeks and recently opened one in Visalia.”
A lot of the lettuce and tomatoes used in Rubio’s restaurants come from the Central Valley, as the chain partners with supplier Ready Pac, which contracts with farms in Salinas, Rubio said.
Rubio recently acquired eight restaurants in Florida and is in the process of converting them into Rubio’s Coastal Grill locations, he said. “Then we may move up the East Coast.”