A platter of fish and shrimp tacos at a Rubio's restaurant in San Diego.
The fish taco is San Diego's most famous contribution to the taco canon. You can get one at fast food joints, taco trucks, and more than a few high-end restaurants. But the fish taco didn't begin in San Diego, as Adrian Florido reports in the latest in our Fronteras series on how tacos are transforming the American palate.
In the 1970s, Ralph Rubio and a bunch of college friends from San Diego State University took a camping trip to a small Baja California beach town called San Felipe.
They ate fish tacos morning, noon and night. And one day, Rubio approached a man working at one of his favorite taco stands.
"His name was Carlos, an older gentleman. I asked him what goes in the beer batter," Rubio said. "He told me oregano, mustard, garlic salt, black pepper, salt. I wrote down the ingredients and I carried it around with me for years."
When Rubio decided to open his first restaurant near a San Diego beach a few years later, that recipe, after some experimenting with ingredient proportions, would be the gold mine that's allowed the Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill to become a 195-restaurant chain.
Rubio's was not the first San Diego restaurant to serve a fish taco, but it's generally credited with popularizing it and turning it into one of the region’s favorite fast foods.
On a recent morning, one of a Rubio's employee dropped a few strips of battered fish into a deep fryer, then wrapped it in a corn tortilla and topped it with cabbage, tomato, onion and cream sauce.
Rubio said as the restaurant chain's menu and recipes have evolved to more than 50 items since 1983, the fish taco is the one item that hasn't changed.
"We kept it as authentic as possible," he said.
It's hard to imagine that San Felipe — a scorching, dusty speck of a town perched on the coast of the Sea of Cortez about four hours south of San Diego — could have been the inspiration for the fish taco's explosion north of the border.
But stroll the boardwalk and allow Alejandra Sanchez to lure you into El Guero seafood restaurant, and any doubt melts away with the first bite.
On a recent afternoon Sanchez said she'd never heard of Rubio's or its story, but said many Americans visit the restaurant, and after tasting the tacos, ask for the batter recipe.
"We give it to them," she said. "And sometimes they come back and I ask how they turned out. Some of them say delicious, others, not so good. They didn't get the proportions right."
Cook Gloria Camacho said she gives her batter recipe out too, but never the exact recipe. It's a business, after all.
"We're glad they were able to take something good from San Felipe to the other side of the border. It helps promote us, and make us famous," Sanchez said.
Back in San Diego, Geoff Northrop was certainly happy about that as well. On a recent morning he was eating two fish tacos at Rubio's after his swimming workout.
"And it's good for you!" he said, between bites. "It's not high cholesterol, like hamburgers."
Indeed, more recently fish tacos have been marketed as health food. Rubio said that as health consciousness continues to becomes a more important part of Americans' food consumption habits, that's a message they plan to bank on.
“It’s just a delicious, fresh light way to eat, which is what American consumers are gravitating to. So it’s a good thing," Rubio said.