Rubio’s Coastal Grill is still a ‘Baja thing’ as it celebrates 40 years in business

Rubio’s Coastal Grill has sold nearly 300 million fish tacos since 1983, according to co-founder Ralph Rubio. The Carlsbad-based chain is apt to build on that number on Wednesday, Jan. 25, when the chain marks its 40th anniversary.

On that date, its Original Fish Tacos will cost 99 cents each, their original price, according to a news release. Proceeds will benefit Wildcoast, a conservation effort.

The celebration will also include a new take on the taco, a contest for Rubio’s Rewards members, and ’80s music, the news release said.

Rubio’s Coastal Grill has a new take on its Original Fish Taco, upper left, called the Baja Grilled Fish Taco. (Photo courtesy of Rubio’s Coastal Grill)

Ralph Rubio kept his original recipe for beer batter used in Rubio’s Coast Grill’s fish tacos. (Photo courtesy of Rubio’s Coastal Grill)

Ralph Rubio is co-founder of Rubio’s Coastal Grill. (Photo courtesy of Rubio’s Coastal Grill)

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Rubio, who grew up in Carson, discovered fish tacos in the 1970s as a student studying psychology at San Diego State University. He and some classmates made the five- to six-hour trek to San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez for spring break. It was a quiet fishing village then, he said in a phone interview.

“We went down there, about 20 of us. We caravanned down. We would camp on the beach, eat fish tacos in town and drink Coronas. And that was my first exposure. It was very much a Baja thing.”

It took a few trips to San Felipe before Rubio had what he called his epiphany.

“I was eating fish tacos, drinking beer at the fish taco stand next to Club Miramar, which was our hangout. I saw all these college students eating fish tacos and drinking beer, and I thought ‘This is what I should do. I should bring fish tacos to San Diego,’ not just selfishly so I could get them more often, but it could be a business.”

Rubio had acquired front-of-house and some management experience working for restaurants as an undergraduate. He also had an interest in starting his own business that he gained from his father, Ray, who he described as an entrepreneur who came from Mexico.

With Ray’s backing, Ralph opened his first restaurant on San Diego’s Mission Bay. Most of the staff were family members working for sweat equity.

Rubio said he and his brother Robert spent months coming up with the recipe for authentic Baja fish tacos, working particularly hard on the beer batter. The recipe is essentially the one that is still in use, he said. He used to carry it around in his wallet. Now it hangs in company headquarters.

Despite their popularity today, fish tacos weren’t an immediate hit.

“We opened it and they did not come,” he said in a phone interview. “It took well over a year to build a business, week by week, month by month, by word of mouth.”

Rubio said it took about a decade before he felt Rubio’s was established. It now has more than 150 restaurants in three states, although numbers were reduced in a brief 2020 bankruptcy, partially caused by the novel coronavirus cutting into sales.

The menu has grown with the chain, from a dozen items to around 40. Popular additions include grilled mahi-mahi and salmon cooked on an iron griddle called a comal.

“It’s like using a cast-iron skillet,” he said. “The flavors build in over time.”

The Original Fish Taco remains the best-selling menu item. As a kickoff to the 40th anniversary, the chain tweaked the recipe and came up with the Baja Grilled Fish Taco, made with mahi-mahi, guacamole, salsa fresca, cotija cheese, cabbage and a new Baja sauce.

The chain is launching a “back to Baja” campaign that will show up in restaurant interiors, he said.

“We’re harkening back to our roots in Baja, as we think about the Rubio’s brand 40 years later. There’s a lot of equity in the story, my spring break trips, my Mexican heritage. We’re trying to build on that more.”

When customers talk to him, they usually have fond memories. They tell him about how their children worked in his restaurants.

“I get that a lot. I’m a few generations removed now, because they’re telling me about their kids, not their own experience.”

As for San Felipe, he said he is more apt to go to Cabo San Lucas these days.

“It was the thing to do back then. But San Felipe has gotten much bigger. It’s not that charming little fishing village it used to be.”

Information: rubios.com

 

 

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