A dining reporter for the Chicago Tribune has taken his love of Baja-style fish tacos to the streets in a campaign that has received such an overwhelming response from the public and the local restaurant community that the founder of a California quick-serve chain built on the dish can’t help but consider the windy city as another proving ground.
Reporter Kevin Pang’s appeal to take the “fish taco pledge” has done more than just spark a word-of-mouth and cult following. Along with radio and television coverage and blog and YouTube postings, it is also generating brand awareness for the fish tacos from Rubio’s Mexican Grill, a Carlsbad, California-based chain that has more than 167 stores in five Southwestern states.
“I think it’s great that we have such early interest for Rubio’s in Chicago,” says Ralph Rubio, founder and chairman. “Our fish tacos are unique and craveable, and if I lived in Chicago I’d want them, too. I think we’ll be there one day, and based on the early response, I think it will be sooner than later.”
And that’s music to Pang’s palate, for his love affair with Baja-style fish tacos began as a student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where the places to go, he says, were either Rubio’s or Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, the latter in Santa Ana, California.
“Fish tacos [in Southern California] are sort of like Philly cheese steaks in Philadelphia,” he says.
A true Baja-style fish taco starts with two corn tortillas. The fish is white and mild: Rockfish, cod, and tilapia are popular, as are mahi-mahi and shark. The finger-length pieces are beer-battered, imparting a light tempura crunch. They are garnished with cabbage, pico de gallo and a mayonnaise-based cream sauce that’s like tarter sauce without the tang of pickles. Last, but not least, a mandatory squeeze of lime.
How the fish taco came to Mexico, Pang says, is rather hazy, and while he can certainly be credited with bringing the cuisine to Chicago, Rubio is regarded as the “man who introduced Baja-style fish tacos to the United States.”
Rubio came of age in San Diego, and spent many a lazy day in the mid-1970s across the border in San Felipe, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez, where fish taco carts and seafood restaurants pepper the beachfront.
It was here Rubio met Carlos, a sun-tanned, elderly man, who served up a fish taco that would change his life forever. Rubio suggested Carlos should bring his fish tacos north of the border, but the man, who was in his 80s, declined. Rubio asked for the recipe, and Carlos gave it to him, revealing the secret beer-batter ingredients of mustard, oregano, and garlic. By 1983, Rubio had opened his first restaurant in a converted Orange Julius near the San Diego Zoo, and although he tried, Rubio never found Carlos to thank him for a gift that has left has left many hooked and craving.