April 5, 2016, was a big day for the San Diego-based co-founder of Rubio’s restaurants: it was officially declared “Ralph Rubio Day” in America’s Finest City.
In an effort spearheaded by San Diego’s District 2 Councilmember Lorie Zapf, Ralph Rubio was honored at a City Council meeting for his success as a local business owner – and, of course, for all of the tasty fish tacos he’s given to the City of San Diego.
Also known as Item 31 at the meeting, Zapf proclaimed Ralph Rubio Day and Rubio and his wife beamed. Zapf said Rubio is a “true San Diegan” who is committed to his hometown.
Rubio then took a few minutes to thank the city council for the honor and talked about the roots of his restaurant and where it all began: in 1983, when he co-founded his first Rubio’s eatery with his father on Mission Bay Drive in Pacific Beach – a location that still stands.
“We started with humble beginnings – one store on Mission Bay [Drive], which is still there,” he said. “This is a great honor. I must admit, I never thought there could be a ‘Ralph Rubio Day.’ I didn’t know that could exist. We graciously accept the honor.”
Since that first Rubio’s location, the company has grown to nearly 200 restaurants across California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. The company employs approximately 4,200 people across those five states. The casual chain – best known for its fish tacos – has sold more than 200 million original battered fish tacos over the past 33 years.
Rubio said his company’s success has very much been a “team effort.”
“We started as a family business,” he said.
Today, he works alongside his wife, Dione, who has served as his partner since the fourth Rubio’s location opened in San Diego years and years ago.
In fact, their relationship blossomed in the restaurant: Rubio said his first date with Dione was “at Rubio’s No. 3 on Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach.”
“She was two hours late for our date and I was there working, so I had my shorts and my apron and I was frying fish. I thought she’d never show up – she ditched me,” he recounted at the meeting, as Dione looked on and laughed.
“I looked up at the last second, she walks into the restaurant – she thought I was a cook, working for my dad. She had no idea that I was my dad’s partner in Rubio’s. But she went out with me anyway and we got married,” he added. “It’s been great – she’s been my partner through all this.”
Rubio couldn’t accept the honor without mentioning the fish taco – a staple of any true San Diego native’s (or visitor’s) diet. His restaurant is often credited with introducing the beloved dish to San Diego.
Before launching Rubio’s in the 1980s – as a college student at San Diego State University – Rubio often drove to San Felipe, Mexico, to eat fish tacos. The drive was about five hours, he said.
“I thought if we could have fish tacos in San Diego every day that would be a good thing,” Rubio recalled.
Rubio said he was inspired to add fish tacos as a signature item on the Rubio’s menu because his parents are from Mexico and wanted to pay homage to his heritage.
The restaurant’s Original Fish Taco recipe, still sold to this day, features fried wild Alaska Pollock hand-dipped in seasoned beer batter. The taco is topped with Rubio’s white sauce, mild salsa and fresh cabbage and served on a warm, stone-ground corn tortilla, garnished with a slice of lime.
Rubio said that, while his restaurant continues to expand and redesign its menu, the Original Fish Taco is here to stay – are so are the locations in San Diego.
“[I] promise you that no matter where we go – wherever fish tacos take us, we will do San Diego proud. San Diego is our home. We love San Diego. We’ll do it right,” he said. “We’re really proud of what we do.”