Full disclosure: I have eaten at Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill exactly three times in my life — and each time made me physically ill (I’ll spare you the details). After the first time, I figured it must’ve been a fluke. After the second time, I thought it must’ve been a coincidence. But after the third time, I said “never again.” That was 1998, and I’ve stood by my self-imposed boycott since.
That is, until Ralph Rubio invited me for dinner one evening last month.
Sortakinda. Actually, Rubio’s PR department invited Darlene to attend a food blogger gathering at the soft opening of their newest store in La Jolla. She couldn’t make it but suggested I go in her place. They thought it’d be the perfect opportunity for me to tie-in one of my fast-food fishtacular reviews. Rubio’s? Really, Darlene? I considered passing on the event, but curiosity (bravery?) got the better of me. Would the fourth time be the charm?
When I arrived, I was surprised that the blogger meet-up only consisted of about five people, plus Ralph Rubio himself. As it turned out, we all ended up sharing a table while he gave us a tour of his restaurant and his menu.
This deserves a paragraph in itself. Let me proclaim that Ralph Rubio is a mensch. He’s very friendly, gracious and charismatic. He needed to hear our names but once and he had them memorized for the rest of the evening. I was secretly a little intimidated, taking bites, notes and photos arms-length away from the guy who built a food empire of more than 200 stores in less than 30 years. But he made me feel like I was a guest in his home… which, I suppose is exactly what I was.
The first course was the Beer-battered Fish Taco, Rubio’s signature dish. The fried Alaskan pollock’s coating contained garlic, oregano, mustard and black pepper, and it was served in a soft taco with white sauce (mayo + yogurt). It was pretty good, actually. Ralph encourages trying any of his myriad of hot sauces, which range from mild to fiery.
Next up was the Langostino Lobster Taco. The tender Chilean lobster bits were accompanied by guacamole, cilantro, onion and a creamy chipotle/picante sauce. It was plenty spicy, but that could’ve been the salsa I added at Ralph’s suggestion.
Our next sample was the Basalmic Chicken with Roasted Veggies Salad, which included sliced avocado, corn, peppers and various greens. It, too, was full of distinct flavor. I’m not much of a “salad guy,” but this was excellent (I avoided the peppers; personal preference).
After that, I sampled probably my favorite dish of the night — the Grilled Gourmet Taco with shrimp. It’s essentially a mix of three cheeses (jack, white cheddar and Mexican blend), grilled with a tortilla on top. Then it’s folded to hold one of four varieties of fillings — shrimp, chicken, steak or veggies — along with avocado, bacon and a chipotle/picante sauce. Each bite was bursting with flavor and they don’t skimp on the fillings, either.
I was starting to hit capacity by now, plus I was a little worried about any, um, side effects. But Ralph kept the kitchen hopping, and the next two dishes were the Grilled (Chilean) Salmon Burrito on a whole grain tortilla, and the Big Burrito Especial (I had the chicken). I confess, these they kind of blur together in my memories, but everything was really fresh in flavor, smell and texture. (Note: In case you’re thinking we were all trying out for guest-spots on Man Vs. Food, we were only served half-burritos, and we were encouraged to eat as much or as little as we liked.)
The final entree was the Blackened Mahi Mahi Taco. I vividly recall this menu item from my past, so I opted to take that one (plus some fresh guacamole and a couple of churros) home to Darlene.
I monitored myself for the rest of the evening, paying close attention to any, uh, reactions I might have to the Rubio’s overdose. And I’m happy to report that the curse appears to have been lifted! I can’t explain it. I like to think that I tried a broad sampling of their menu, ruling out any any specific ingredient. I hope I don’t need to have Ralph Rubio at my table any time I eat from his restaurant, because it might be another dozen years before that opportunity presents itself. I’m more than willing to leave my history with Rubio’s a thing of the past and restart our relationship anew.
(EDIT — this particular Rubio’s location is at 7530 Fay Avenue in La Jolla, formerly a Blockbuster Video)