Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Rubio's

I had a little fun this year in celebrating my birthday by getting my birthday freebees at assorted places.  Most are not places I'd normally visit, many I'd never been to before in my life, and it turns out, there was good reason, like Jack In The Box, where I got a truly horrible free slice of birthday cheesecake.

But others are surprisingly good.  Like Rubios.  I've walked by their location in Embarcadero Center a zillion times.  There never seem to be many people inside.  It is basically fast food Mexican.  They are known for their seafood, in particular, their fish tacos.  But I'm little miss snob, and won't even eat seafood at full service restaurants that aren't high end.

But ... the allure of free was there.  There was little cost to me in trying it out, besides walking there, but it wasn't far away, and it was a beautiful day out.  If it was horrible, I'd take a few bites, and throw it out.  No problem.

So I signed up for their e-mail club, and was immediately rewarded with a coupon good for a free taco. Any taco from their extensive taco menu!  And, I also received my birthday coupon, good for a full meal.  I went to use the single taco on the first visit, and figured if it was good, I'd go back to use the full meal.  And ... I did, the very next day.

The food was surprisingly good.  I'm not claiming that Rubio's is fine dining.  It isn't.  You order at a register, are given a pager, and take a seat in the dining room.  You eat off a paper plate, on a plastic tray, with plastic silverware.  The drink options are just a basic soda fountain with a slew of sugary generic sodas, or some iced tea.  But ... the food is good, and the staff were really friendly.

On my first visit, I asked the person taking my order what his favorite taco was, since I really had no idea where to start.  He said he was more of a burrito guy, but my coupon was only good for a taco.  He said if it was my first time I should go for the signature taco, The Original Fish Taco, but it honestly didn't sound that interesting to me.  So I went for his second choice.  He happily explained all of the different tacos to me, in detail, including the cooking techniques used.  And ... he brought me both the one I ordered, and the original, even though I was just there using my free coupon!  He seemed to genuinely want me to get to try out that taco.

On my second visit, the person taking my order was just as friendly.  I haven't been to fast food places in ages, but how often do you get a really friendly greeting when you walk in, that doesn't seem forced or required?  She cheered for me when I showed her my birthday certificate, asked when my birthday was, and made pleasant small talk about what I'd done to celebrate.  So unexpected.

I have an avocado allergy, so had that left off of my tacos, and they seemed really happy to make any modifications or substituions, suggesting alternate things they could add in its place.

After ordering, you are given a pager, but on both occasions, they brought the food out and delivered it to me at my table.  I'm guessing when they are busy they don't do this, but again, an unexpected touch. Food came pretty quickly on both visits, taking long enough that I knew it wasn't entirely pre-made, but certainly not long enough to be doing serious cooking.

I was really pleasantly surprised by both of my visits.  The staff was friendly, the restaurant was clean, and the food really did seem fresh and good quality.  And ... if you follow my blog, you know how much I love sauces.  They have some really awesome sauces (although surprisingly, some really mediocre salsas).

I kinda think I'll go back.  I'd like to try the other fish, like the salmon or ono.  It is nice to have found a quick, casual, cheap place so close to home that I like.  Turns out, there is some benefit to the restaurants for having these free meal things!

Original Fish Taco ($2.99), Salsa Verde Pan-Seared Shrimp Taco ($3.99), Mexican Rice ($0.75), No Fried Pinto Beans ($0.75). 
I ordered a single Salsa Verde Pan-Seared Shrimp Taco, and got a platter with an Original Fish Taco too!  The worker explained that since it was my first visit, I just had to try their signature taco too.  And, who doesn't love beans and rice with their meal?  Thanks!  I got to try even more stuff!

As he said, The Original Fish Taco is their signature taco.  It has been their thing since 1983.  The website describes it as: "Sustainable wild Alaska Pollock, caught in Alaska's ocean waters, hand-dipped in our signature seasoned beer batter and cooked to crispy perfection. Topped with Rubio's white sauce, mild salsa and fresh cabbage. Served on a warm stone-ground corn tortilla and garnished with a slice of lime".

The corn tortilla had a really great corn flavor, and it was nice and warm, but it got soggy and strangely moist really quickly.  The cabbage added a nice crunch, but there was tons of it, as you can see in the photo.  The mild salsa was pretty flavorless, I wouldn't have even known it was there.  The white sauce added a creamy component, but again, not really any flavor.  The fish itself was a really generous portion, a single large piece. The fish was flaky, moist, and quite honestly, surprised me.  It wasn't fine dining quality or anything, but it wasn't bad at all.  The breading was really crispy and decent.

Overall, the taco just lacked flavor.  Nothing was bad, but the flavors didn't pop.  Once I added some of the roasted chipotle salsa from the salsa bar, I enjoyed it much more.  My least favorite of the tacos I tried.  A single taco is $2.99 normally, but $1.50 on Tuesdays.  This seems like a rather insane value for $1.50, and I'd even consider actually paying for one :)

The taco I picked, at the worker's recommendation for his favorite taco other than The Original Fish Taco, was the Salsa Verde Pan-Seared Shrimp Taco.  The website describes it as: "Sustainable pan-seared shrimp topped with a salsa verde sauce made with tomatillos, poblano chiles and fresh herbs, along with buttery Hass Avocado slices, a melted three-cheese blend, our creamy chipotle sauce, a cilantro/onion mix and cabbage. Served on a warm flour tortilla and garnished with a slice of lime."  Since I'm allergic to avocado, I had it left out.

This taco came in a flour tortilla instead of the corn tortilla.  While it didn't have the flavor of the corn tortilla, and was just a fairly standard flour tortilla, I liked it much more, as it didn't get soggy.  It was warm and soft.  This taco also had the cabbage in it, but there was much less of it, so it just provided a nice crunch and completed the taco, without overwhelming it like the other one.  I didn't really notice the cilantro and onion mix, nor the melted three-cheese blend, but there were a lot of great flavors going on, that I think these contributed to.  Speaking of the flavors, the creamy chipotle sauce was a winner.  It was their white sauce, but kicked up a notch with some chilis.  It was really creamy, really flavorful, with just enough heat to really make everything interesting.  There were 4 small sized seared shrimp, nicely cooked, not rubbery or anything.  I was surprised by how well executed they were, and certainly didn't expect that.  But even more unexpected was the flavor in them - they had a great smoky flavor, really complex, quite good.  I ate one on its own just to really enjoy the flavors, and would have gladly eaten just a skewer of them.

Everything came together really nicely in this taco, from the flavorful well cooked shrimp, to the amazing creamy sauce.  My favorite of the tacos.  Normally $3.79 each, and I'd definitely pay that for one!

As I mentioned, the worker also upped my order to be a platter, which includes the rice and beans.  These are also available separately as sides, or included when you can make a platter out of any two tacos.

The mexican rice was fairly generic, very mild flavor.  It was really moist and fluffy though, not at all dried out.  Again, a bit of a surprise.

The beans were the "no-fried" pinto beans, their version of a refried bean that isn't actually fried.  The website says "made fresh daily from scratch, seasoned with a dash of garlic and black pepper, and topped with cotija cheese."  They were creamy, but didn't have much flavor.  The cotija cheese on top was nice.

Everything was served hot and fresh.  There was steam coming off of the rice and the beans.  The fish was nice and hot.  The shrimp were hot.  This was food served at the proper temperature, better than what many restaurants do!
Sesame Soy Fish Taco, no avocado.  $3.49.
Since I didn't love The Original Fish Taco due to the lack of flavor in the salsa and white sauce, but I did like the fried fish, I decided to try a different fish taco on my second visit.  The menu has 4 different tacos all made with the same base fried pollock (also available as a burrito), but changes out the accompaniments and sauces.  I went for the Sesame Soy, since it sounded the most promising, flavor-wise.

The web site describes it as: "Lightly drizzled with a sweet sesame soy sauce and a mild, creamy wasabi sauce. Topped with a fresh spring mix and buttery Hass Avocado slices. Served on a warm flour tortilla and garnished with a slice of lime."

Since I'm allergic to avocado, I obviously had them leave that part out.  The staff member offered to add anything else I wanted in its place, like cheese or sour cream, but I choose to leave it unmodified.

The spring mix was exactly as advertised: fresh.  Crisp, not wilted, not brown.  There were a variety of types of lettuce included.  A pleasant surprise.

The flour tortilla was just like the one I had in the Salsa Verde Pan-Seared Shrimp Taco, warm, soft, decent.  And again, I liked it more than the corn tortilla.

The fish was the same as in The Original Fish Taco, except the breading job on this one wasn't very good.  There were big chunks of it that were just breading, and not fish, and those bites tasted just like fried oiliness.  I guess this is what you get from the hand-dipped battering?  The parts that included the fish however were good, the fish again moist and flaky, quite decent.

But what really made this taco shine was the sweet sesame soy sauce!  It added a really great sweetness and flavor.  I didn't really taste the creamy wasabi sauce, as there wasn't any heat, but there was a creaminess that mixed in really well, and I could see the sauce.

This taco certainly didn't win any presentation awards.  It looked sooo sloppy when it arrived, and I originally thought it had way too much sauce on it, but it was really tasty.  The only thing I'd change is the extra breading on the fish.  There were some great flavors in here, and I loved the freshness and lightness of it from the spring mix and the flour tortilla, even though it was fried fish.  Just really well balanced.

This was my second favorite overall, and if it wasn't for the breading issue, probably would have been my favorite.  And again, the $3.49 price was excellent.
Grilled Gourmet Garlic Herb Shrimp Taco, no avocado.  $4.29.
Since I was so impressed with the shrimp on my first visit, I decided to try another shrimp taco on my second visit.  It took a lot of restraint not to just order the same one I'd had before, but I did want to try new things!

There was a hand-battered shrimp taco, but since I was having the battered fish, I decided to go for the Grilled Gourmet Garlic Herb Shrimp Taco.  Plus, it was "gourmet"!

The web site describes it as: "Sustainable shrimp in a garlic herb marinade grilled over an open flame. Served on a warm stone-ground corn tortilla with toasted cheese and topped with crisp bacon pieces, buttery Hass Avocado slices, habanero citrus salsa, our chipotle picante sauce, a cilantro/onion mix and cotija cheese. Garnished with a slice of lime."

Again, since I'm allergic, I left out the avocado.  The taco did seem a little empty, and I think it really was missing the slices of avocado to fill that space, since it didn't have cabbage or spring mix like the others.

The corn tortilla was just like the one in The Original Fish Taco.  Again, a great flavor to it, but strangely moist and just not my thing.  I clearly prefer the flour tortillas.

The shrimp was again quite excellent.  This one included 3 pieces, each slightly larger than the ones I had in the first shrimp taco.  They were apparently marinated in garlic herb marinade and grilled, whereas the ones I had the first time were pan seared with salsa verde sauce ... but they really seemed the same to me.  I didn't have them side by side to compare, but I really felt like the flavors and cooking were identical.  And that was a good thing.  The shrimp had that same great smokey flavor, weren't rubbery, and were really just quite good.  I again ate one of them on its own just to really experience the shrimp, and thought it was great.

The entire tortilla was covered in cheese.  Tons of cheese, that was melted/toasted into it.  It overwhelmed the shrimp, but was really good with the bacon.  The bacon was little tiny chunks.  Mmm, cheese and bacon.  And corn tortilla.  They all went together really well, particularly with the sauces.

Again, the sauces were amazing.  I couldn't really pick out habanero, or citrus, or chipotle, but it was creamy, flavorful, and just went so well with the cheese and bacon.  It was insanely messy from the sauces however, kinda watery, and stuff was dripping out of it non-stop.  The cilantro and onion mix was kinda lost in the sauces, but I'm sure were providing some additional flavor.

And again, this was no beauty.  So sloppy looking, and seemingly swimming in sauce, but again, delicious.  My real issue with this is that it didn't quite come together.  The shrimp was flavorful and delicious.  The corn tortilla + bacon + cheese + sauces were great together.  But the shrimp was just too easily lost with all of the other components, which is sad, because it had so much flavor on its own.  But the other flavors were great too.  I wanted everything, just not together.  So ... that is what I did.  I ate the shrimp on its own, with just a little of the sauce on it.  And then I rolled up the cheesy, bacony, saucy, tortilla and ate it on its own.  Mmm!

This taco was also really quite heavy feeling, despite being a grilled shrimp choice, due to all of the cheese and bacon.  My third favorite, but there were really some great things going on here.  It was the most pricy taco by far, $4.29!

I'd love to create my own shrimp taco, basically combining the two shrimp ones I had.  I'd use the flour tortilla from the first one.  And I'd have the cabbage from it for crunch.  But then I'd take the sauces from the second one.  And maybe a little cheese, but not nearly as much.  Mmmm ... that would be tasty!
Condiments bar: Tomatillo salsa, picante salsa, mild salsa, roasted chipotle salsa, lime wedges, cilantro and onion, lemon wedges, peppers.
Rubios has a large self-serve condiments bar.  It includes a variety of salsas, lime and lemon wedges, and chopped onion and cilantro.  I enjoyed trying all of the salsas, but found that the tacos already included plenty of sauces, and further saucing wasn't necessary on most of them.  If I was getting chips however, I'd definitely love the salsa bar!  I tried the salsas on both visits, and they seemed almost exactly the same.
  • Mild Salsa: "With a deep tomato flavor, white onions, cilantro and a hint of heat from serrano and jalapeño chiles".  Tasting notes: this really just tasted like tomato sauce.  It wasn't spicy or complex at all.  It was included in the Original Fish Taco, and really was quite uninteresting.  Least favorite of the salsas.
  • Roasted Chipotle Salsa: "Our Roasted Chipotle Salsa creates complex flavors with fire-roasted tomatoes, smoky red chiles, jalapeño chiles and lime juice. "  Tasting notes: This was my favorite of the salsas.  It has a nice smokey flavor to it, and was fairly flavorful.  I used some inside the Original Fish Taco to actually give it some flavor. [ Again, great flavor.  My tacos the second time were some awesomely sauced that I couldn't come up with a use for it besides dipping the final pieces of my tortilla shells in it.  I wish I'd gotten chips, just to have more of this salsa. ]
  • Tomatillo Salsa: "Our Tomatillo Salsa, made with tomatillos, has a mild heat from jalapeño chiles and a hint of cilantro and citrus."  Tasting notes: This was really watery, and didn't have much flavor.  But, better than the mild! [ Again, just watery and flavorless.  Really not very good. ]
  • Picante Salsa: "Our Picante Salsa has a spicy heat with a rich, toasted chile flavor."  Tasting notes: This did have some heat!  It wasn't that well balanced however. [ Very spicy, but tasted burnt ]
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