A little-known Mexican-food chain run by a former Chipotle exec is crushing it

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

If Rubio’s is the David to Chipotle’s Goliath, David is catching up.

The San Diego-born chain, founded by a college-aged surfer and made famous for its fish taco recipe, rose to fame when it toppled Chipotle to become the top-rated Mexican restaurant chain in America in a 2015 Consumer Reports survey.

Since then, Rubio’s has expanded from 163 locations on the West Coast to 206 nationwide, with an East Coast launch planned for 2017. By comparison, Chipotle has over 2,000 restaurants across the US.

We visited Rubio’s in Vallejo, California, to see what the buzz is about.


During a sunny weekday afternoon, we stopped by a newly renovated Rubio’s restaurant.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Here’s a photo of a Rubio’s location before the brand-wide remodel. The kitschy, beach-themed décor featured thatched umbrellas, surfboards, and laminated bikinis on the wall.

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Flickr/Yelp Inc.

“The brand has grown up,” Rubio’s president and CEO Marc Simon told Business Insider. The new look on display in Vallejo felt modern and sleek, with natural wood tables, glass bauble lighting fixtures, and blue and green hues to match the chain’s ocean-inspired menu.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

A former principal at Ernst & Young, Simon led the 1998 deal that gave McDonald’s a minority stake in Chipotle, which at the time operated just 14 locations in Denver, Colorado.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Source: Bloomberg

The Golden Arches later, regrettably, spun off its subsidiary to focus on burgers and fries.


Shortly after the deal, Simon joined Chipotle as regional director, developing key markets including Chicago, Minneapolis, and Wisconsin. One stint at a fast-casual pizzeria later, he took the helm at Rubio’s.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

We stepped into the kitchen to see how it’s done.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The texture, color, and freshness of the ingredients impressed us. Produce comes from the Salinas and Imperial Valleys of California and Yuma, Arizona, when possible.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Rich, buttery Hass avocados arrive fresh daily in Rubio’s kitchens so staff can pit, peel, mash, and slice by hand.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The fish is the real star on the plate. “If there is a secret sauce to what we do, it’s our knowledge of fish,” Simon said. The chain has sourced some of its mahi mahi, salmon, tilapia, and shrimp from the same suppliers for decades.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Eighty-five percent of the seafood menu comes from certified sustainable fisheries that maintain healthy populations and ecosystems.


Time to eat! I ordered the blackened Tilapia Tacos. A sizable, flaky piece of white fish received a light dusting of house-blend seasoning, which took 18 iterations to perfect.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The cook seared the tilapia on a comal, a kind of pan that a member of the kitchen staff compared to “Mom’s cast-iron pan,” at 350 degrees for about three minutes.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Presented on a warm, stone-ground corn tortilla and topped with creamy chipotle sauce, salsa fresca, and cilantro jalapeño slaw, the taco tasted as spicy as it was hearty.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Layering textures and flavors is the key to Rubio’s success. Next I ordered the Grilled Gourmet Shrimp & Bacon Burrito. The cook sprinkled shredded cheese onto a large tortilla and grilled it upside down, so the cheese hardened into a crisp.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

It’s not unusual for a menu item to include multiple sauces for rich flavor. Creamy chipotle sauce and salsa fresca were ladled over a scoop of citrus rice and pan-seared shrimp.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Buttery Hass avocado slices and red tomatillo salsa balanced the heat of the blackened jalapeños, while bacon pieces added a pleasant crunch. Every bite had something new.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The Grilled Gourmet Shrimp & Bacon Burrito was not my cup of tea because the bacon bits tasted over-salted. But I appreciated Rubio’s manageable portion sizes, compared to those of Chipotle. While I didn’t finish the burrito, I’m sure I could have without feeling super full.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

I sampled a few other signature items, like the Balsamic & Roasted Veggie Salad with grilled chicken. Even sans seafood, the salad tasted distinctly like a Rubio’s meal. The chicken breast’s juicy citrus marinade transported me to the street carts of Baja California.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

A spritz of lime complemented the Salsa Verde Shrimp Taco, a savory combination of pan-seared shrimp, salsa verde, buttery Hass avocado slices, three-cheese blend, creamy chipotle sauce, cilantro, onion, and cabbage. The taco is only 154 calories.

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I munched on a churro, which was my least favorite item at Rubio’s. The fried-dough pastry snapped like a twig when I bit into it, shedding cinnamon-sugar dust into my lap.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Without question, the Original Fish Taco was my favorite. Simon said everything on the menu stemmed from this one pedestrian taco — “the hallmark” of the chain.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

In 1974, college student Ralph Rubio traveled with his buddies down to San Felipe, Mexico, in search of good surf. One night, he stumbled on fish tacos at a food cart and fell in love.

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The fish taco stand in Baja California, Mexico, pictured here is not the cart Ralph Rubio visited in 1974.
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Flickr/drcohen

Rubio begged the cook for the recipe, and scribbled the ingredients down on a piece of scrap paper. That note hangs on a plaque in the company’s headquarters today.

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Facebook/Rubio’s

More than 30 years after opening, Rubio’s still serves its Original Fish Taco. It uses wild Alaska Pollock caught in Alaska’s ocean waters, and gets hand-dipped in batter.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Unlike some Mexican-food chains, Rubio’s doesn’t bury its fish in an inch-thick layer of beer batter before dunking it into the fryer.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Topped with mild salsa, fresh cabbage, and a white sauce that Simon said some customers drink by the four-ounce cup, the taco became a thing of beauty.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

It was easy to see why the brand’s signature item has withstood the test of time. Like Simon said, I didn’t have to “fight to find the fish.” The Alaska Pollock stood out in each bite.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

I would definitely eat at Rubio’s again. In fact, I’d choose it over Chipotle any day of the week. The healthy halo that surrounds the seafood-focused brand draws me in, and the fresh, vibrant ingredients will keep me coming back.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider