Rubio's Coastal Grill
3.5 out of 5 stars
1824 N. Westshore Blvd., Tampa. Fresh Mex: $4-$9.50; dessert: $1.50-$2; drinks: $2-$5. 813-600-2000; rubios.com.
How do we sort out the continuum of Mexican food from Taco Bell to St. Petersburg's Red Mesa? We've got so many choices, including taco trucks and mom-and-pop shops like perennial favorite Casa Tina in Dunedin. Somewhere in the middle is the fast-causal market that includes Chipotle Mexican Grill and our new arrival from San Diego, Rubio's Coastal Grill. In Tampa, Rubio's occupies the Westshore space that formerly housed Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, which was purchased from a parent company you know well, Ruby Tuesday's.
Rubio's sees Florida as a natural market for expansion "because of a shared passion for quality seafood and culinary innovation" as they "bring a taste of Southern California to the East Coast." I never ate at Lime Fresh, but as I chat with staff who made the switch along with the new brand, they're really happy. From the cashier to the line cooks, the enthusiasm is palpable. They're newly proud of what they serve, and my table's experience proves that they have good reason.
Rubio's is, in the words of a dining companion, the "Chipotle of seafood." The menu features the usual suspects — tacos, burritos, quesadillas and enchiladas. Although the focus is fish, chicken, steak and veggies are also available (but no tofu). You order at the counter, take a number, find a seat and the food arrives at your table. What's nice, however, is everything's served with proper plates, bowls and silverware. And, most importantly, it's fresh. You can taste the difference. The guacamole is handmade from rich, creamy Haas avocados, which also show up sliced as garnish on the seafood tacos.
The original fish taco started it all back in 1983. It's made with sustainable wild Alaska pollock hand-dipped in seasoned beer batter. The crispy fish is served on a terrific, warm stone-ground white corn tortilla and topped with signature white sauce, mild salsa and crisp cabbage. Rubio's has a commitment to the laudable goal of using sustainable seafood from "responsibly managed fisheries that maintain healthy populations and ecosystems without harming the environment." There's even a special menu icon to indicate which dishes meet this mission. It also sources "farm-raised seafood" without hormones and toxins to balance out its offerings.
Rubio's grills on an authentic Mexican comal — think of a flat, edgeless cast-iron skillet. This ensures a great sear that imparts plenty of flavor. Indeed, the salsa verde shrimp taco is delicious. The seasoned shellfish glistens, and sliced avocado and cheese add a creamy contrast. The wild mahi mahi version features fire-roasted corn in addition to the balanced signature sauce and cilantro-onion-cabbage garnish that both tacos share. Fresh lime wedges for each taco not only add an appealing touch of color, but also the perfect jolt of fresh acidity, allowing the flavors to come alive.
A grilled mahi mahi burrito (also available blackened) is a yummy mix of guacamole, fire-roasted corn and some Mexican rice, plus the aforementioned sauce and crunch combo. The burrito also includes a side of chips, an invitation to visit the salsa bar. There, you may choose spicy picante if you want a hit of toasted chili; tomatillo for less heat with cilantro and garlic; or mild, where vine-ripened tomato takes the spotlight with just a touch of herbs and heat. The restaurant has plenty of additional lime wedges if you've got an insatiable citrus fetish.
Our California bowl layers guacamole, citrus rice and black beans with shredded lettuce, chipotle sauce and salsa fresco. You may select roasted chipotle salsa or salsa verde for some extra punch, too. On top is your grilled protein of choice: all-natural chicken, shrimp, mahi mahi, salmon or veggies. We opt for chicken (since we've explored lots of fish). While it's not thrilling, the bowl, as a whole, is a nice tortilla-less dining option.
On the drinks front, there's a selective, diverse list of beer, wine, sangria, iced tea and Coca-Cola fountain drinks all under five bucks.
The desserts highlight two sweet bars, limón coconut and caramel ganache brownie, under a clear display at the counter. Both are moist on the bottom with texture and flavor up top. I love the interaction of coconut and citrus, and my caramel-averse friend gives the brownie topping a thumbs-up. The goo is sandwiched between a cake-like bottom and thin layer of shiny chocolate. A warm made-to-order churro delivered to the table is great, as well. Cinnamon and sugar cling to its crisp ridges, yet there's a decadent softness inside. It's lovely.
As fresh-casual goes, Rubio's is very good, and the price is right, hence my star rating. It's important to place it in context, though. Stars also take into consideration what a restaurant's aspirations might be. It's then that we answer, "Was it worth doing?" I'm always trying to compare apples to apples, so don't confuse fast-casual with full service.
The Red Mesa spectrum of restaurants delivers bolder flavors, but if you're seeking a quick, reliable fish taco near Westshore, Rubio's is for you.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.