In the first part of the interview, we sit down with Piña in the said parking lot to talk about his expert opinion on El Pollo Loco's so-called Baja-style tacos, growing up in Ensenada, and his connection to Henry Ford. Yes, that Henry Ford.
Squid Ink: El Pollo Loco is making Baja-style tacos now. We brought you one, just to see what you think.
Piña unfolds the El Pollo Loco wrapper to reveal a fried fish stick smashed inside a somewhat crumpled tortilla. Shredded cabbage and a small slice of lime stumbles out.
Ricky Piña: Ah! How much was this?
SI: $1.99 plus tax, so $2.18. Close to your price. [Ricky's fish and shrimp tacos are $2.50 each].
RP: $2.18. Huh. Heavy. Just one?
SI: Just one. We couldn't bear to buy two. Oh, they give you a little bit of lime with the taco.
RP: If you taste it for the first time with a lime, not a good idea. [He takes a bite]. I don't like the sauce, the white sauce.
SI: The fish looks like a fish stick from Van de Kamps. Is it okay?
RP: Decent. Not great, chewy. The sauce mixed with the fish is sticky. You know? Like glue. Now, with lime.
SI: Better with the lime?
RP: Better. Not great, but better. It helps.
SI: Can you explain the lime thing?
RP: Well, seafood goes great with lemon, lime. But it's one of my pet peeves when somebody is going to try my fish tacos for the first time, and they insist on having a lemon on it first. How are you going to get a real taste of the food if you add a lemon or lime to it? It totally changes the flavor. It makes it more appetizing, maybe.
SI: It made [the El Pollo Loco taco] more appetizing.
RP: Yeah. It makes your mouth salivate more, with a lime, but that's not the point. You're mixing flavors. After the first bite, I'm okay with you putting lime or lemon on my tacos. [Laughs]
SI: Do you even have lemons here?
SI: When you add a lemon, it becomes like two different foods, essentially.
RP: Exactly. So, yeah, sometimes it could be boring, then you add a little lemon, and it's different. But not on my food at first. Not in front of me!
SI: How did you develop your food and start cooking?
RP: I'm very proud of my origins, where I'm from. I've had the honor of being very close to my grandma in her last years, and I got to learn a lot from her, all her sayings and recipes. She loved to cook. She was the founder of this agricultural valley in south Ensenada called San Quentini in Baja, and that's where we get our tomatoes here in L.A. In 1947 or '48, my grandma started going to the harvest in that valley, and she started cooking for a living. There was nothing there but deer and some vegetables. She used to raise her own chickens, and that's how they got their eggs. There were no stores, no companies that would distribute their food to those people, so that's how they started.
In 1952, Baja became a state in Mexico, the 31st state. Before that, it was just a territory, so we were part of the Wild West, with a lot of mining companies and people settling in different areas of Baja. My grandma was one of the pioneers in Baja, California.
SI: Oh, that is impressive. There's a lot of history there.