Ricky Piña is the “Ricky” in “Ricky's Fish Tacos,” who, according to some, slings the best fish and shrimp tacos this side of Baja. When Ricky tweets his hours — currently Thursday through Sunday, around 11:30 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. — a line of people shows up at his stand, in a parking lot behind a hair salon on Virgil, a block south from where Hillhurst, Virgil, Hollywood, and Sunset meet. In a lot of ways, eating a freshly fried fish taco, here, in the parking lot, under the sun, a few feet away from this confused, clusterf*ck of an intersection, is what defines eating in Los Angeles.
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.
RP: Yes. And my dad is from Baja, from Ensenada. His father was from Ensenada too. Even though he came from Ensenada, he moved to Arizona to work for the Wells Fargo company when they were building the railroads back in the late 18-something. My dad's dad.
SI: So how about your dad? Did he also work on the railroads?
RP: My dad is Cochimí Indian, which is one of the tribes in Baja. He learned how to do mechanical work in a Model T, in a Ford. My grandpa used to buy cars from Mr. Henry Ford —
SI: Directly from Henry Ford?
RP: Yes, Mr. Henry Ford used to travel to Ensenada a lot, to deliver cars personally. And him and my grandfather used to hang out a lot, and there's some history behind that.
SI: I'm having a Forrest Gump moment here.
RP: There were no mechanics back then. It was just cheaper to buy another car than to have someone from the US come and fix the cars. So Mr. Ford would go to Ensenada and bring my grandfather a truck or car. That's how my dad started playing with a car, with a wrench. My dad became a really good mechanic. So that's how he earned a living.
We stop the interview as a few people approach Piña's cart. A boyfriend is giving his girlfriend a few suggestions: “Get a fish and a shrimp, and if you're still hungry, we can just order more.” She looks a bit incredulously at Piña frying some shrimp. “How does it compare to the other place?” The boyfriend glances at his girlfriend. “After this, you probably won't go there anymore.”
After everyone is seated and eating and happy, Piña returns.
RP: So my father used to fix those Ford international trucks, old, old ones. Along the way, he got to go to several places, fishing villages, mining villages, to the Sierras, he met ranchers. Remember, Baja is like a desert, so there is no access for a lot of companies. There are no auto parts. This is back in the '60s, '70s, and even the '50s.
In the fishing villages, the fishermen wouldn't get paid until the end of the month, maybe, but they needed work done, and my dad would have the parts, and he would just install the parts or fix their cars. And they were so appreciative of his help that they would pay him in advance with some fish, lobster, abalone, all sorts of seafood. We knew when my dad didn't have a lot of cash, because we had a lot of seafood on our table. That's basically how I grew up: never lack of anything. My dad was a great, great provider.
SI: And your mom?
RP: My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and she used made really good meals with what my dad brought home. So that's when she started cooking seafood. She probably does not make the best chile rellenos in town, but boy, ask her to make seafood soup, and it's the best. There is a seafood soup called siente mares. We called my mom's soup the 20 mares, because she put so many different seafoods in it.
SI: 20 mares! To feed how many people? How big was your family?
RP: I was the youngest of seven. Five boys and two girls. And my dad used to gather my brothers and have them help him do mechanical work. And they used to get all greasy, oily, and dirty, and my mom used to get so mad at my dad, because she had to wash the clothes afterwards. So she asked him to please just leave one inside, take the other ones with you. So, it was me.
My mom was cooking and I was helping her, taking the trash out, and cleaning. Sometimes, when there was nothing to do inside, I would help my dad, so I learned how to do some really good cooking and hard work as well. So that was my childhood. Never skipped school, I was a good student — not straight A student, but I was pretty good student. Right after high school, I started working in a laboratory, a clinical laboratory. I graduated from high school with degree of lab technician.
SI: What kind of labs?
RP: Clinical — I could work entry-level. That's how I started, then I went to hematology, HIV, and chemistry, just processing, which is a lot for a technician.
I took a vacation after a couple years to Los Cabos. I went there when I was a kid, but this was my first time as a grown-up. I fell in love with Los Cabos. My mom and grandma and great-grandma were from Los Cabos, and I fell in love with the place, and they offered me a job as a tour guide. So, I quit the laboratory work and went to Los Cabos to work as a tour guide.
SI: What year was this?
RP: 1991, maybe? I worked as a tour guide for about 5 years. And then I went back to Ensenada. I don't think I came back [to Los Angeles] until 2000, something like that. I've been going back and forth all my life, until '04, when I came back, and I settled down. I think I'm staying for good this time.
Check back later today for the second part of the interview.