In the first part of our interview with Ricky Piña, the guy behind Ricky's Fish Tacos told us about growing up in Ensenada, learning how to cook from his mother and grandmother, and going back and forth between Los Angeles and Baja before finally settling in Los Angeles in 2004.
Next, Piña tells us about how he modified his fish taco recipe to fit our eat-it-and-run culture and tells us what secret dish he will be serving tomorrow night, Saturday, March 19th, when he and Mexicali Taco Company team up for Baja Night 2.0. Turn the page for the rest of the interview, and details about what's going on tomorrow night…
Squid Ink: You came back to L.A. in 2004. When did you decide to start selling fish tacos?
Ricky Piña: I was stuck without a car here for three months, so I couldn't visit anybody in Baja. The first thing that I would do when I would go to Ensenada was go and say hi to grandma and go and eat a fish taco. I couldn't do it for three months, and so I started to searching for fish tacos. It was very hard to find fish tacos around L.A., except for the old places that always had fish tacos — like El 7 Mares, Mariscos Chente, and a couple more, but that was it. And I didn't have a car.
SI: How would you even get from place to place if you didn't have a car?
RP: Yeah, I was living in Reseda, in the Valley! So, no fish tacos, Baja tacos, nothing in the Valley. So I went to a couple places that were advertising Ensenada-style tacos, and I would be disappointed every time. I would argue with the chefs and the cooks, whoever was offering the fish tacos. After the second time I got into an argument with a cook, one of them told me, “Why don't you make your own fish taco?” And I said, “Maybe I will!”
So I tried. The next time I went to Baja, I bought my own fish, and with my mom and grandma's recipe, I started practicing. I made them for my friends, and they all loved them. A year or two after that, I started making them for you guys.
SI: Tell us about your fish tacos. Was it entirely based on your mom and grandma's recipe?
RP: Yes, then I adjusted it to meet the needs of the area.
SI: What do you mean?
RP: I mean, I had to change the recipe in a way that it could be cooked faster and lighter. I don't know if you tried fish tacos in Ensenada, but their batter is a little bit heavier, and it takes them 50 percent longer to cook them.
SI: Because the batter's heavier.
RP: And since Ensenada is a pretty easy going, kick back kind of town; no one's in a hurry. But in L.A., it's different. So I had to figure out how to make the batter a little bit lighter, so it cooks faster, because everyone runs in L.A. That's the reason why I had to change it a little. That's part of the lab technician in me that came out: how can I cook this? I finally figured it out.
SI: How did you get your cart together? The first one.
RP: I had weekends off [from his job as a florist] at the time, and I was thinking about doing something. Since all my friends loved the fish tacos, I tried to put a cart together. It was kind of difficult and unseen before I did it. I saw nobody frying food on the sidewalk, and that was my intention, and so I made some drawings and figured out what the basic needs are — what you would need, basically, to make fish tacos.
I happened to have a filing cabinet at home. I just borrowed my friend's saw and cut some parts out, and took the drawers out, and put some wheels on it, the fryer, the propane tank inside of it, and a couple shelves on the side. It kind of looked like a one-man orchestra (laughs). It was 2 ft wide and 3 ft long.
SI: We remember. We couldn't believe you were frying out of that.
RP: It was a good idea. It lasted. Five months later, I had a bunch of people lined up for fish tacos. I couldn't keep up with the demand, so I went ahead and bought this cart, had it custom made, two fryers and a tortilla warmer. That's how it started. I even had an umbrella.
SI: And what kind of fish do you use for the tacos?
RP: A Vietnamese catfish. It's called basa.
RP: Yes! Baja Night 2.0, the second one, with these guys from Mexicali Taco Company. They have the best Ensenada-style tacos, carne asada, cachetadas, and we're going to get together for the second time. Saturday, March 19th, at 6 p.m. on 1st and Beaudry. We'll have fish, shrimp, and lobster tacos, carne asada, pollo asada tacos, and an extra surprise.
SI: An extra surprise?
RP: An extra surprise! I haven't told anyone, but I guess I'll tell you.
I'm going to make grandma's soup, a seafood soup. You're the first one to know. Limited, of course, because of the setting. I hope to see you all there!