Rubalcava's and the Rise of Primo-Mex
An interesting trend is rising in Orange County: the emergence of second-generation Mexican food entrepreneurs continuing their family tradition, but tweaking the model to stay relevant. At the Northgate Supermarket empire, the children of the González clan are assuming leadership roles and heading their bakery department; meanwhile, Taco Maria's Carlos Salgado and Gabriel Zambrano of Soho Taco (children of restaurateurs and meat men, respectively) are pushing their luxe loncheras to gourmet heights.
But the most promising project is happening at Rubalcava's in Placentia, where Roland Rubalcava is single-handedly inventing what I'll call primo-Mex cuisine: creations by the children of Mexican immigrants who are Americanized but not pocho, who spend their weekends with cousins and friends grilling up carne asada and hamburgers side-by-side and hitting up Angels or Dodgers games fueled with brewskis and recovering the following day with mami's menudo or birria. For them, the Cal-Mex combo plate is alien, but the bacon-wrapped hot dog is as Mexican as Vicente Fernández. It's fusion cuisine that doesn't call itself that, one that calls itself Mexican even if its makers spend most of their days speaking English.
Rubalcava is the perfect person to do this; he comes from the family behind La Reina markets, the mini-chain with outposts in Anaheim and Orange that make some of the best tortillas in Orange County. With his father and his siblings, they spun off on their own about six years ago, running a full-fledged meat market and a bakery with bolillos as fluffy on the inside as cotton, as sturdy on the outside as an empanada. The pan dulces are sweet and baked nonstop; the quinceañera cakes are already a North County institution. Rubalcava's also features a full-fledged taqueria, with massive tacos holding Mexican-meat cuts, gargantuan burritos, humongous tortas—food that pleases working-class wabs and football players from Esperanza High alike.
But here's the exciting part: Rubalcava is experimenting. He's not content with a mere Sonoran dog; his version is more structure than supper, a hollowed-out bolillo with shredded bacon, jalapeños and a hell of a lot of cheese. Toritos are just about to debut, a staple of Sonoran cooking that finds chile güerito shells stuffed with shrimp, wrapped in bacon, then fried; Rubalcava tweaks this bar snack by making the shrimp as creamy as crab cake. He's even cribbing an idea from his chilango customers and ready to debut a tamale torta—a toothsome tamale stuffed inside a bolillo, then lightly decorated with salsa. None of these items is on the menu yet, but he will happily make them for anyone who asks. Better yet, go Sunday evening; Rubalcava is about to debut a dinner menu that will truly let his primo-Mex freak flag fly.
This column appeared in print as "The Rise of Primo-Mex."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.