Ricky Piña is tired. Since March 2009, when he opened his makeshift taco stand, fashioned from repurposed furniture, Piña has slung some of the best fish tacos in LA. Shortly after opening, he was named LA’s fish taco king by the Taco Task Force, a group of food bloggers looking to find the city’s best tacos. From then, Ricky’s Fish Tacos has been Piña’s life. The posts written by the group of bloggers allowed the Ensenada-born taquero to sell tacos full time, leaving his job at Parisian Florists. Piña is one of the original taco stars in LA, when Twitter was the primary social media tool used in the food community. He’s known to his customers as a perfectionist, dedicated to his family recipe and to making sure his touch was on every taco served. Things became more manageable when he opened a food truck in 2013, but that perfectionism has taken a personal toll, which has only been amplified by the ongoing pandemic.
“I’ve only had maybe three weeks off in the last 11 years, just to visit some islands, and each time I had to close the truck,” says Piña. He was concerned about employees taking the recipe somewhere else, so the ageless, charming taquero, often seen wearing his trademark tan fedora, simply couldn’t let go enough to allow someone else prepare the batter. Ricky’s Fish Tacos has remained profitable during the nine-month lockdown, yet the weekly routine of shopping and prepping on Mondays and Tuesdays, then serving from Wednesday through the weekend, year after year, exposed the kinks in this proud taquero’s armor. “The pandemic has made the great people in your life better, and the worse ones worse,” says Piña, who has suffered from isolation and depression, and feeling abandoned by those around him. The pandemic has strained relationships, ended marriages, broken up partnerships, and caused depression to rise globally, and what’s happened to Piña is no different.
“People think I’m crazy to leave while things are going well, but I feel that I don’t really belong here anymore, and [I] want to go back to Ensenada forever,” says Piña. Still, he wants Ricky’s Fish Tacos to live on, and he’s hoping that someone will carry on his legacy. He’s looking for a person to buy the truck, the recipes, and three months of consulting, or consulting that lasts until the operator is confident enough to hit the streets on their own. The only catch: The new owner will have to keep the name. Ricky’s Fish Tacos is an LA icon at this point, like the Hollywood sign and the Sunset Strip, because Piña was the city’s first notable taquero focusing on the Baja region of Mexico, and his truck is a mobile landmark (an oxymoron, yet fitting).
In 2008, when chef Roy Choi’s Kogi Truck launched a thousand vinyl-wrapped urban ships serving everything from Korean tacos to grilled cheese sandwiches to banh mi, chef-driven food trucks tweeted out their locations hours before parking. That social media attention took the spotlight off of LA’s loncheras, or traditional Mexican food trucks. Photo-centric app Instagram would later help Mexican, Latino, and Latinx food trucks return to prominence. But back in 2009, Ricky’s Fish Tacos, along with a few other spots, such as Mariscos Jalisco and Mexicali Taco & Co., were able to attract attention from bloggers. For those looking for serious, traditional Mexican fish tacos, it was Ricky’s or bust. Loyal customers wanted the real deal, which means fish and shrimp in a beer-battered mixture made with El Rosal flour, then fried in lard brought in from Baja California. The requisite toppings were shredded cabbage, sour cream, salsas, and pico de gallo, all piled on a corn tortilla. And the tacos were always served with a smile, one that has been harder to maintain in 2020.
Ricky’s problems have mounted over the years, including unreliable employees, aggressive neighbors, and isolation at his commissary yard as food trucks have stopped running during the pandemic. Throw in an already weak relationship with a silent business partner that frayed as 2020 dragged on. “I realize now that this can’t be a one-man show, and I just can’t do it anymore,” says Piña. At 52 years old, he wants to go back to Baja California and open a roadside stand near wine country serving Mexican-American food. “I have family down there I’ve not seen in years, and I want to reconnect and retire — well, semi-retire, anyway,” says Piña. “Here [in Sun Valley] I live alone, I’m alone at the commissary and don’t feel safe anymore, and the business has made it hard to maintain any relationships.”
In the meantime, Piña will continue serving at his 5 freeway-adjacent stop, though for how long is uncertain at the moment. Be sure to check his Twitter, which he updates before every service. Piña plans to return to Baja California at the end of next year to allow time to find the right buyer, one who really wants to become a part of this taquero’s history, and to prepare them to make the tacos as well as he did. “I’ve met so many great people over the years and love my customers, so hopefully they’ll stop by and see me in Mexico,” says Piña.
Ricky’s Fish Tacos is looking for a true taco lover to continue this LA story, which is the silver lining to another casualty of America’s failed response to the pandemic. We’ll still have Ricky, though, just a few hours south, and if you ask nicely, I’m sure he’ll make you a fish taco at his restaurant in Baja California. Off-menu, of course.
Ricky’s Fish Taco. 3061 Riverside Dr. Atwater. (323) 395-6233