Editor's note: Cook's Country executive food editor Bryan Roof and staff photographer Steve Klise visited Ruddell's Smokehouse in Cayucos, Calif., in June 2015. Jim Ruddell, featured in this article, died in early 2018, but the Smokehouse remains open today.
BEFORE COOK'S COUNTRY EXECUTIVE food editor Bryan Roof and I head out on the road in search of unique local eats, our first step is to solicit recommendations for where to find the best food. We take hints from everyone—from fans to coworkers to visitors’ bureau reps—in hopes that we’ll zero in regional dishes worth sampling at as many different neighborhood restaurants as time and appetite allow.
When we began to lay out our plans for an adventure through California in 2015, it seemed like everyone wanted to vouch for a visit to their favorite taqueria, and the list of locations to scope out was taking a turn for the unruly. As exciting as it would be to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco subsisting entirely on tacos, following every tip we got would leave room for little else.
Fortunately, just before we left Boston, a Californian co-worker stopped us in the test kitchen and spoke at length about a small taco shack, located in a seaside town just up Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo, that bucked convention filling tacos with smoked fish, not fried. Our itinerary had us passing right through that particular region, so our colleague’s enthusiasm left us no choice: we had to check it out for ourselves.
We arrived in Cayucos, CA on a Friday at 7:30 am, the headlights of our rental car cutting through the gray morning light as we wove westward through the narrow grid of streets. A few blocks off the highway, we found a wide swath of beach that looked out onto a cove studded with large, rocky protrusions. Just across from this sandy expanse sat Ruddell’s Smokehouse, where owner and operator Jim Ruddell had been up all night tending to his cabinet smoker and preparing for a busy weekend.
It didn’t take long to get the sense that Ruddell was occupying his own corner of paradise. Even though he’d been awake since the day before getting ready for the lunch rush, he was the portrait of calm as he went about his business, navigating his labyrinthine 250-square-foot kitchen with calculated determination, peering out from under a faded black baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of his establishment as he adjusted the dials on his smoker. The scene belied long, hard hours, but Ruddell wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People pay me to make tacos on the beach, man. I’m probably the richest guy I know,” Ruddell said in a steady baritone, spreading his arms wide. “I mean, this is my office!”
Ruddell’s passion for cooking with smoke goes back generations. To hear him tell it, barbecue’s been in his blood ever since his family put down roots in Chacahoula, Louisiana. His own forays into smoked seafood could be traced to a bit of backyard ingenuity, some ornery neighbors, and a fateful brush with the law back when he and his family lived in Los Angeles.
“I used to have an old pizza oven in my backyard, and I’d smoke in that. My wife thought I was crazy,” Ruddell said with a laugh as he leaned against a cooler decorated with a frayed, yellowing map of Cayucos. “I had this neighbor who would call the cops on us all the time for code violations, and that turned into, you know, ‘they’re drunks,’ or ‘they’re doing witchcraft . . . ’”
After a handful of visits from the authorities, Ruddell developed a rapport with the inspectors, one of whom recommended a new location for his seafood-smoking sessions. Eventually, Ruddell settled in his current spot across from the beach in Cayucos, where his new neighbors were focused more on smoked fish tacos than zoning regulations.
As he moved from the counter to the smoker to the sandwich station and back again, Ruddell regaled us with tales of his restaurant and stories from his surfing adventures, describing individual waves the way soldiers recall past battles. Every fifteen minutes, an egg timer perched atop his smoker would go off, and Ruddell would shift gears from surfer to smokehouse keeper. Donning a pair of bright green oven mitts, pulling open the hatch on his smoker hauling out a half-dozen full-sheet-sized wire racks containing twenty or so salmon fillets . . .
. . . and applying a few heavy brushstrokes of an apricot-based glaze to each piece of fish. Much like the salmon itself, this glaze was an hours-long project: it had been reducing since midnight on a burner across the kitchen.
“There’s a way to accelerate it, but it wouldn’t be as good on the salmon,” Ruddell said, using his wood-handled brush to stir the thick, just-this-side-of-burnt glaze in a small saucepan. “You wouldn’t know the difference, but I would.”
Once each fillet was properly shellacked, he socked the racks back into the smoker. Repeat every quarter of an hour for about two and a half hours, stopping occasionally to watch from the window near the sandwich station as the parking spaces along the beach road begin to fill up, and that’s one batch of salmon ready for tacos. Every part of the process seemed like a long and laborious effort, but Ruddell insisted every minute is worth it. Good enough for us.
Salmon was not the only fish to emerge from Ruddell’s smoker on a daily basis. Each night, he smoked huge batches of albacore—a best-seller, seasoned only with kosher salt—and shrimp tossed with a zippy Cajun-style spice mixture.
Initially, Ruddell had planned to offset the cost of running a seafood-based business by offering a couple of chicken- and pork-based tacos and sandwiches. (“For carnivores,” Ruddell joked. “You know, people who don’t know what fish is?”) After a few years in the game, though, the smokehouse was moving enough ocean fare to stay afloat. At the time of our visit, Ruddell smoked around 700 pounds of fish a week to keep up with demand, a figure that trended upward over the summer and spiked like mad over holiday weekends.
“When I opened this, I thought we’d be selling smoked fish out of a case,” Ruddell said, gesturing to vacuum-packed chunks of smoked salmon labeled “Cayucos Candy” in a refrigerator near the cash register. “This year, on the Fourth of July, we sold 1,328 tacos in one day. One day. What does that even mean?”
Opening a small drawer just below the main chamber, Ruddell pulled out a pan of smoldering alderwood sawdust and set it on the floor. Using a large spoon, he gave the ashes in the pan a quick stir, then another slower stir, then a look of disapproval. He grabbed the pan and pushed his way outdoors.
Standing on the front step of his shop, Ruddell dumped the spent sawdust into a small bin next to the door, pulled a small notebook from his pocket, and recorded the time of disposal. He looked up from his notes, smiled, and waved to a group of pedestrians making their way toward the beach. After a couple quick words about the weather, Ruddell turned around and headed back into his shop.
As the sky grew brighter over the ocean and the first participants of a 10K beach run began to cross the sand across the road, the time drew near for Ruddell to hand the reins over to his daytime crew. It was their job to prepare the non-smoked ingredients for his tacos: brushing tortillas with oil and dusting them with cumin before a quick blast of heat to toast them, mixing together an signature apple-based slaw inspired by an off-hand recommendation from Ruddell’s wife, and flaking apart hundreds of fish fillets. Before long, they’d unlock the front door and open for business, selling tacos and sandwiches to curious beachgoers and ravenous runners alike.
Unfortunately, it was time for us to hit the road as well—we had an early lunch meeting up north in Moss Landing—and as the day shift hadn’t yet arrived, it looked like we were going to miss out on trying any trace of these tacos for ourselves. An especially crushing prospect, especially after spending the morning bathing in salmon-scented smoke.
Ruddell, however, wasn’t going to let us leave hungry. He pulled a couple of fillets out of the smoker and nestled each in a paper sandwich tray with a dollop of spicy mustard-based sauce.
The fillets had taken on a beautiful burnished appearance, the striations of fat between the zig-zagging stripes of flesh tinted golden brown. A first bite without the sauce yielded a complex sweetness from the glaze, a sizeable hit of smoke, and finally, a clean salmon flavor as layers of perfectly-cooked fish slid apart on my tongue. The second bite came fully sauced, the mild spice of the mustard cutting through the salmon’s richness for a perfectly balanced forkful. Sure, I was short some slaw and a tortilla, but it wasn’t hard to see how Ruddell’s salmon would make for one hell of a taco.
As we gathered our gear to head out, Ruddell set to cleaning up each nook of his kitchen bit by bit in preparation for the day’s service, making sure the space exactly the way it needs to be before he leaves to get some sleep before his next shift at the smoker. For Ruddell, it’s a set of tasks that moves past routine and into the realm of the life-affirming.
“Every morning, I watch the dawn, and I thank God and I say, ‘some people live like aristocrats, but I live like a king,’” said Ruddell as he stared out at the waves. “What did I do to deserve this?”
Read about some of our other trips around the country, in the name of recipe research:
- Finding Hog Heaven at the Cochon de Lait Festival in Mansura, LA
- Meet Philly’s Other Sandwich: The Roast Pork
- Phil’s Fish Story (and the Creation of Monterey Bay Cioppino)
- A Sampling of Alabama’s Finest Soul Food
Who makes your favorite tacos? What's your favorite regional specialty? Let us know in the comments!