If you are fortunate to be motoring one of the most breathtaking stretches of scenic Highway 1 on the Central Coast, you must exit in Cayucos and drive through this quaint old beach town to the edge of the Pacific.
If you happen to drive by the exit, distracted by the panoramic ocean view, you’ll have to turn around. If you don’t, you’ll regret it until you come this way again.
Because right there, at the corner of D Street and Ocean Front in seaside, sun-drenched Cayucos, you will find one of the smallest but most sought-after food lover’s destinations in all California, Ruddell’s Smokehouse.
Have you ever tasted fine smoked food? If you have then you know it’s the King of BBQ. The aroma alone is enough to awaken you from a long spell of bland dining. What hot smoking does to tenderize and enhance fresh, quality fish, meat and cheese elevates them to a new dimension of taste that gives every bite a rich, burnished flavor not easily forgotten.
In recent years, the smoked fish and meat tacos and sandwiches that pour out of “Smoker Jim” Ruddell’s 250-square-foot euphoria factory have become as magnetic an attraction in Cayucos as the beach, surf and sunsets. They are that good – and Jim knows it, and he’s just grateful that things worked out that way.
You see, Jim feels he’s the caretaker of a recipe for happiness he’s glad to share, a recipe that has changed his life and brought the awesomeness of Cajun-smoked shrimp, albacore, salmon, chicken and pork loin – as well as smoked oysters and cheddar cheese on the side – to pilgrims of the palate from near and far.
Jim sells his signature albacore and other smoked specialties by the pound, but it’s his tacos that sell by the ton – the shrimp taco ($6), smoked albacore taco ($5.50), smoked salmon taco ($5.50), smoked chicken taco ($4.50) and smoked pork loin taco ($4.50) are what people wend their way to Ruddell’s for – that and the lure of beach and roar of the waves.
Each taco begins with a full salad of greens, chopped red leaf, sliced tomatoes, shredded carrots, chopped celery and apples inside a hot flour tortilla. When your fish, chicken or pork hits the salad and tortilla – after being smoked southern-style in Jim’s savory blend of gourmet herbs, sugars and spices over alder wood or apple wood – it’s transformed into something boldly unique, a bursting California Cajun taco that doesn’t just stand out in a crowd, it creates a crowd.
Ruddell’s large, robust sandwiches – smoked pork loin ($10), smoked chicken ($10), smoked salmon ($11.50) and “The Ultimate Tuna” with smoked, glazed albacore ($11.50) – are all served on a fresh baked roll with spicy mustard, mayonnaise, sliced tomatoes and fresh salad greens.
Salads and vegan are also in the mix – with smoked albacore or salmon ($12.50), smoked chicken ($11) or a tossed green ($7.50); or veggie taco ($3.50) or veggie sandwich ($7.50). The fish menu is seasonal and based on availability, and sometimes also features ahi and ono.
Wrapped and ready for take-home in the deli case are slabs of smoked salmon ($19.99 lb.), smoked albacore ($18.99 lb.), a whole smoked chicken ($8.50 each), smoked pork loin ($10 lb.), smoked oysters ($2 each/$24 dozen), and smoked cheddar, mild and sharp ($11.50 lb.). You might want to call ahead and place an order.
Ruddell’s is take-out only and offers a few patio tables and chairs for local consumption. However, the beach and ocean are only steps from Jim’s front door, and they’re free. To those who know the true value of things, it’s a rare California experience to be missed at your peril because this one’s got a boomerang attached to it, and you’ll be back. Bottled water and Calypso Natural Lemonade are the regular beverages. Note: If you find a table, sit on your napkins or put them in your pocket or the wind will blow them away and you’ll be running down D Street after them.
Ruddell’s Smokehouse, 101 D St., Cayucos, Calif. 93430. Hours: 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. every day. Telephone: (805) 995-5028. Website: http://www.smokerjim.com.
“Smoker Jim” Ruddell and the Sweet Smell of Success
As Jim Ruddell sees it, he has one of the best jobs in the world, and what Jim sees up close every day is a sight for sore eyes for everybody else in the world. How many people’s front door opens to the beach and Pacific Ocean, the coastline, open sky and a face full of sun? And because he’s so good at what he does, he knows that this is the way it’s going to be for him as long as he wants, and that’s why he’s one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet on the street in Cayucos.
Jim couldn’t imagine in his wildest dreams that he would be as successful as he is at something he loves doing. His life has been a journey to salvation, searching for a better life for his family, struggling to stay afloat, and finally hitting the bright side of the moon. You read about such success stories; you dream, work hard and pray, but don’t think it will happen to you. So Jim Ruddell lives in a constant state of disbelief, stunned and humbled at the same time. Because it’s happened to him.
“When I started here on a day like today, you could have rolled a tumbleweed down that road and not hit anything.”
That’s what Cayucos was like when Jim opened for business in December 2001.
“For those first several years there wasn’t a whole lot of business here. Since then Cayucos has very much become a destination, and there’s so little of the Cayucos kind of experience left to be found that people are really digging it, they’re really gravitating towards it,” he says.
“Up till about three years ago – I meet a lot of people here,” he pauses to add a little weight to his words, “people would come in here and I started hearing, ‘Wow, this is such a cool town. We know real estate’s going up and it’s getting kind of pricey but that’s OK. We really like it here. This a great place. We’d love to come and live here.’
“About three years ago it did this 180 degrees and turned into, ‘This is such a great town, it’s got so much potential.’”
Jim, who has surfed all his life, looks out at the ocean.
“It’s the last beach town on the coast,” he says, explaining the attraction that brings more and more people to the cozy oceanfront community. “When I grew up in Southern California, all the beach towns were like this, every one of them, and a good portion of them had a smokehouse right by the pier, and they would service the fishermen and the hunters. They’ve all been exploited now, and those who recognize that are the people that are saying Cayucos has so much potential.”
New Road Ahead
Jim’s journey up the coast began with major changes in his life and career.
“My wife and I are refugees from Los Angeles,” he says. “My daughter was born on April 27, 1992, and the Rodney King riots started on the 29th.” That was the beginning of the end of the Ruddell family’s life in LA. Jim was running the service department at Sheridan Toyota in Santa Monica at the time. “Because of the curfew I was the only car on the Santa Monica Freeway at 6:30 p.m. going home. I had a two-day-old baby in the hospital, and I went, ‘We’re done, finished.’ It took us a year…”
It helped that he had some idea where his next stop would be. But he also knew it wasn’t going to be easy starting over after years in LA and making it work in a very different economic environment.
“My brother has lived here since the ’70s, and we looked at this area for many years, but you have to have something to do when you come here; you don’t just move here.”
So Jim took the big leap, transitioning for awhile by working for the Toyota dealership in San Luis Obispo. He was involved in building the new Toyota dealership on Los Osos Valley Rd. But the move had its scary realities. The serious downshift in pay from LA to SLO wasn’t working. He had been in the car business a long time, and he was burned out on it before he moved up to the Coast. He knew he had to get out and that it would be risky. And he knew he had a future; it just wasn’t in the car business.
He didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
“My whole family on my father’s side is from the south, Louisiana, we’re Cajun people, so I’ve been around the fire all my life, I’ve been around smoke,” he says. “So when I came up here I looked around. I’d heard about the Santa Maria barbecue. It’s rural, agricultural, and I thought there’s a bunch of people that are barbecuing and smoking up here, doing some really cool stuff. So I started looking around, and by and large it’s very ordinary. There’s absolutely nothing here that’s particularly good.
“I built a smoker in my backyard after work, and I made a deal with a guy up on a ranch up here on 41. He gave me an old barn and I built myself a smokehouse. At that time there were a lot of fish coming into the harbor and it was very affordable, so I started smokin’ fish and selling it out of the back of my truck by the side of the road. I’d pull up and put my signs out — when I wasn’t getting run out by the cops and busted by the health department…”
Stepping into Greatness
Driven by his need to get out of the car grind and build his own business, and guided by his ability to make things happen when he sets his mind to it, Jim took the plunge.
“I started my business in 1996, and I quit working several times because I ran out of money,” he says. “One day I was working at GMC up in Paso, and Kathy called me and said, ‘Honey, how would you like to wake up in Morro Bay every day and drive all the way to Cayucos to sell your smoked fish every day of your life?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ She said, ‘No, no, when you come home tonight. Let’s go for a ride, I want to show you something.” Kathy took him to the corner of D Street and Ocean Front in Cayucos and showed him the location. “This used to be the Taco Temple. This is where they started.’”
Taco Temple needed a dining room. They had outgrown the tiny 250-square-foot space, and so they opened their business a few miles down the highway in North Morro Bay by Spencer’s market and kept the lease on the Cayucos property. Says Jim,”I looked at this and thought, ‘I can do this, I can make that happen.’
“I had no idea what the configuration of it was going to be, only that I was going to sell more fish.”
That 250 square feet, by the way, includes bathroom and storage, and a smoker about the size of an old refrigerator.
“I have a 3,000 square foot business in 250 square feet, and it works,” he says. “And it continues to grow and we continue to accommodate that. What’s really cool about it is we’re below the radar, kind of, we’re off the grid in a way. Like I don’t get visits from famous chefs going, ‘How do you do that out of that little hole in the wall?’ If they knew the kind of groceries I was putting out here… I do a lot of business out of 250 square feet. So I made a deal with Adam and Dawnelle, the people who own the Taco Temple… and voila, here we are.
“I have never put the key in that lock and not wanted to be here,” says Jim about his job. “Is that just wonderful? It’s impossible to put words to it. It’s surreal. And it’s just continues to grow. It has its own energy. There’s these bywords like synergy, but it’s true.”
In 2005 the Food Network’s “BBQ with Bobby Flay” show sent a crew to Ruddell’s and taped an episode. “That thing still has legs,” he says, amazed. “They did this episode and it came out on a Friday before President’s Day weekend of 2005. I was totally unprepared. We were impacted to the point where we could not get the food out the door. The next morning we were just inundated. They ran that show once a month for three years and then they said they would continue to run it once a month for four years, which they did, and when that ran out a new food kitchen channel came along and they co-opted it, and they started showing it.”
That set off a pure-gold chain reaction. Sunset magazine, Coastal Living magazine, even The New York Times, have, with a boost from the internet, sent smoke signals nationwide and worldwide. Ruddell’s is the most looked-at feature in the history of The New York Times Travel Magazine, says Jim. “They did a taco tour of the California Coast, and when they told me The New York Times, I said, ‘New York Times? Who reads The New York Times?’ Boy, do I know about The New York Times now! When people are planning their itineraries they go to The New York Times. It’s a pretty cool deal.”
Now social media has discovered Ruddell’s, and it’s eating up his tacos like the smoked candy they are.
“I wouldn’t know a tweet if it was swimming in my soup,” he says, simply incredulous over it all, his Smoker Jim’s cap pulled down almost over his eyes. “There’s still so much I don’t get.”
Becoming Smoker Jim
What Jim does get very well now is that no matter what happens, no matter what tomorrow brings, he has something that people want. “That’s what makes this thing happen, and the ambiance, the whole thing, I have found that my base time here at the store is highly productive – because I’m Smoker Jim,” he laughs. “This persona kind of happened, this Smoker Jim thing.”
Now he’s recognized in a bookstore at the San Francisco Airport, and walking around Sacramento he’s approached by a guy who goes, ‘Dude! You are the dude, you are the taco dude! My father-in-law loves you!” It happens all the time, says Jim.
“So I’m just riding this thing along, having a ball, and just fascinated by it.”
With the kind of success he’s had it’s natural to think about how far he could parlay the business. But Jim has resisted the temptation to multiply his success by opening up more smokehouses. He knows it could be a real money-maker, “but,” he quickly adds, “that is not what this is for…
“I don’t take credit for any of this,” he says, acknowledging the Man Upstairs. “I’m just participating and I’m kind of a custodian in a way. I don’t own it… He’s the boss, I just run the thing. It’s a gift. I’ve got five complete business plans all ready to go. But when I realized what it is I put all those plans in a drawer.
“I have been effectively saved. My life has been incredible. You know, you read interesting stories. Well, this is mine and it’s real. It’s real and it works every day.”
For all his success, Jim remains modest, down to earth and appreciative. “If I started taking myself too seriously I would have nowhere near as much fun, and probably it wouldn’t work. The whole idea is when people walk in that door they know this thing is what it is – it is what it is, and there isn’t another one of these anywhere and there’s not going to be.”
Right now, business “stays at a level where it’s manageable and I don’t have a bull’s-eye on me.” He has three employees and says, “I’m going to bring a fourth guy on because there’s not enough of me to do what I gotta do…”
To be exact, there’s only one of Jim, and he’s got a routine that would fry any man. “By the time I get here it’s about 20 minutes to 3 [in the a.m.] and I work until about 10, and when I get done smoking and doing some of the stuff I have to do, I prep a little bit for the guys, and they come in at 10 and prep to open at 11 o’clock. So theoretically I am done at about 11 o’clock, but it doesn’t quite work out that way. It’s almost a constant adaption because the business just keeps getting bigger…”
And the reason it keeps getting bigger is staggeringly simple: People talk. Word of mouth. They don’t stop talking about the food.
“It’s incredible smoked food,” says Jim sincerely. “It’s really, really good! I mean, you bite into one of them tacos…”
Some say the secret is in the sweet, pungent smoke of the fruity woods that fuel his electric smoker. “I use primarily alder for the albacore and the salmon. I use the apple wood on my jerky and my shrimp. It’s lighter. It has a little more punch than the alder does to give it a bit more body. We don’t have a lot of it around here. There is some. It’s from the northwest. There are a lot of alder trees up there. Some of the Indians have been using alder to smoke their salmon for probably thousands of years.”
Some say it’s the apples. “The apples are my wife’s deal,” he says. “They’re See Canyon Fujis. I buy a bunch of them and I put them away. That, and what really makes that thing happen is we have a flour tortilla, we put some olive oil on it and put it on the grill. Then we flip it over and put some cumin on it, and then the sauce, which is whole mayonnaise and a little Gulden’s Spicy Mustard. When it all hits that hot oil, the cumin, that’ll send you off in to spasms! It really works.”
Rise of the Taco
“When I opened up,” says Jim, “I thought I’m not going to sell enough fish to pay the bills and make some money so I’ll make some tacos, maybe make some sandwiches. I figured maybe 30% of my business would be out of the kitchen, 70% would be out of the deli case. It’s exactly opposite, 180 degrees off. I sell a lot of fish out of the case but I sell a lot of tacos.”
How many tacos is a lot? “On the 4th of July I sell 1,000 tacos in one day,” he says. “I put up a little tent out here, and we close it off. Nobody can go in. Because there’s 50,000 people in town on the 4th of July. It’s a hoot. It’s Americana at its absolute best.”
Preparations begin early that morning. “The crew comes in a 7 to start making tacos so by 11 o’clock we’ve prepped and we have 400 tacos ready and we just phase them. These things have really good legs. Cal Poly kids during finals will buy a dozen of them, stick them in the refrigerator and eat them for several days. So they hold up.”
Jim has also developed a business providing tacos for local marriages, which, because of its idyllic location, Cayucos is known for.
“A lot of people get married here at the Vet’s Hall and various venues. They call me up and they want 200 tacos for their party, so I make them before work, before we start our day, and everyone of those people have called me back and said ‘you made our wedding.’ Most of them said, ‘I didn’t even get one, I couldn’t even get to them.’ I took 250 tacos a day down to the Sea Glass Festival two weekends ago and at 4 o’clock in the afternoon that taco was as good as at 10 o’clock in the morning.”
Now, the only questions left to debate among smoked fish aficionados involve splitting the hairs of superlatives: Are Jim’s tacos the best in the west? Based on the sheer flavor explosion to the senses, many people believe it’s a fact. And so they keep coming. Every day. Like the waves rolling up on the beach almost up to Jim’s doorstep.
Today, Ruddell’s Smokehouse enjoys one of the highest ratings ever on Yelp, and is featured on TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. And one night you’ll be up late channel-cruising and run into that episode of “BBQ with Bobby Flay” from 2005, and you’ll recognize the Smokehouse and recall that taste, of tender, tangy smoked fish, alder wood and apples, and the next day you’ll drive the magnificent Highway 1 to Cayucos, one of the most beautiful highways in the world, and you’ll walk into Jim Ruddell’s smokin’ knothole by the ocean, step up to the counter and say: “One smoked albacore taco for here – and one to go!”