Fish taco pipeline
Surfing brothers make big splash with value meals at Wahoo’s
By Dan O'Heron 12/16/2010
If shouts of “wahoo,” expressing unrestrained glee, are cutting into the sounds of Christmas carols on South Lake Avenue these days, it’s because retail shoppers are socking away extra money for gifts by eating at Wahoo’s Fish Taco.
The colorful restaurant is offering more than 20 items of fin, feather, flank and farm for under $5 for both lunch and dinner. These include Wahoo’s renowned fish tacos, with plate casings of either wahoo or mahi mahi fish, complete with steamed, seasoned rice (white or brown) and beans (black or Cajun) for $4.25.
Wahoo fish, related to mackerel, is very expensive. Due to its slightly sweet, very pleasant and savory high-fat flesh, wahoo are often compared to albacore. By comparison, mahi mahi is moderately fat, firm and a bit spicy. And not to worry: Although originally named dolphinfish, mahi mahi is not related to the endangered mammal.
Other meals under $5 include three taquitos, with a choice of fish, chicken, steak or pork ($4.79); a “wahoo” sandwich with cheese, guacamole, salsa corn tortilla strips and a choice of nine fillings ($4.99); or a classic lard-free burrito with all the etceteras for $4.90.
For a bit more than $5, Wahoo offers a number of meaty combo platters and bowls, as well as two special meals that don’t add up to much when calorie counting: a “wahoo” salad with a choice of veggies and salsa has only 283 calories and a bowl of grilled chicken soup with mixed veggies has just 84 calories.
After earlier trips, getting hooked on fish tacos (preferring the sweetness of wahoo fish, $2.45 each), I ordered the a dish that General Manager Lilia Toscano, a six-year veteran of Wahoo’s, told me she liked best — the new “Wafu Bowl.” For $7.99, I splurged for this big platter of veggies that was so pretty it might inspire a garden-like painting by Monet. It featured pan-grilled teriyaki tofu cubes worked into an inlaid mosaic of varied bell peppers, onions, broccoli, zucchini, mushrooms and cabbage.
For folks on the treadmills at nearby LA Fitness, this healthful dish is just a hop, step and a lunge away. An elongated site, Wahoo stretches from South Lake Avenue to the Shoppers Lane parking lot. With walls festooned with “poplorico” decals, photos of customers and surfing wipe outs, surfboards and skateboards, it feels like one of those bar stool and Bud Lite fun places. But, like the treadmillers, it also attracts a band of serious eaters.
How did it come about? Three brothers — Wing Lam and Ed and Mingo Lee — grew up in San Paolo, Brazil, living above a restaurant owned by their parents. In 1975,
the family moved to Orange County, where mom and dad opened the Shanghai Pine Garden on Balboa Island.
“In spring breaks from college, and after washing dishes at the restaurant, we went surfing in Baja,” said Lam. In search of the perfect wave, they traveled from K-38 (38 kilometers from Tijuana) to Ensenada on the Pacific, then east across the peninsula to San Felipe on the Gulf Coast. That’s a village on a curving inlet bay where surfers run into paddle boards and tuna clippers by day and margaritas and noise at sundown.
“Along the way, we ate carne asada and fish tacos — preferring the fish — and drank beer,” said Lam.
Speaking of surfers walking on water, “Back then,” said Lam, “we could buy a case of Pacifico for $5 and get $1 back when we returned the bottles.”
Way back then, I recalled beer and that road to San Felipe. At worst, it was axle-grinding bumpy. At best, sandy. Once while on the way to fish and drink, the car hobbled to a halt in front of a mission. It was mid-summer hot. That everyone called it a dry heat didn’t help. I prayed that we could get back to Ensenada for another bottle of cheap Pacifico. Those were the days. Today at Wahoo’s, a bottle costs $3.83.
In the wake of a 1988 Baja trek — sitting around the beach at Newport — the brothers, who loved to travel and were trained for the corporate world, were worrying about what they would do for a career. Would they like to fund a shoe factory in Jakarta? No way.
“We could see how happy our folks were with the restaurant and how guys in the surfing business were making a lot of money and looking like they didn’t go to work,” said Lam. Then, an epiphany: “We’ll open a restaurant with beach food.”
Five months later, a Wahoo’s Fish Taco opened in Costa Mesa.
The name? “It was a happy accident,” said Lam. “While we were talking about opening a restaurant, a buddy called from Oahu. I thought he said he was calling from ‘Wahoo.’”
At first daring and lucky, the brothers have gone on to become able and knowing. In combining surfing and cooking, they’ve been riding a wave of success, opening 58 Wahoo franchises in four states — California, Hawaii, Texas and Colorado — and expecting to sign up six more in 2011.
Wahoo’s Fish Tacos
264 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena | (626) 449-2005 | wahoos.com
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