We've had humble plans from the beginning that have gone way beyond our wildest imaginations. — Mingo Lee, Nation’s Restaurant News 39.5, 2005
Southern California is cool. This isn’t just a matter of biased, hometown pride — it is a fact recognized by people all over the world. Particularly awesome is our unique surfing culture — equal parts laid-back and extreme, with its own music, language and sensibilities. And if SoCal surfers had an official restaurant, it’s an easy bet that it would be Wahoo’s Fish Taco, the fast-casual mecca founded in the heart of the perennially hip O.C.
The story of Wahoo’s is as California as it gets. Its founders are three brothers — Wing Lam and his younger brothers Mingo and Eduardo (Ed). The brothers, along with two other siblings, were born in Brazil, where their Chinese parents had fled to escape Communism. The family settled outside of São Paulo, and opened a small Chinese restaurant. “I grew up in a restaurant,” Wing recalled. “Really, to get to my house in Brazil, you’d have to go through the restaurant. Imagine having a hidden room in a casino in the back. It was like that. I literally had been in a restaurant my whole life.”
In the 1970s, the family was on the move again, this time to Orange County. They opened a new restaurant, Shanghai Pine Gardens, in Newport Beach. However, the children were not expected to follow in their parents’ footsteps. The family stressed the importance of education and dreamed of a better life for their children. "My parents always thought working with your brain was better than working with your hands," Wing remembered.
Now teenagers, Wing, Mingo and Ed fell in love with the relaxed lifestyle of the O.C. They became avid surfers, and would often ditch school and drive down to the Baja Peninsula to surf. After hours in the turbulent ocean, they would grab the delicious fried fish tacos sold by street vendors, often made of less desirable fish that local vendors couldn’t sell. “Most of the people had never eaten fish tacos,” Wing recalled. “But the surfers, or people without money, ate at the taco stands along the boardwalk. You could get beers at 50 cents apiece, tacos at 25 cents, and it’d be a good day’s meal.”
The boys grew up and graduated from college. But Wing couldn’t get those fish tacos out of his mind. Why not use higher quality fish, grilled instead of fried, and bring fish tacos into the California mainstream? His brothers agreed with his idea and the three began to brainstorm, creating a menu that celebrated their multicultural roots. "We took that [the fish taco] and combined it with our Brazilian backgrounds — the flavors and the white rice and black beans," Mingo said. "Once we got the conceptual idea and menus were drawn out, Wing was really the guy putting together the recipes to back up what was on the piece of paper. The heart and soul of store No. 1 was Wing."
In 1988, the first Wahoo’s Fish Taco (named after a popular tropical fish) opened in an old Italian restaurant in a decidedly unglamorous part of Costa Mesa. "Wing wanted to bring in that taco cart concept but make it indoors. So that's how we designed our first store, with kind of a hut feel to it, everything thrown together," Ed recalled. Business was initially slow, but the brothers kept plugging away. They fell naturally into the roles they have kept to the present day — Ed deals with construction and real estate, Mingo is in charge of finances, and the charismatic Wing is the marketing director and public face of the brand.
Slowly, through word of mouth and targeted advertising, business began to grow. Wahoo’s introduced a new kind of affordable “fast” food to Orange County. They used high quality meat and produce, took the fat out of their refried beans, and listed nutritional information long before anyone else. Their tacos, enchiladas and salads were filled with vegetables and lean fish like tuna and mahi-mahi. They also paid homage to their Chinese roots, using their father’s chili paste as one of their key flavor profiles:
"We stole from him his original Chinese chili paste," [Wing] Lam says, noting it's made with garlic, ginger, a traditional Chinese paste and sesame oil, among other ingredients. "It has a whole different profile of its own, so when you add that to our tacos, you've got the only Asian taco in town. Nobody has a Chinese chili paste; we call it Mr. Lee's secret sauce."
From the beginning, the brothers made sure to integrate themselves into the surfing and extreme sports community. "You've got to get people in so they can see what you've got,” Wing said. They sponsored (and continue to sponsor) local surfing competitions, charities, X-games events, local “athletes of the week,” and musician showcases. They also strategically partner with local companies. “The surf companies are all based in Costa Mesa — Quicksilver, Billabong,” Wing said. “Their U.S. headquarters are minutes from my original store.” Within a couple of years, the community involvement paid off. Wahoo’s was gaining a cult following, with a personality all its own. By 1991, the Los Angeles Times was even noticing the small restaurant-that-could, reporting on its impressive sales during the busy lunch hour:
On Fridays at lunch, a line often forms outside the squat, aqua colored building to get into the no-frills dining room, decorated with plastic sharks, surfboards and colorful swimsuits. The most popular menu item is the No. 2 chicken or fish tacos, black beans and rice for $4.50. Other items include ribs in teriyaki sauce and steak sandwiches, at $5.50 apiece. Lighter fare includes chicken or fish, salads and soup. For the health-conscious, the menus also offer dietary information about each entrée. If you go, try not to leave without tasting a Wahoo’s fish taco, as this offends the sensibilities of the management. “If you get out of here without trying one, that’s sacrilegious,” [Ed]…said.
The second Wahoo’s opened in Laguna Beach in 1990. The chain, a mix of franchised and company owned restaurants, has grown slowly over the past three decades, and now includes over 65 locations in places as diverse as California, Colorado, Hawaii, Texas, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Japan. The chain has benefited from the explosion in popularity of the X-games, surf culture, healthy eating and “fast casual” dining, which they helped pioneer.
Perhaps the greatest advertisement for Wahoo’s is the brothers themselves. Despite their success, they have stayed true to their laid-back philosophies. Wing’s business cards pronounce him “flounder,” instead of “founder.” The brothers still surf every chance they get. "If I were a lawyer, I don't think I'd be able to show up at work in shorts and take off in the afternoons to surf every so often," Mingo once said. "It's been a fun ride so far." At company headquarters in Santa Ana, there are showers for employees who have taken a surf break and extra boards for visitors and employees. How California is that?
But at the core of Wahoo’s is family. The brothers’ bond remains tight, and when you enter a Wahoo’s you can almost feel the familial love. "We have our days where we yell at each other and call each other names, because first and foremost we're brothers," Ed said. "There are days when I can give my brother the bird. You'd never do that to a partner.”