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Fish tacos, flip-flops and sharks in suits

Wahoo's co-founder on Baja's allure: 'Going to Mexico is a rite of passage. It's part of how we grow up'

Wing Lam, co-founder of Wahoo's Fish Taco, was recently caught savoring shrimp that had been minced, sauteed, breaded and rolled in seaweed at Capital Seafood in Irvine. The California section's Anh Do grilled him about Southern California and Baja California's overlapping food, business and leisure cultures, then emailed him questions and crunched the conversation into this:

Hard to believe, but fish tacos were largely foreign to much of Southern California when you brought them back from Baja California in the 1980s. Now they're a staple. Why?

People love street food. Every surfer I met said the best part about going to Mexico was having the tacos, and they craved them when they came back.

Do Mexicans think your fish taco is too gringo?

At first, then slowly they start to enjoy it. We grill or blacken the fish instead of deep frying, using a much milder salsa.

Baja has shaped generations of teenage Californians. What's the allure?

All you need is a few dollars in your pocket and you can eat and drink. Plus, there are no authorities around to make sure you're 21. The spirit of the place transfers to what people can do and there is amazing freedom. They get a sample of the less structured life, a belief that things will be OK tomorrow. Going to Mexico is a rite of passage. It's part of how we grow up.

Describe Baja's influence on SoCal.

People in Baja have perfected this beyond-spring-break vibe. They are relaxed without trying. They are casual without appearing too casual. Here, it's guys going to the office in flip-flops vs. shoes, in shorts vs. pants. They carry that attitude into meetings.

And then the suited business sharks eat you entrepre-beachbum types for lunch, right?

Not at all. They are all wishing to dress like us.

How much less chill would SoCal business culture be without the surf influence?

Way less.

When you're not surfing and cooking you teach?

Marketing communication in the MBA school at Chapman University and Concordia University.

Has The Times' coverage of the horrible conditions faced by Mexican farmworkers affected your business practices?

What about the conditions for the workers in Thailand? And elsewhere in Asia? And for the workers here in the U.S.? We would love to do what they call fair trade as long as the consumer is willing to pay for it. The questions are: Who's going to pay for it? Who's going to enforce it?

What California politician best captures the beach life ethos?

I think the current governor has been pretty good at promoting the surfing culture.

Is there still money to be made by folks on both sides of the border? Where?

Eco-tourism, surfing safaris, find another local dish that hasn't hit here yet — or blend it with another cuisine. The point is not to be so regimented. Eat with your hands.

Have Mexico's narco terrorists affected your love of Baja?

Not mine, but it has affected a lot of my friends.

Taco Bell or King Taco?

King Taco.

What do you ride?

A 6-foot-8 Quad board by Chiron.

Would you rather be making surfboards?

Not good with tools.

anh.do@latimes.com

Twitter: @newsterrier

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