Wahoo's co-founder takes it to the streets

COSTA MESA — If you've ordered from the Wahoo's Fish Taco food truck this summer, there a good chance your grilled fish burrito was served up by Wing Lam, the restaurant chain's co-founder.

And even with 60 Wahoo's locations nationwide — and about 30 more scheduled to open in the near future — the 49-year-old Newport Beach resident still finds time to man the truck as it roams the streets of Orange County.

"I want to be there, to get that first-hand reaction, when people bite into their burrito," he said.

Wahoo's unusual Brazilian-Mexican-Hawaiian fusion menu is based on Lam's original recipes and reflects his upbringing in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and surf trips to Mexico andHawaii.

The truck, often parked in Corona del Mar this summer, also doubles as Lam's mobile test kitchen.

Lam doesn't get to interact with customers as much as he used to when he and his brothers, Ed Lee, 47, and Mingo Lee, 42, opened the first Wahoo's in 1988 in Costa Mesa.

At the time, he and his brothers were the restaurant's main employees.

"Back in the day, I took your order, ran to the kitchen, made it and delivered it to your table," Lam said Monday while sitting at the original restaurant on Placentia Avenue.

Lam installed the 2,500-square-foot building's original flooring and electrical system, though it was remodeled about two years ago.

But the interior still looks much like it did the first day it opened, he said.

Wahoo's has become known for its unique method of decorating. Posters and hundreds of logo stickers from local and national action sports companies, like Quiksilver and Hurley, paper the walls, doors, ceiling and tables.

"Many times a kid will bring in a collection of stickers to give to us, but he now owns that square of the restaurant," said Tom Orbe, Wahoo's vice president of marketing.

It's common for people to sign their name on the stickers they add to Wahoo's collection, Orbe added.

Orbe owns a franchise location in Temecula. Twenty-six locations are franchises, while the rest are still family owned, he said.

The action sports niche has been key to Wahoo's growth, which has annual sales which exceed $60 million, Orbe said.

The casual, friendly atmosphere combined with low-cost, quality food leaves customers feeling "invigorated," he said.

"Whether you're 8 or 80, you connect with the place and leave feeling better than when you came in," Orbe said.

In November, Wahoo's plans to move its Fashion Island location from the second floor to the first floor, adjacent to Dick's Sporting Goods. The new 4,000-square-foot location will serve as the Santa Ana-based company's flagship store, Orbe said.

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