Surfing a 25-year wave

Twenty-five years ago, Wing Lam's hair was shorter and the fish taco restaurant he co-founded was brand new.

These days, however, Wahoo's Fish Taco is a household brand, with 64 stores in seven states, that continues to spread its fins.

All that started in 1988 in Costa Mesa's Westside. The founders of the first Wahoo's restaurant at 1862 Placentia Ave. had an idea: Combine Mexican, Brazilian and Asian cuisine, give it all a North Shore vibe, and get a hungry surf community involved.

And while the challenges today are maintaining consistency within the restaurant empire, 25 years ago one challenge was on a smaller scale: finding a better way to slice and dice the fish and vegetables.

"I can't even tell you how many days there were slicing and dicing fish and tomatoes," Lam said. "Back in the day, we didn't have all the commercial equipment that would be able to cut faster.... If you walked in here 25 years ago, I'd be wheeling around a 250-pound tuna that I'd be cutting by hand."

But brothers Lam, Ed Lee and Mingo Lee, as well as their business partner Steve Karfaridis, knew soon enough the idea would work. A year and a half after opening in the Westside, a second Wahoo's opened in Laguna Beach, followed by a third on Bristol Street in Costa Mesa.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It's a saga the Santa Ana-based chain is celebrating throughout 2013. During a press event Wednesday at the Placentia location, company officials unveiled some of Wahoo's monthly 25th anniversary plans.

On Jan. 25 the company will sell tacos for 25 cents. In February, Wahoo's will distribute scratch cards for free food and other prizes. In March, customers can submit their ideas to name a new chicken burrito. The winner will receive Wahoo's food for a year.

"Our overall theme this year is basically new and exciting things are happening all the time at Wahoo's," said Tom Orbe, Wahoo's chief operating officer of marketing. "Whether it's food, a contest, or connection with the customers especially, we got something going every month. It's going to build and build and build."

Orbe said the company has maintained a loyal customer base, as well many longtime employees.

Mayor Jim Righeimer presented all four Wahoo's founders with a proclamation declaring Jan. 9, 2013, as Wahoo's Fish Taco Day in Costa Mesa. He said the eclectic nature of the city and its surfing culture helped bring everything together for Wahoo's.

"It wouldn't have happened in Irvine," he said. "It happens over here."

Through the decades of change and adding more products, Orbe said many Wahoo's aspects stay the same: They still serve their food with metal flatware and plates to avoid the waste from disposable paper and plastic; they still serve the same fish tacos as in 1988; and even the Placentia building hasn't changed much since the early days.

"What I thought was only going to be one little restaurant became this little cult movement that eventually grew into 60-some stores," Lam said.

Twitter: @bradleyzint

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