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Patriarch of Wahoo’s Fish Taco family has a tale of hard work and good fortune

You no doubt have heard of Wahoo’s Fish Taco, but have you heard of Mr. Lee?

I’m guessing not. But without Mr. Lee, Wahoo’s, the well-known Mexican food chain, would simply not exist.

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There is also a very good chance that it would not exist without Hollywood legend John Wayne, but we’ll get to that later.

This story does not begin in Mexico, but in China.

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The year: 1950.

The communists had just taken over, driving Cheong Kwon Lee to flee his village on the mainland for the British colony of Hong Kong.

Once there Mr. Lee — as friends and his sons still call him — started a food cart, sautéeing fare in a wok.

One day, a homeless man who Mr. Lee used to feed scraps to, told him that his food was too good for Hong Kong.

“You’re wasting your talents,” the man said. “I was a well-to-do businessman. When the communists took over, everything was seized. I have friends in Japan. You should go to Japan.”

So Mr. Lee went to Japan.

A week later he was a chef in a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo.

Cheong Kwon Lee laughs as he takes his former chef position at Shanghai Pine Gardens on Balboa Island.
Cheong Kwon Lee laughs as he takes his former chef position at Shanghai Pine Gardens on Balboa Island. (Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The owner of the restaurant told Mr. Lee he would give him the restaurant if he would just marry one of his daughters.

But Mr. Lee already had a wife, So Ching Lee. He’d left her behind when he fled his hometown in 1950. The young couple hoped that one day they would be together again. That was looking less and less likely now, but still, he had no interest in another wife.

In 1955 Mr. Lee heard that there were no Chinese restaurants in Brazil; the field was wide open. So he boarded a boat to go there. The rumors were true, and he opened his first restaurant in Sao Paulo.

By 1959 word got back to Mrs. Lee that her husband probably was not coming back to get her.

Mrs. Lee set out to get him. She paid for her and her son — she was pregnant with Bismarck when Mr. Lee fled in 1950 — to be smuggled to Hong Kong on a small commercial fishing boat. At the entrance to the harbor, family lore goes, a storm tossed the boat about. The seasick stowaways threw open the hatch. Water poured in, sinking the boat and drowning nearly everyone, save for Mrs. Lee and her son.

Once in Hong Kong, Mrs. Lee found her husband’s old friends from his food cart days and borrowed money from them to board a boat to Brazil. Then she put together a container of dried traditional Chinese goods — unusual fungus and dried seaweed and jelly fish — to bring along.

Thirty days later she arrived, and surprised her husband by introducing him to his son. Then she sold her box of traditional ingredients to other Chinese restaurants (by now there were more) so she could pay back everyone she borrowed money from for the trip.

The Lees were together again. Soon, a second son, Mauro, was born. And in 1961, a third son, Wing.

By now there were a whole bunch of Chinese restaurants in Sao Paulo. So Mr. Lee moved the family to a country-bumpkin town outside the city to start a new restaurant with zero competition.

For years they were the only Chinese family in town, so business was great. But Mr. Lee had his eye on the United States. He heard about a place called Anaheim, Calif., and traveled there to scope things out. On a visit to Balboa Island he saw a shuttered restaurant on a corner lot on the main drag for sale for $100,000.

He bought it and in 1971 opened the first Chinese restaurant in Newport Beach: Shanghai Pine Gardens.

It wasn’t super popular so his family was still living in Brazil, running the other restaurant.

But then one day in 1973 a woman named Gloria Zigner reserved some tables to throw a birthday party for her husband.

Zigner worked in public relations, and one of her clients was Pilar Wayne, wife of famed actor John Wayne.

Zigner invited Pilar to the birthday party and asked her if her husband might be kind enough to pop in as a surprise for the birthday boy.

The Duke obliged. He even stayed for lunch, signed the menu and posed for a photo. At one point Mr. Lee came out of the kitchen and sang some Chinese opera.

Well, the legend grew. And within a week it was all over town that John Wayne had celebrated his birthday at his favorite restaurant, Shanghai Gardens, and Mr. Lee came out from the kitchen to sing him “Happy Birthday.”

Within weeks, the sparsely populated restaurant had a line out the door, up to 40 people waiting to get in. Everyone wanted to celebrate their birthday at Shanghai Pine — and they wanted Mr. Lee to come out of the kitchen to sing “Happy Birthday” to them.

Keep in mind that Mr. Lee couldn’t speak English — he still can’t — so he would come sing a bit of Chinese opera. It didn’t sound remotely like “Happy Birthday,” but nobody seemed to care. They were celebrating their birthday just like John Wayne supposedly did.

Cheong Kwon Lee, patriarch of the Wahoo's Fish Taco family and former owner of Shanghai Pine Gardens restaurant on Balboa Island, is renowned for singing bits of Chinese opera for customers.

Mr. Lee sent for his wife and now five sons. Middle son Wing was 14 when he arrived in 1975.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God. It’s real. This restaurant is making more money that we ever dreamed,” Wing says.

Wing started working as a bus boy. He spoke no English, and the first time a customer asked him for a fork he had to return to the kitchen to ask what a fork was.

“Fork. Cup. Napkin. Those were the first English words I ever learned,” he says.

By now, Mr. Lee could afford a house in Costa Mesa. He also could afford the family’s first car.

“Thanks to John Wayne,” Wing says. “It turned our whole family around.”

Mr. Lee made enough money to send all his sons to college, too. After graduation, one became an attorney and another a doctor, but the other three told him they wanted to go into the restaurant biz.

“I didn’t send all you guys to college to open a restaurant,” Mr. Lee told them.

Luckily, they didn’t listen to him.

Wing, Ed and Mingo often road tripped to Mexico, and they loved the fish tacos there. They had a hunch the fish taco would be a hit in Southern California. Their plan: a fast-casual Mexican restaurant with a streamlined menu.

“Do you realize you guys are Chinese?” friends joked.

The brothers opened their first Wahoo’s in 1988 in Costa Mesa. Now there are 60, mostly in Southern California, but also in Las Vegas, Denver, Philadelphia, Honolulu and Tokyo.

Wing is the face of Wahoo’s, the epitome of the Southern California cool, a chill millionaire in flip-flops with a long Fu Manchu beard who has been featured in a national Merrill Lynch commercial and two Food Network shows, “Unwrapped” and “Beach Eats USA.”

He muses about how he and his dad have swapped roles in the restaurant world: “It used to be, ‘Oh my god, your dad owns Pine Garden?’ Now it’s, ‘Oh my god, your son owns Wahoo’s?’”

Wing and I sat at a table at Shanghai Pine with his dad, who is now 86.

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After becoming fluent in Japanese and Portuguese, Mr. Lee was too tapped out to learn English when he got here in his late 30s, so Wing translates for him.

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Mr. Lee wore a Wahoo’s baseball cap. He has an old-school flip phone and a beard to match his son’s — actually Wing copied him. He also has a home two blocks from the restaurant, which he no longer owns, although he is still the building’s landlord. He lives with Mrs. Lee, who is 87 and worked as the cashier at Pine Gardens until they sold it.

“The two together is what makes it work,” Wing says. “The teamwork. My mom’s the brains. She’s feisty, the real go-getter. My dad’s the idea guy; he’s pie in the sky.”

And salt of the earth.

The other day Wing got a call from a friend in a panic.

“Oh my God, what are you guys doing to your parents?” the friend demanded. “Did you stop supporting them? I just saw them picking trash!”

Wing laughed. His parents walk around the island —land of multimillion-dollar homes — digging in trash cans to collect bottles and cans to recycle. Then they donate the money to charity.

“Because if you’re going to tell the kids at church to do it, then you should too,” Wing says.

“My dad’s a rock star as far as I’m concerned.”

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