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Woo-hoo for Wahoo's Fish Taco!

OC's homegrown empire opens its latest, largest location in Huntington Beach

There's a certain cynicism that a restaurant invites when it grows up and starts franchising. It's almost as if having street cred and being a successful chain are mutually exclusive—you can't be both. Not even our own OC-bred surfer den, Wahoo's Fish Taco, is immune to it. But the 24-year-old empire—now stretching from the sandy beaches of Honolulu to the skyscrapers of Manhattan—isn't perfect. For this review, I sampled the food from as many different Wahoo's locations as I could in a week, and the variability I experienced made a sentence on the franchising section of its website prophetic: "A franchise system is only as strong as its franchisees."

One night at its Warner Avenue store in Huntington Beach, I had the most perfect plate of enchiladas. The rice was ethereally fluffy; the Cajun white beans were served so rocket-hot they burned my tongue; the waitstaff was friendly and chatty in a genuinely caring way. This Wahoo's also boasts the chain's first tequila bar, at which a short-but-sweet list of sangrias, mojitos and margaritas includes a margarita that includes jalapeños and Tapatío. A new carnitas slider using a legitimate telera roll was featured on a bar-only menu. And though this Wahoo's is the newest and most spacious, it already looks as though it has been part of the landscape for ages. The only hint it's barely weeks old is the walls are only sparsely covered with stickers, which is to a Wahoo's what tree rings are to a Sequoia.

My experience couldn't have been more different at the comparably claustrophobic Main Street Wahoo's in downtown Huntington Beach. Here, I found the soupy beans tepid and the rice so undercooked it was inedible. When another customer complained, she got slack-jawed stares from the cashiers, who were clearly dumbfounded as they faced a situation deviating from punching in orders and taking money.

These are the enviable growing pains of every restaurant popular enough to franchise. Though it's fodder for those who sneer that Wahoo's has become corporate, it doesn't take away from the accomplishments of brothers Wing Lam, Eduardo Lee and Mingo Lee, who pioneered taking vaguely Mexican, Brazilian and Asian flavors to make something very Californian, uniquely OC. It could be said they paved the way for much-lauded Asian taquero Roy Choi of Kogi's; he was still an up-to-no-good teenager when the first Wahoo's opened on Placentia Avenue in Costa Mesa in 1988.

But I have to admit that even though I've been a loyal customer since before Wahoo's blew up, I still can't say I'm a fan of its signature fish tacos. And I'll tell you why: I'm of the deep-fried fish-taco camp. Battered, crunchy, greasy and decadent—that's how I want my fish tacos, not grilled or made into anything remotely healthy. That Wahoo's serves excellent Maui onion rings but has yet to fry a single piece of fish has always been a mystery to me. Each location is obviously in possession of some batter and a Fryolator.

Until the day comes when Wahoo's sees the light and offers a fried fish taco, my meal of choice will be everything else. On the enchiladas, I alternate between fillings of the carne asada, which are cut into nearly uniform, stamp-sized pieces, or the carnitas, shredded pork slow-cooked to such a moist sogginess no one blinks an eye when it's called kalua pig for a rice bowl. On occasion, I'm known to order the mushroom enchiladas, asking that the dish be smothered in the cilantro green sauce, a muted emulsion that has more in common with an Italian creamy pesto than anything involving chile verde.

And then there's the substance without which no Wahoo's meal is complete: the wonderful chili paste called "Mr. Lee's." It's named for the family patriarch and the only artifact that Wahoo's shares with Shanghai Pine Garden, the brothers' parents' Chinese restaurant on Balboa Island. This is real, unadulterated sambal. As with Midas, it turns everything it touches into gold. The tofu-centric Wafu bowl, in particular, becomes a willing, blank canvas for liberal slathers of the complex flavor and depth of this paste. When Mr. Lee's is on the job, the Tapatío bottle will be left untouched.

Best of all, it's free. Just ask for Mr. Lee's, and a server will nod as if you just gave a secret handshake. The original Wahoo's used to supply it in a self-serve trough next to the soda fountains. These days, when you request it, you receive three plastic thimbles at a time. I emptied two into one of the fish tacos recently at the new branch and instantly transformed it into greatness. Imagine the possibilities if the fish were fried!

 

This review appeared in print as "Woo-hoo for Wahoo's! OC's homegrown fish-taco empire opens its latest, largest location in Huntington Beach."

 
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19 comments
Joegray100
Joegray100

Wahoo CEO sets low standard for customer service.

 

My wife and I paid over $800 to have Wahoo's cater our July 4th Party.  When we opened up the various containers we realized that all of the carnitas meat (1/3 of the meat that we ordered) was missing!  It was an embarrassing situation to occur in front of 100+ guests and we were not able to fully feed our guests.  To add insult to injury, when we complained about the situation to Wahoo's they acted like they did nothing wrong and treated us like we made the whole thing up!  In fairness to them, someone at corporate offered us a $150 credit toward a future catering order.  We very politely wrote back saying we should be refunded on a pro-rata basis for what we didn't receive and perhaps some consideration for our inconvenience and embarrassment.  Two weeks later, after no response, I reached out to the CEO of Wahoo's via Linkedin.  He responded as follows:

 

     I have spoken to Ellen Orbe , my best franchise operator about the incident. she personally took care of your order , made sure that everything was delivered , gave out her cell and email for contact purpose and no one ever reached out to her about the incident . She is my right hand person for the last 5 years , we just did the California Junior Lifeguard Championships ( 2500 kids ) and are catering the Irvine Company annual meeting for 1,500 employees . she has never missed a single catering with or without me , and her father who is in charge of franchising has already given you some compensation , which is way more than I would offer . so please let me know if you need any further assistance.

 

Wow!  Where did this CEO learn about customer service?  Apparently his people are so good that they never make mistakes.  In fact, what little they did offer us in compensation is way more than he would have offered!

 

His facts are in error as Ms. Orbe did not deliver our order nor did she provide her cell phone.  My wife only met with her one time when she was originally exploring having Wahoo's cater our event.  She placed the order at a later date with an employee named Zack.  We had no way to get in touch with anyone on the day of the delivery (July 4th) as the local Wahoo's store was closed.  Roger (who delivered the order) never gave us his cell phone.  We brought this matter to his attention the very next day when we returned the catering boxes to Wahoo's and he wrote down our name and phone number for follow up. 

 

Given our experience, the poor response, and the attitude that somehow we're wrong about this situation doesn't really incentivize us to consider using Wahoo's for future catering.  For us, it's not about the money, it's the principle.  We expected to be treated fairly and that there might be some ownership and consideration for the fact that we were unable to fully feed our guests which would be upsetting for any customer. 

 

Organizations typically set the standard for customer service from the top down.  To have a CEO respond to a customer complaint this way is indeed shameful.  Moral to the story - make sure you open up all the food containers before allowing the delivery person to leave the scene and don't count on companies to understand what good customer service is all about.

JB
JB

"The problem isn't that Wahoo's fish tacos are grilled- it's that Wahoo's serves a bad version of a grilled taco." "People don't dislike Wahoo's because it's a big chain; they dislike it because their food is mediocre." Agree 100%!! What does it say about Wahoo's when you should order carne asada or pork (as Mr. Goei does) when you go there? And what does it say about Wahoo's when Mr. Goei praises how the carne asada is cut into "nearly uniform, stamp-sized" pieces...but doesn't praise the *taste* of the carne asada?

Riley
Riley

The problem isn't that Wahoo's fish tacos are grilled- its that Wahoo's serves a bad version of a grilled taco. When prepared properly, a grilled fish taco can be just as delicious as a deep fried fish taco. Just take a look at Big Bear Fish Co's grilled panko fish tacos. People don't dislike Wahoo's because its a big chain; they dislike it because their food is mediocre. People aren't criticizing In-N-Out because its a chain too. Should we now start featuring Taco Bell because its another local chain that serves mediocre food? And, don't say the difference is that In-N-Out doesn't franchise their stores and Wahoo's problems are problems of franchising. The Wahoo's you hated so much was one of the very first Wahoo's founded, back in the early 90s, before they started franchising. Eduardo Lee was behind that store, so don't imply that the poor meal was the result of a poorly run franchisee.

JB
JB

Also, last time I heard, more than half of all Wahoo's outlets are corporate-owned, and less than half are franchised. It's not easy to tell which is which, but chances are good your food quality is just as bad, or worse, at corporate-owned Wahoo's.

JB
JB

I couldn't respectfully disagree more that Wahoo's is worthy of any serious praise. Methinks Mr. Goei -- who is easily one of the best food reviewers in the entire United States -- is so ecstatic that they offer sambal, his opinion is being colored accordingly (bright red, in this case). It took me a few years to realize that you should order anything but the fish at Wahoo's 'Fish' Taco. Grilled or deep fried, it doesn't change the fact that your filet will be akin to what's inside a box of Mrs. Paul's in the freezer section of your local Ralphs. The only "accomplishments" Wing Lam, Ed Lee, and Mingo Lee should be credited for is enriching themselves by milking and selling the 'beach,' 'surf' lifestyle/aura, a la Orange County's more better-known marketing geniuses, The Irvine Company. I surely don't see any "accomplishment" in serving precisely measured, chain restaurant portions of mostly blah food, with watery salsa and questionable guacamole on the side. It's not Marche Moderne, but anyone who wants surf cuisine should beat a path to Baja Fish Tacos (Bristol and Macarthur in the Vons shopping center in Santa Ana, plus other locations) , which in an understated way slaughters Wahoo's on food quality and atmosphere. I mean, really, if you have to slather cilantro green sauce or "Mr. Lee's" paste on your food, what does that tell you about Wahoo's?

Suzie Won
Suzie Won

You had me at Manhattan, imagining your trek to the East Coast to sample Wahoo's (thinking: Elmomonster has yet to let me down)... But then you threw in the fried part! :(=) OINK

Elafamado
Elafamado

Seems that we visited the same locations over the last couple of weeks. I agree that the HB main street location is a dump. The food quality is bad, the place is so dirty and smells, and the chairs are falling apart. Wahoos' management should fix this. This is not the first impression they want to make with all the out of towners and first time customers. On the other hand, their new location on Warner is great.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

True story: at a roadside stand in El Sauzal, near Ensenada, a group of people got out of a California-plated car and headed to get fish tacos. They recoiled in horror. "They're all fried?" came the anguished call. "Of course," said the dueño. "Ensenada style, Ensenada is the next city." "Oh," sniffed a woman, "I thought it'd be like Wahoo's." They left. I nearly screamed with frustration.

Joe Hol
Joe Hol

This place is NICE!!

Jmcguinness
Jmcguinness

I agree 100%. Fish tacos should be fried, Baja style.

riley
riley

I did a little digging, and the Wahoo at Main Street was one of the first Wahoo's and it is still owned by Wahoo's so it is not a franchise. This is just really, really bad writing- the whole gist of this article is about franchising, how poorly run franchises are behind the reason why people dislike Wahoo's but the Wahoo's he hated so much isn't even a franchise.

 

I understand that there are lower quality standards for a blog post, but this article was printed in the OC Weekly. The OC Weekly isn't the New Yorker, but for such an important point, which the whole article revolves around, it still seems a bit surprising that the author or somebody didn't first do some fact checking. After all, it didn't take me that much work to verify that information.

 

Does Wahoo's cater OC Weekly office parties or something for free cause I don't understand why OC Weekly writers passionately defend Wahoo's like this. In a previous article about Wahoo's, I commented that I didn't think Wahoo's was very good and "Prof" Gustavo got angry and started calling me names in Spanish. And, now, this writer is bending over backwards to try to find reasons to excuse mediocre food that Wahoo's serves.

 

If OC Weekly is doing this because Wahoo's is a local business, then I think its a mis-placed to praise something something so mediocre. I would argue Taco Bell is also another local OC business with its HQ in Irvine, but It would be just as cringe worthy if we read something like this article about Taco Bell.

 

riley
riley

I can't tell if you're being sarcastic or not when you write that "Mr. Goie- who is easily one of the best food reviewers in the entire United States." I would agree that he is one of the better food reviewers in Orange County but there's not a lot of competition for this area.

GustavoArellano
GustavoArellano moderator editortopcommenter

 @riley Dude, Wahoo's itself says it's gotten into the franchising game. Edwin's point is that once you get into it, your quality cheapens. He never said the one on Main is a franchise—can you point out where?

GustavoArellano
GustavoArellano moderator editortopcommenter

 @riley Ain't deflecting shit, son. And guess what? We have different writers at the Weekly with different opinions! You should've seen the time when Commie Girl gave Mike Carona a valentine at the same time Moxley was tearing him a new one. It's called a "newspaper," sonny, not a one-man show. But, hey: keep spewing your inanities, as they pay the bills. AHAHAHAHAHA!

riley
riley

 @GustavoArellano 

 

Again, another weak attempt to try to deflect questions about the journalistic standards about the OC Weekly with your attacks.

 

I think Original Pancake House is certainly better than places like IHOP, although I wouldn't go as far as your writer who has  praised the Original Pancake House by calling it 'genius' and their food as 'miracles' and 'ethereally fluffy, like it was blessed by the breath of angels.'

 

If Original Pancake House is so bad and your food critic thinks its so great, maybe the readers should not pay any more attention to the inanities of the food writing in the OC Weekly...

 

And, where did I ever write that the writer stated the Main Street location is a franchise?  Point out where I said that. I won't take back something I didn't say.

 

But, I won't deny that I did say this article was poorly written because it was written in such a manner that readers would think the writer didn't know the Wahoo's on Main was not a franchisee.

 

Otherwise, what's the freaking point of this article, about writing about 'variability' of franchises and then comparing two different locations when the place you reviewed isn't even a franchise? A lot of the writing is superfluous and not relevant if its not trying to compare two different locations to illustrate that variability in franchising.

 

 

GustavoArellano
GustavoArellano moderator editortopcommenter

 @riley You accused Edwin of stating that the Main Street location is a franchise—please don't take it back. And you think Original Pancake House is good? Well, at least this saves me having to pay any more attention to you inanities...

riley
riley

 @GustavoArellano 

 

So, let me get this straight, the quality cheapens, assuming it was ever that high in the first place, and you want to blame it on franchising even though the store he hated so much wasn't a franchise and the one he loved was most likely a franchise?

 

We both know that the writer wouldn't have written this article and focused so much on the perils of franchising if he had known that the Wahoo's he hated so much wasn't a franchise.

 

Otherwise, he wouldn't have written, "the variability I experienced made a sentence on the franchising section of its website prophetic: 'A franchise system is only strong as its franchisees.'"

 

And, its weird that he'd write about the "growing pains of every restaurant popular enough to franchise" when In-N-Out is popular enough, with five times as many stores as Wahoo's, but doesn't suffer those quality problems. I will reiterate that people don't dislike Wahoo because its a chain or because it franchises; we dislike it because the food has never been that good in the first place.

 

Whoever denied Wahoo's didn't franchise? But, then again, Din Tai Fung, Santouka Ramen, Original Pancake House, etc.. all franchise too. Has their quality cheapened after they started franchising?

 

This denial would be funny if it didn't speak to the larger journalistic short comings of the OC Weekly. Does the OC Weekly  even use a fact checker or somebody to edit or give notes on  the writer's articles first?

 
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