Woo-hoo for Wahoo's Fish Taco!
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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