The lunch rush slowly dissipates at Wahoo’s in South Coast Plaza until it’s just me and the chain’s founder/co-owner Wing Lam.
“I want people to know that it’s okay to think differently,” he says, looking out at the dining room. “To do things that haven’t been done.”
Lam is in a reflective mood nowadays. This past year, Wahoo’s celebrated its 30th anniversary, with more than 60 locations across the U.S. and Japan. The company is the ultimate OC chain: multicultural; enmeshed in the action sports, beach and music scenes; focused on healthy eats—and slinging Mexican food.
It wasn’t the first place to popularize Baja-style fish tacos in the United States—that would’ve been Rubio’s—but Lam and his brothers nevertheless offer their own contribution to the history of Mexican food in the United States. Wahoo’s paved the way for Asian-Mexican luxe loncheras such as Kogi and Dos Chinos to shine nearly 20 years after it first offered consumers a taste of its Brazilian/Chinese/Mexican fusion. Its iconic dining rooms brought street art inside, with walls adorned with stickers, surfboards and more. According to Lam, if you go to the original Costa Mesa spot off Placentia Avenue, there are stickers that date back to the location’s beginnings in 1989.
“I thrived in the fact that I could create these partnerships with these brands and do events with them, which became sampling opportunities for me,” he says. “By catering events, I was able to meet the athletes—so imagine having the best surfers in the world in my ads, near my circle, talking about the food.”
Lam continues to lead an innovative marketing network, with his boundless enthusiasm and creativity for tackling challenges and cultivating relationships. The brothers have taken advantage of their reputation and fame to give back to charities such as the Anaheim chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Surfrider Foundation, among others.
But he hasn’t forgotten his roots and the fish taco that paved the way to where he is today. “We together decided to do something on our own,” Lam recalls. “The restaurant industry was something we knew—it was our family’s business.”
The story of Wahoo’s Fish Taco begins in 1988, when Wing Lam and his brothers Eduardo and Mingo Lee borrowed $30,000 from their parents to open their first restaurant. But the tale arguably stretches back even further, to 1950, when his father, Cheong Kwon Lee, fled Yang Zhou, China, eventually landing in Japan. In 1955, Mr. Lee heard there were no Chinese restaurants in Brazil, so he boarded a boat to go there. (His wife, So Ching, and their son Bismarck would join him there in 1959.)
Lam and his younger brothers, Mingo and Eduardo, were born in São Paulo, Brazil; the family moved to Costa Mesa in January 1975, when Lam was 13.
Orange County’s population was almost exclusively white then, he says. The move was a journey into a brand-new social environment. “It was a major culture shock,” says Lam. “The worst part was not understanding a word of what anybody was talking about. I knew 10 English words—I could count from one to 10.”
For the brothers, adapting to their new community and making friends proved to be difficult in the beginning. “We were basically thrown to the wolves,” he recalls. “My parents just assumed that people here dressed like people in Brazil and that we could just learn the language and get along. It wasn’t like that at all.”
Lam quickly learned to adapt with the help of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. “Luckily for me, I took a Spanish class, and I became friends with the Hispanic kids,” he says. “Even though I was kind of an outsider, they let me hang out because at least I could speak Spanish—but you could tell I wasn’t exactly one of them.”
Come high school, Lam and his younger brothers were fully integrated into Southern California’s surf culture. “I spent a good amount of my life trying to fit in, but once I had my own business, I was like, ‘To hell with that’ and fully embraced who I was,” he says. “I let my hair down.”
It turns out being different makes you stand out. “We wanted a place where we could hang out after surfing and be with all of our friends,” Lam says.
His family’s story of survival is one that resonates with many immigrant families. “My parents were entrepreneurs by default; I got to see them work hard and be creative,” he says. “But it really wasn’t an option because there was a business to run.” Lam’s parents had opened the first Chinese restaurant in Newport Beach, Shanghai Pine Garden. As with other minority communities and institutions, Lam’s family’s restaurant changed Orange County’s cultural landscape.
Lam says that his first year-and-a-half in business, he worked seven days a week, open to close, every day. “It’s what you have to do.”
And in many ways, Lam’s winding route to entrepreneurship has come full circle, as he and his brothers were invited to bring the Wahoo’s experience to the James Beard House in October 2018. “We are positively thrilled to welcome Wing, Ed and Mingo, and the entire Wahoo’s family to the Beard House,” Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming, said in a press release. “The Beard House has a longstanding history of hosting memorable and refined meals and chefs, but as we progress through our third decade, we have expanded our commitment to highlighting sustainable seafood practices as a core of our mission, and Wahoo’s certainly stood out in that arena.”
“Hosting dinner at the James Beard House is a testament to our hard work,” Lam says, adding that it builds upon the foundations his parents established in the local food industry. “I would have loved to have taken my dad. . . . I’ll find a way to go back and take him there.”