Serving up tacos: Immigrant brothers behind Wahoo’s Fish Taco

Global Business

Fish tacos have long been a local favorite in Mexico, especially amongst the surfing crowd.

The quick and cheap meal is often served up from a food cart along the water. The appeal of fish tacos was so strong for one family that they took the concept and built it into a restaurant empire that’s synonymous with surfing.

CGTN’s May Lee reports.

This Southern California story begins in typical fashion: with sun, surf, sand and fish tacos. Wahoo’s Fish Tacos that is.

The fast-casual restaurant chain, which first catered to the surfer crowd, is known for its healthy Mexican eats infused with Brazilian and Asian flavors; a reflection of Wahoo’s founders who are Chinese-Brazilian brothers Wing Lam, Ed Lee and Mingo Lee.

“People still every so often go, how do Chinese people sell Mexican food?” says Ed Lee. “But they forget that we are Brazilians. We’re not your traditional Asians, Americans. So when you tell people you’re from Brazil, oh that makes a little more sense. And then you grew up surfing, well that makes more sense.”

But the story of these surf-loving brothers actually started well before they opened their first Wahoo’s Fish Taco stand in Costa Mesa, California 30 years ago.

In 1950, their father, Cheong Kwon Lee, fled China for Hong Kong in search of a better life for his family. His wife and son stayed behind. Lee ended up in Brazil, but hope faded that his family would reunite. His wife, however, didn’t give up, even after 10 years apart.

So Ching recalls, “Ever since my first child was born, he hadn’t seen his father much at all, so I decided to go to him. We went to Hong Kong, then to Brazil. It was a tough time because the political environment in China didn’t allow you to travel freely. But we made it to Brazil, reunited with my husband and had our four other children.”

Eventually, the family moved to sunny California and opened up Chinese restaurant, Shanghai Pine Garden. Things were tough at the start, but then movie star John Wayne changed everything.

“John Wayne and about 45 friends came to the restaurant to celebrate his wife’s birthday. John asked if I could sing so I sang some Chinese opera,” says Lee. “Everybody had a great time that day, and they really enjoyed the food!”

The restaurant was a family affair. Sons Wing, Ed and Mingo worked while going to school and, of course, surfing anywhere they could, including Mexico, where fish tacos were the go-to meal for surfers. For the brothers, the beloved tacos inspired a business idea, but it wasn’t embraced right away back home.

Ed remembers, “All of our friends said you guys gotta be nuts because what they imagined was that there was a tortilla with a fish head and fish tail sticking out of it. It took a lot of convincing that it was not that, it was a fillet.”

They also made it their own by adding Brazilian style rice and beans and Asian flavors. But just like their father’s struggles, in the beginning, the brothers also had a tough go…until a chance to cater an event for surf company Billabong came along. Wing Lam, the oldest brother of the three, says “We needed one brand to put a flag in the ground that says Wahoo’s is the place for surfers to go. We couldn’t say it. A surf company needed to say it. So when Billabong put their flag in our restaurant, the other companies and other surfers all came.”

Now 30 years on, there are some 60 Wahoo’s restaurants in seven states and Japan, with more to come. Revenues in 2017 topped 65 million dollars.

“We still love doing everything that we do because it’s fun to see people telling you it’s their favorite food,” says Lam. “Everyday, we’re running into somebody that says,‘Oh my God when my wife was pregnant, when my kid went to college’…all these crazy stories where this is the place, it’s home for them, so it tells you we did something right.”