COSTA MESA — Cheong Lee, the longtime owner of Shanghai Pine Gardens restaurant on Balboa Island, chuckles at how his three sons have simplified the restaurant business at their Wahoo's Fish Taco chain.
For starters, Lee's sons don't need highly trained, temperamental chefs in their kitchens. Wahoo's fish-based menu is noticeably shorter than Shanghai Pine Gardens' complex bill of fare. And few individual items on Wahoo's menu cost more than $5.
But Lee knows that the simple formula works because every day at lunch, the customers are lined up at the Wahoo's restaurant on Bristol Street in Costa Mesa.
The privately held chain is enjoying similar success at its flagship restaurant on Placentia Avenue in Costa Mesa, which opened in November, 1989, and at a store on South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. A fourth restaurant will open soon on Main Street in Huntington Beach.
"My father has been (in restaurants) for 40 years, and now he knows that the restaurant business is about marketing," said Wing Lam, co-owner of Wahoo's with his brothers Ed Lee and Mingo Lee. "You've got to get people in so they can see what you've got."
What Wahoo's has are fish tacos--tortillas stuffed with fish, seasonings and cabbage, the kind that Southern California's surfers regularly buy from street vendors in Baja California. And, unlike Shanghai Pine Gardens' kitchen, Wahoo's fare is relatively simple and easy to prepare, which helps keep costs down.
Lam and fellow San Diego State University graduate Ralph Rubio acquired a taste for fish tacos during trips to Baja California. In 1988, Rubio opened Rubio's, a San Diego-based chain with restaurants in Irvine and Tustin and 13 other locations. Two more Rubio's restaurants will open this year in Laguna Niguel and Costa Mesa.
Lam and Rubio acknowledge that fish tacos, a relative unknown outside of Southern California, won't challenge hamburgers as a national favorite. But both believe that the tacos eventually will become more than a regional food.
"What it boils down to is that fish tacos just taste great," Rubio said.
Wahoo's broils its fish--the chain also offers meat and chicken tacos--and rounds out its basic offerings with rice and black beans from Hawaii. Lam said the simple nature of the dish also makes it possible to serve customers quickly, which is important for busy diners.
Lam said fish tacos sell themselves--as long as he's able to get customers in for an initial taste. But rather than target mainstream restaurant-goers through heavy advertising campaigns or coupon deals, Lam attracted business by converting "opinion leaders" and letting them tell friends about the merits of Wahoo's food.
Lam initially courted surfers who eat fish tacos during surfing trips to Baja California. He solidified ties to the surf industry by catering corporate functions for surf apparel companies, and serves fish tacos to leading surfers during local contests.
"All those guys love to eat our stuff," Lam said. "And they tell other people about us."
Wahoo's also sponsors a high school "athlete of the week" award through a local newspaper. Winners eventually stop by to grab a bite to eat at Wahoo's and, Lam said, "more important, they bring their friends along."
Lam is forging similar relationships with leading snowboarders, rock climbers and cyclists. The formula is simple: Wahoo's introduces fish tacos to the athletes and lets them spread the word about the food's taste, texture and healthful nature.
Wahoo's menu is playing well to consumers who demand better value and more health-conscious fare. "For five years we've been printing the number of calories, the amount of fat and carbohydrates in our food," Lam said. "We saw the handwriting on the wall early on that one."
Lam doesn't discuss revenue or profit figures, but the average meal check falls between $5 and $6. The Costa Mesa restaurant company has about 60 employees, most of whom work full time at the chain.
Lam earned a business degree at San Diego State in 1984 and worked for two defense contractors before opening Wahoo's, but "is now in his element," said Lowell Larson,Lam's former supervisor at Sparta Inc., a Laguna Hills-based defense contractor.
"He's talking to people all the time, he's got a million friends and he's doing what he wants to do," Larson said. "And we really like Wahoo's stuff. On occasion, we get him to cater our corporate functions. . . . While some people are a bit hesitant at first (to eat a fish taco), once they take the first bite, they're hooked, no pun intended."
Lam and his brothers also own Our House, a coffee shop on West 19th Street in Costa Mesa. "We opened it because we wanted a place to hang out after work," Lam quipped. "Unfortunately, we didn't know how late we'd be working."
Wahoo's at a Glance
* Business: Privately held restaurant chain
* Founded: 1989, by brothers Wing Lam, Ed Lee, Mingo Lee
* Original site: 1862 Placentia Ave., Costa Mesa
* Menu items: Fish and chicken tacos, burritos, salads, sandwiches, teriyaki ribs, black beans and rice, imported and domestic beers. Dietary information provided about each entree.
* Additional locations: 3000 Bristol St., Costa Mesa; 1133 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; opening soon on Main Street in Huntington Beach
Source: Wahoo's Fish Taco
Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times