I can't remember the first time I heard about fish tacos. I know it was when I moved to Orange County, sometime within the last 15 years. I grew up in Los Angeles County, 50 miles from the ocean, and the only fish my Arkansas mother ever fixed was Mrs. Paul's fish sticks or fried catfish.
Grilled fish, chopped cabbage, cheese and salsa in a warm corn tortilla did not sound appetizing. But curiosity and probably some food reviewer's clever words compelled me to search out the converted stucco house in the middle of a Costa Mesa neighborhood better known for its taquerias , botanicas , ornate bridal and quinceanera shops and storefront immigration legal offices.
Wahoo's Fish Taco became my office of sorts when I was writing my first novel. I'd started the novel in a local McDonald's but switched when my constantly upset stomach discovered Wahoo's soothing white ahi rice and grilled fish of the day. I found the unpretentious old house painted the color of that fake Navajo turquoise in roadside gift shops a comforting place to reread the words I'd written that morning. The steamy, cheerful atmosphere was conductive to daydreaming and eavesdropping.
While lingering over my rice and scratched-over words, I listened in on board meetings with executives from nearby surf wear companies, upper-middle-class mothers comparing toddler horror stories and restaurant employees, probably local residents, having laughing conversations in Spanish.
The outside patio with its mottled concrete floor, windows patch-worked with slightly suggestive surfing and skating stickers and neon Corona beer signs was the perfect place to watch the world go by hindered only by the lacy wrought-iron bars guarding the vulnerable windows.
Wahoo has gradually opened other restaurants around Southern California and in Colorado. But insiders know the best one is on Placentia Avenue, next to the pet hospital. When I took some out-of-town friends there for lunch after their request for some place truly local, their apprehensive faces upon arrival didn't faze me.
Later, when they were asked by a political crony where they had eaten in Orange County, they hesitantly mentioned Wahoo's.
"Which one?" he asked.
"The one next to the pet hospital," the answered.
"Ah," he said. "The real one."