Interview with Wing Lam
This surfer-restaurant mogul redefined how we think of the fish taco. And he's just fun to talk story with.
Wing Lam and his brothers Ed and Mingo spent a lot of their younger years doing what many SoCal surfers do: traveling south of the border for a serving of thumping Mexican waves and post-surf grinds at the local street-side taco stands.
But while the average surfer brought home only tales of big barrels and burning salsa, Wing brought back something a little more lucrative: the idea for what is today the nation’s iconic after-surf eatery, Wahoo’s Fish Taco. That was 1988, when he and his two brothers opened the first Wahoo’s in Costa Mesa to instant success among the like-minded employees of various local surf companies, such as Quiksilver and Billabong. Within a decade, however, like the surf companies themselves, Wahoo’s had blown up and become a mini-empire, introducing Wing’s special brand of fish taco – with a unique combination of Mexican, Brazilian and Asian influences – to the entire nation. Today, there are more than 50 of the restaurants across the U.S.
But far from an obviously great idea just waiting for the right traveling surfer to score, Wahoo’s took the right recipe of passion, innovation, experience, and good old-fashioned hard work. And Wing – a guy who still has a personality and charisma closer to a stoked surf grom than a hardened business mogul – has ample servings of all four.
But whether it’s about his father who fled communist China to Japan, Brazil and eventually Balboa Island to open the iconic Shanghai Pine Garden Chinese restaurant, or about his own culinary adventures, which started above a Chinese restaurant, Wing’s stories are always more interesting than the average big wave tale.
So we sat down with the surfing restaurateur to hear what John Wayne and ‘80s surf stars have in common, how he turned a deep-fried Mexican classic into a healthy American favorite and more.
Your father fled China after the Chinese Revolution. Why?
After Mao took over and it turned communist, and if you didn’t leave China then, you might never get to. So my dad went to Hong Kong and ran a street food cart. It was almost like a Mongolian barbecue deal, where customers chose their vegetables and gave it to my dad to cook.
And how did he move up from there?
At the end of every night, he would stir fry whatever scraps were left over for this elderly gentleman. After a year of my dad feeding him, the man said, “I used to be very wealthy in China before the communists took over, and I’d like to pay you back by connecting you with someone I know in Japan, because your cooking talents are being wasted here.” So my dad went to Tokyo and proceeded to run five big restaurants. Then, when my dad had some money, he went to São Paolo, Brazil, because he saw more opportunity. In fact, he opened one of the first Chinese restaurants in Brazil. That’s where I was born.
Finally, you came to Newport Beach where your father opened Shanghai Pine Garden Chinese on Balboa Island. How did that restaurant get so popular?
Talk about events that change people’s lives. There is an amazing publicist named Gloria Zigner. She was [the publicist of] John Wayne’s wife, Pilar. Gloria invited Pilar Wayne to her husband’s birthday party at the restaurant and asked Pilar if she would bring John Wayne. He came and my dad took a picture with him and that’s the picture everyone saw behind the cash register. So the story that got around was that my dad hosted a birthday party for John Wayne. We didn’t even find out that wasn’t true until about 10 years ago, from Gloria. Even so, we have the John Wayne Theory: Celebrity sells. Because after that incident, you couldn’t get a table at my dad’s restaurant.
You chose what many thought was a risky location – westside Costa Mesa – to open the first Wahoo’s in 1988. Why there?
They say, “Build it and they will come.” Sure, but I say you need to build it near where they’re going to be. So, we thought if we could open a restaurant near the big surf companies, all of which were headquartered in westside Costa Mesa, which was considered the worst part of town, it would work out. And it did; guys started coming in.
So you had your “celebrity sells” theory working.
Definitely. I remember the first summer we were open, which was the summer of ‘89, I had guys like Tom Curren, Mark Occhilupo, Martin Potter – surfers who were world champions – coming in for lunch with their sponsors. It was the celebrity theory, only with surf stars. So when I thought, “I just have to find my one John Wayne,” instead I ended up with all of them. The best surfers, the best skaters, the best snowboarders, the best BMXers… it was awesome.
Another smart marketing move was to allow the surf companies to decorate your restaurant with stickers and branding paraphernalia. How did you come up with that?
Basically, I couldn’t really afford to decorate the restaurant. I had a little money to open and had to figure out the rest. So the stickers were the first things. I let the companies stick them on the chairs, tables, walls, whatever. Then I went to the big ASR trade show and all of a sudden companies started asking if they could hang banners in my restaurant. I said, sure, that’s cool. And I still remember the day I got a Billabong foam core sign. I felt that I had arrived, because I had a real sign. Now, I have murals painted by great artists. It’s unbelievable.
Your initial inspiration was surf trips to Mexico and loving the streetside fish tacos. So why didn’t you just do a straight fish taco in Wahoo’s?
We looked at what was going to happen in the future and in the ‘80s there was the aerobics craze and personal trainers. Basically, I saw it as people really starting to focus on being healthy and I thought, “As much as I love the fish tacos in Mexico, they’re all deep fried.” So, I thought about the best fish place here and I thought of the Crab Cooker. People like the Crab Cooker because it’s simple – just grilled fish. So I blended that idea into a fish taco. I charbroiled my fish and added a little cheese, cabbage and salsa. The tacos are a hybrid of the best fish and the ingredients they use in Mexico. No one was doing that.
You also went with black beans instead of traditional Mexican refried beans. Why?
I added black beans instead because I grew up eating black beans in Brazil, and they’re healthier. But when I first added those in 1988 people thought I was crazy. They’d say, “Where’s my refried beans?”
So that’s the Brazilian influence. Why the Asian?
If I added a little teriyaki, people would really think I was crazy. They’d say, “Hey, what are you doing selling Mexican food; don’t you know you’re Asian?” In fact, I coined the term “surf food.” It’s not Mexican; it’s food you eat after you surf.
Did you expect Wahoo’s to grow as it has?
Not a chance. The original idea was to build a place that would allow me to take some time off to go surfing. I was wrong, though. It turned out to be a place where I could take some time off to go work more. People just don’t realize how many hours a restaurant is really open. From prepping, serving and cleaning… but it’s a true labor of love.
Was expansion always your goal?
Not at all. It was a combination of creating opportunities for my employees to advance and customers asking us to open in Laguna and Huntington so they didn’t have to drive. That’s how we started expanding. There was no master plan. There were surfers in Laguna who wanted us to open there so they didn’t have to drive a half hour. Same with Huntington Beach.
Opening that second store must have been a huge leap, no matter how confident you were in your customer base.
It’s huge. But I found a location in Laguna and asked the owner, who was a nice lady retiring from the restaurant business, if she could give me reduced rent. She was having a tough time selling the building because it was historical and the city wouldn’t let anyone tear it down after they bought it. I leased it as is and said, a year from now, I’m either going to buy the building from you or I’ll be out of business. A year later, I bought the building.
You must have done a lot of time in the kitchen yourself in those early days.
I worked day and night. The first year-and-a-half in business, I took two days off: Christmas and Easter. Basically, I worked seven days a week for a year-and-a-half.
Did your upbringing give you and your brothers any clue as to what you were getting yourselves into?
Not really. I knew my dad’s lifestyle, I just hadn’t lived it. My dad went to work early in the morning and didn’t come home until night. And so I knew it was hard work, but you don’t really know until you’re doing it yourself, you know? I mean, I was up and out to the restaurant at 8 a.m., worked until we closed at 10 p.m. and getting home at 11 p.m. It’s insane.
Other than great food, is there something you think was key to your success?
My dad really wanted us to go to college instead of going right into the restaurant business. That was smart, because the big advantage that my brothers and I have is that we all have college business degrees. So we knew about the front of the house, but we also knew how to run the back of the house. In fact, I don’t think most restaurants fail because they have bad food. They fail because they don’t know how to manage the business part of it.
The typical story is that someone hears from people that they’re such a great cook, they should open a restaurant. And they hear enough of it and say, “I should do that.” And it’s a great idea – on paper. But the real question should be, do you know how to run a business? And most of them don’t.
So, do you ever don an apron anymore?
Oh, yeah. One of my favorite things to do is man one of our two taco trucks. We don’t sell the tacos out of the trucks; they’re for charity events. I love spending time in my little taco truck and making tacos at events. I probably do it two or three times a week. People ask, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” But the satisfaction of serving someone something really good is really great. It’s a total passion for me.
Finally, we have to ask: Is Wing your real name?
Yes, my real name is Wing. People ask what it means and I tell them it means “arm of a small bird.” I mean, I have no idea what it means. I just know my Portuguese nickname no one could pronounce.