Allen Pierleoni

First Impressions: Wahoo's Fish Taco in midtown

First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at

Wahoo’s Fish Taco opened a couple of weeks ago, leaving a lot of diners wondering: Just what is a wahoo?

The highly prized warm-water game fish is a fast swimmer shaped like a torpedo, usually caught by trolling lures or bait in deep water. Once hooked, it makes long, reel-burning runs at speeds approaching 50 mph, sometimes jumping and skittering on the water’s surface. It has a mouth full of sharp teeth that are small for its size and flesh that’s firm and sweet. The International Game Fish Association reports the world record at 184 pounds, taken off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

In Hawaii, it’s known as ono. But the word “ono” doesn’t quite have the same zing as “wahoo,” especially as the name for a restaurant chain.

The original Wahoo’s Fish Taco opened in Costa Mesa in 1988, when three brothers with a restaurant background and a love of surfing put a “Brazilian-Asian-Hawaiian” twist on Mexican beach fare. Two years later, Wahoo’s spread to Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach and then went viral. Today the Santa Ana-based chain has 50-some units – designed in what it calls a “Hawaiian north-shore vibe” – in California, Hawaii, Nevada, Colorado, Texas, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York and Tokyo.

Menu: At first look, the busy menu’s layout, many choices and variations on themes are confusing for a first-timer. At second look, ditto.

The banner headline on the menu, “Choice of Natural Proteins,” is rather academic, or perhaps it’s aimed at the self-designated hipster-foodies who have appropriated the back-of-the-house restaurant term for “meat.” Whatever, the menu shows a variety of tacos, enchiladas, burritos, rolls and rice bowls with chicken, fish, steak, shrimp, tofu and pork (some of it marinated) prepared in various ways, including grilled, Cajun, braised and sautéed.

Three salads include the Kale Kai, a bowl of “any protein” with “organic kale, avocado, mixed greens, tortilla strips,” and a salsa of black beans and corn.

Note this entry: “Available: vegetarian, gluten-free and vegan items.”

Price point: This particular area of midtown is jammed with dining choices, most of which will take a bigger bite out of the budget than the very reasonably priced Wahoo’s ($3 to $10). That’s the advantage a chain has over independent operators: When you sell in volume, you can keep prices down.

We wonder: Why is there an “extra charge” for salmon, when it can be sourced much closer to Sacramento than wahoo? Nobody at the restaurant or corporate HQ called back to field the question.

Ambiance: Several dynamics have combined to make Wahoo’s attractive to the midtown workforce: It’s casual, inexpensive, fast and new to town. Natural light floods the high-ceilinged 3,000-square-foot space, which is dizzyingly busy with wall signage reflecting the surfing and skateboard lifestyles. The beachy-blue wood booths are a perfect match.

The place looks roomy until the crowd shows up; then the main dining room in particular is difficult to navigate. Servers squeeze between tables, customers mill around the bar looking for room to stand, the wait line becomes long, and a mild sense of chaos creeps in. Some of that should mellow as the grand-opening jitters ease off and the staff becomes more practiced.

Drinks: Wahoo’s has a full bar.

Service: We arrived at the opening bell on our first visit and were immediately sandwiched between two staff members as we approached the service counter. They quick-talked over each other, trying to explain the options on the menu board next to the service line. “Do you have any questions?” one of them asked in conclusion. Yes – will there be a quiz later?

The order-taker at the counter was astute and fast, but our corporate credit card was denied on our first visit. “It’s not you, the system’s going crazy and we’re trying to work it out,” she said.

Our meals were delivered pronto to our booth. However, two different servers/bussers approached us mid-meal to ask if they could remove our plates. We appreciate the gambit of wanting to turn tables, but please back off.

First impressions: Hot sauce covers many sins. The Maui onion rings were mundane, the Wahoo’s Bowl of teriyaki-sautéed carnitas was filling, the Kale Kai salad with chicken breast was disappointing. As for the signature fish tacos, we preferred the spicy one with “green sauce” and “citrus slaw” (tangy with lime juice and cilantro) over the grilled version, which had little flavor despite the “green sauce.” Question No. 2: Just what’s in the “green sauce”?

Try it if: You’re hungry and don’t have a lot of time or money, or if you and your friends pride yourselves on eating at every new restaurant that opens.

Forget it if: You prefer a more substantial meal in calmer, more subtle surroundings.