I can't remember the first time I heard about
fish tacos. I know it was when I moved to Orange County, some time within
the last fifteen years. I grew up in Los Angeles County, fifty 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 to me. 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 to Wahoo's when my constantly upset stomach discovered their
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
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 clothes companies, upper-middle-class mothers comparing toddler
horror stories and laughing conversations in Spanish between the restaurant
employees, probably local residents.
The outside patio with its mottled concrete floor, windows patchworked
with slightly suggestive surfing and skating stickers and neon Corona beer
signs was the perfect place to watch the world go by heeded only by the lacy
wrought-iron bars guarding the vulnerable windows.
Wahoo's gradually opened other restaurants around Southern
California and 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 someplace truly local, their apprehensive
faces when we arrived 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," they answered.
"Ah," he said. "The real one."