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Wahoo’s Fish Taco Menu Upgrades

By Bret Thorn Restaurant News

Wahoo’s Fish Taco has long enjoyed a following in Los Angeles and Orange County, Calif., for its eclectic blend of Brazilian- and Asian-influenced Mexican food served with a Hawaiian surfer vibe. But as the 65-unit chain seeks to expand, founding brothers Wing, Ed and Mingo Lam saw a need to put systems in place that would ensure culinary consistency in the restaurant.

Helping them do that is executive chef Ray Martin. Classically trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Martin has worked in menu development at The Cheesecake Factory, The Original Fish Co., El Torito and now-closed Trader Vic’s in San Francisco. 

Most recently, he was vice president of culinary development and corporate executive chef for BJ’s Restaurants Inc., where he worked for more than nine years. He joined Wahoo’s in December.

“I have Latin heritage — I’m half Mexican — and my dream was to open taquerias one day,” said Martin.

Rather than start from scratch, he saw an opportunity to live that dream on a larger scale at Wahoo’s.

“They already have a great reputation, and with my know-how, I think I can really get them growing again,” he said.

Wahoo’s has expanded in recent years, moving beyond its existing markets in California, Nevada, Colorado and Texas by opening one franchised unit each in New York and Lincoln, Neb. Wing Lam said new locations will open in Sacramento, Calif., and Philadelphia later this year, and on Long Island, N.Y., next spring.

Maintaining consistency has been a challenge, Martin said.

“Sometimes when I go to a Wahoo’s outside of L.A., the food’s a little bit different,” he said. “So that’s one of the things I’m helping them with.”

Martin said he has spent the past seven months examining restaurant operations.

“It’s a great concept. A lot of freshly made food,” he said. “But as you know, the world keeps changing, and they thought they might need a little push to get them going again. So I looked at how they execute their products, the layout of the kitchen, and the sauces and other ingredients they’re using.”

The purchasing system was “a little fractured,” he said, so he standardized the produce supply and developed and streamlined recipes.

“I’ve changed I believe 14 of their presentations, added some different spice blends, like a really good chili-lime spice that gives a little more distinction to their fries and onion rings,” he said.

He also developed a new teriyaki sauce, a new red salsa made from four types of roasted chiles puréed with Wahoo’s pico de gallo, a “Mr. Lee’s sauce” — a garlicky version of a straightforward Malay chile sauce called sambal oelek — and Polynesian aïoli, which is Mr. Lee’s sauce combined with sugar, lime juice, mayonnaise and Cajun spice.

“I’m trying to build flavors that are more distinctive and create those cravings so [customers] have got to have it,” Martin said.

Apart from the new sauces, Martin has introduced three new menu items:

• Kale Kai Salad: Green leaf blend, baby mixed greens, baby organic kale, avocado, and a black bean and corn salsa made with roasted corn, black beans, diced red peppers, lime juice, cilantro and garlic. The salad is mixed with pico de gallo, revamped tortilla strips that are thinner than before, and the new chile-lime spice.

• Street Tacos: Made with smaller, single-corn tortillas with a choice of protein and Polynesian aïoli. It also contains a new citrus slaw, queso fresco and the new red salsa.

• Wahoo’s Wings: Brined with sea salt and water, treated with a light garlic coating, and glazed with a blend of Mr. Lee’s sauce, Cholula hot sauce, jalapeño escabeche, brown sugar lime juice and garlic. The wings are served with a sauce that blends the Polynesian aïoli and the red salsa.

Martin offers the wings and street tacos as specials during Wahoo’s new “social hour,” from 2-5 p.m. and 8-10 p.m.