The NewportBeach Mag — July / August, 2011
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Wing Lam
Aleta Walther

Wing Lam calls Newport the center of the universe for OC.

The meaning of “perception is reality,” for all intents and purposes, is that what a person perceives or believes to be true, is actually true. In the case of Newport Beach resident Wing Lam, perception is not reality for many who encounter this Chinese-Brazilian immigrant for the first time. Standard attire for this long-haired beachcomber, nearly 50, is a T-shirt, board shorts and Converse canvas low-tops—not the wardrobe you would expect of one of California’s more notable entrepreneurs. Peel back Wing’s beach-tribe persona and you find another Wing Lam: founder, partner and CEO of Wahoo’s Fish Taco.

Founded in 1988 by Wing and two of his four brothers, Ed Lee and Mingo Lee, Wahoo’s Fish Taco is one of Southern California’s most popular “fast casual restaurants.” Today, Wahoo’s has 58 locations across California, Hawaii, Texas and Colorado, including one in Newport Beach at Fashion Island that will soon move and expand to be a flagship of sorts for the already iconic OC brand.

Wahoo’s target customers include surf and extreme sports fanatics, hence Wing’s young-at-heart, casual confidence toward his wardrobe. Dressing up for Wing is a sport coat over a T-shirt, and depending on the occasion, swapping out his favored baby blue Converse Chuck Taylors for a pair of penny loafers.

Like Wing’s hang-loose personal style, Wahoo’s exterior façade, interior décor and menu selections are casual, laid-back and simple. Wahoo’s first restaurant in Costa Mesa was decorated with donations from local surf and clothing companies.

Over the years, the décor has morphed to include other counter-culture sports paraphernalia: skateboarding, snowboarding and motocross. The restaurant’s walls, doors, tables, counters and windows are adorned with action sports posters, photos, helmets, surfboards, paddles and stickers.

Although the chain’s decor may be casual, the Lam brothers take Wahoo’s food and customer service seriously. They are dogged about offering simple, reasonably priced, generally healthy fare - that is, if you bypass the jumbo French fries And crunchy beer-battered onion rings. Wahoo’s website describes its character as an “eclectic Mexican/ Brazilian/Asian menu with a Hawaiian North Shore vibe.”

Growing up in Newport Beach, the Lam siblings and bros traveled to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to surf. It was there they discovered tacos.

“Coming up with the fish taco niche was a product of our surfing road trips to Mexico,” Wing says.

“My brothers and I talked about it at length and we agreed that there was nothing like it in Orange County and it (the fish taco business) could be a fun little space to live and play in.”

Wahoo’s menu offers a variety of salads, soups, sandwiches, enchiladas, burritos and of course, tacos.

One of its signature offerings is a banzai burrito, a large, lard-free tortilla stuffed with ahi rice, black beans, veggies, fresh salsa and a choice of chicken, fish, carne asada, carnitas or shrimp - all for about 600 calories. Lam’s favorite Wahoo fare is simply black beans and rice.

OC’s Entrepreneur of the Year

In 2001, Lam was named Orange County Young Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young. A prestigious Business honor, the award celebrates entrepreneurs who are building and leading successful, growing, dynamic businesses. The Ernst & Young award is just one of the many reasons Lam is in demand today as a featured speaker for business, educational and philanthropic events. He has spoken at Yale and has been invited to speak at Notre Dame later this year. He also teaches an MBA-level class at Irvine’s Concordia University and may teach at Chapman University in Orange and the University of Southern California.

“Telling Wahoo’s story of success to people does one of two things: it either inspires them or it makes them realize their life is not going where they want it to go,” says Wing, who earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and minored in Spanish at San Diego State University. “Sadly, it is more often the latter, especially in these times.”

While Wing is passionate about Wahoo’s, surfing and snowboarding, it’s teaching that really amps him up these days. “Catching a big wave makes me happy, but that is not what motivates me today,” Wing says. “For me it is about sharing my knowledge and experiences with others. I love engaging students and watching them expand their minds, Their horizons. I am also rewarded by my students because I often gain a different perspective on how we should be doing our Wahoo’s business better.”

Although Wing covers a cornucopia of information in his MBA marketing class, the No. 1 piece of advice he shares with his students is the same advice his dad shared with him growing up: that there is no substitute for hard work and passion for what you are doing, whether it’s work or play.

Dad also advised Wing to look out for his brothers.“Decide early in life if you are going to be a slacker or a mover and shaker,” he says with passion rising in his voice. “If you can’t bring something to the table, get the hell out of the way.”

Peeling Shrimp and Washing Dishes

So how did a Brazilian of Chinese descent end up in Newport Beach?

My dad, Cheong Lee, left mainland China after WWII when it appeared the country was moving toward communism,” Wing says. “He realized there would be few opportunities under the communist regime, so he got out. He chose Brazil over the U.S. because the climate toward Asians in the U.S. was not friendly following the war. There were already a lot of Chinese in South America so it made for an easier transition. Brazil, at that time, was the land of opportunity for Chinese.”

Growing up in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the five Lam brothers lived in an apartment above their parents’ Chinese restaurant. After school, the brothers helped in the restaurant, peeling shrimp and washing dishes. In the early ’70s, the family immigrated to Orange County and Cheong Lee and Wing’s mother, So Ching, opened Shanghai Pine Garden Chinese Restaurant on Balboa Island in Newport Beach (300 Marine Ave., 949.673.3802). Today, the restaurant is a favorite hang-out for Newport Beach residents. John Wayne frequented the Chinese restaurant and could be seen swaggering down the boardwalk toward the Shanghai Pine Garden. Wing has a picture in his office of his dad and Wayne standing arm-in-arm.

Surf’s Cool Culture

Wahoo’s corporate office is located in neighboring Costa Mesa, but Lam lives in Newport Beach, about one block from the ocean on 35th Street.

“I live in Newport Beach because I love to surf, I love the beach culture,” says Wing, who sports a tan that affirms his love of sunshine and surf. “I love that Newport Beach is the center of the universe for Orange County. Once I’m home, I don’t have to drive anywhere,” he says. “Any place I want to go to on the peninsula, I can get to on my bike or by walking. Living in Newport Beach is about being outdoors and enjoying the ocean. As kids, we went to the beach on weekends, and now, I live at the beach. How much fun is that?”

Wing’s favorite Newport Beach surf spot is 36th Street, but he adds that 44th and 32nd Streets are also fun jetties to surf.

“Where I surf depends on the time of the year and the swell direction,” Wing says. “I surf closer to the pier in the winter and farther from the pier in the summer. 36th Street is a nice place to surf and hang out. The surfing is mellow and relaxed with a good mixture of old and young surfers, and neighbors who know each other.”

One of the reasons Wing dropped out of corporate America to launch Wahoo’s is that he, Mingo and Ed wanted a livelihood they could fit around surfing.With 58 restaurants and 1,500 employees, it seems almost impossible that Wing has more time to surf today than when he worked as a buyer in the contracts department at Rockwell Aerospace in the ’80s.

You can always get motivated to get up early if you know there is good surf,” says Wing, who rides a custom surfboard by shaper Dean Cleary. “The weather, tide, swells and available parking dictate where and when I surf more than my work.”

When Wing needs to refuel after those strenous surf sessions, he and fiancée, Kelly Paul, enjoy eating out. Of course the pair frequent the Shanghai Pine Garden, but there are many eclectic dining options within walking distance of his home.

“The Crab Cooker is one of my favorites, because it has the best damn clam chowder on the planet and the fish is always awesome,” Wing raves.“I also like Mama D’s. It’s a little Italian restaurant that has amazing pastas. The Blue Water Grill makes great crab and seafood salads.”

In addition to surfing, Wing enjoys snowboarding and golfing. He has visited all of Colorado’s premier winter resorts and played many of California’s best golf courses, although he says his golf game is subpar.

“I played an event that featured some of the greatest names in baseball,” Wing recalls. “I was lucky enough to be in a foursome with Brooks Robinson (Hall of Famer Baltimore Orioles). After a few holes, he turns to me and says, ‘You must be the surfer in your family…’ So I’m thinking, ‘How did he know?’ Then he adds, ‘Because your ball has been in the water or in the sand all day.”
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