A SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA STAPLE BRINGS FISH TACOS AND BOLD, BRIGHT FLAVORS TO THE GARDEN STATE

BY ERIK SCHONING • PHOTOS BY VIOLET KARYN PHOTOGRAPHY

Monmouth County is a long way from southern California. And though zesty Cali-style cuisine has been popular in this neck of the woods for a while now, it’s rare to find the real deal. For that, enter Wahoo’s, an East Coast transplant bringing SoCal fish tacos to a Garden State clientele hungry for a slice of eternal sunshine with citrus slaw, of course.

In 1988, Costa Mesa, California, was a hub for surfers and skaters in Orange County, and when the first Wahoo’s popped up as an inexpensive, tasty fish taco joint, it quickly became a local icon. Today Wahoo’s operates a select number of franchises across the country, and it was one of these locations in Manhattan Beach that aspiring restaurateur Joe Hernando visited in 1997.

“My sister took us out to a Wahoo’s over in Manhattan Beach,” said Hernando. “It was my first fish taco. And right then and there, my wife and I looked at each other and we said, ‘We’ve got to open one of these up in New Jersey sometime.’”

Years later, Hernando ran into an old friend, Remo Duchi Jr., at a New York Giants game, and they quickly realized they shared a dream of opening a restaurant. In 2018, that dream – and the first Wahoo’s on the East Coast – was born.

H&S Spread

The majority of Wahoo’s franchises still rock the rough-and-tumble skater décor that was the hallmark of the original. Hernando and Duchi Jr. opted for a sleeker, more upscale look, a touch of beach chic that would appeal to the Monmouth County crowd.

“When we first opened up, no one from California had seen what the final outcome was going to be,” said Duchi Jr. “So it was a little nerve-wracking; either they were going to love it or they were going to be upset. And they said it’s the sexiest Wahoo’s they’ve ever seen.”

A focus on quality ingredients and snappy, bright flavors is a foolproof approach to the restaurant business. It’s part of the reason Hernando and Duchi Jr. believe they’ve had such success in Middleton, even if it’s not the culinary norm around here.

“We knew the freshness of the menu would fit perfectly with the lifestyle in Monmouth County,” noted Hernando. “The lifestyle is very similar to Orange County in California – the healthy lifestyle, living by the ocean. Wahoo’s offers that type of atmosphere. It’s a vacation as soon as you walk in.”

The menu is classic Wahoo’s, a nod to the chain’s success with tried-and-true recipes that draw from Asian, Brazilian, and Mexican cuisines. Beyond the fish tacos, you’ll find an assortment of enchiladas, bowls, and salads that range from soy-marinated salmon to citrus slaw burritos. Freshness is the common denominator, and the menu leans lightly into fast casual customization (you select from a list of available proteins) without falling into the salad bar-esque chaos of restaurants that let you make all the decisions. These are distinct dishes.

For the newcomer, Hernando and Duchi Jr. recommend the Protein Bowl, a hefty portion of two proteins (go for the wahoo and steak for a surf-and-turf approach, or tofu and spicy mushrooms for a vegetarian option) plus sauteed Banzai veggies, citrus slaw, and sliced avocado. It’s a delicious way to sample everything, much like a greatest hits of everything the restaurant does well.

Ongoing community support has kept Wahoo’s busy even during a global pandemic, and this year they’re looking to draw attention to their bar. As part of their all-comers approach, they’ve slipped wings onto their menu for Sunday game days, a nod to the Giants game where the Wahoo’s dream took off. The cocktail menu is also getting revamped in an effort to highlight Wahoo’s as a local upscale watering hole. The bar/restaurant dichotomy is a balancing act that many businesses face, yet Hernando and Duchi Jr. have no plans to mess with a good thing.

“You can get drinks anywhere; you can get local beers anywhere,” said Hernando. “You can’t get this fish taco anywhere in New Jersey. You can’t get the wahoo as fresh, to order, every single time. The food is why people come. The drinks are why they stay.”

The need for healthy, ingredient-forward food is universal. Forget geography. Whether you’re an L.A. transplant or a Jersey lifer, the owners strive to make this feel like home.

Wahoo’s
1147 NJ-35, Middletown Township
732.671.8226 / wahoos.com/new-jersey