You Make Me Want to Shout Wahoo’s!
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Back in 2006, the sister duo of Stephanie Gambetta and Noel Pietsch took it upon themselves to bring a “California-Mex” concept to Hawaii with the opening of Wahoo’s Fish Taco, a Golden State-based chain, at Ward Gateway Center. Then last December, the entrepreneurs decided to capitalize on their growing popularity by opening a second location in Kahala Korner.
In staying true to the concept of love of surf and good food, first developed by another set of siblings — Wahoo’s pioneers Eduardo Lee, Mingo Lee and Wing Lam — Pietsch and Gambetta see it as their duty to share both a North Shore-beach vibe and a healthy, yet affordable menu with locals and tourists alike.
Dining Out recently caught up with the sisters at the new Kahala location to see what it takes to reel in the hungriest of diners — one appetite at a time.
DO: How did the two of you get involved in Wahoo’s Fish Taco?
Gambetta: I was working in California, had met one of the owners and learned a bit more about what their business was all about, and thought it was a great concept for Hawaii. We didn’t have any quick-serve restaurants with healthy foods that also served alcohol. I encouraged them to bring it to Hawaii, and sat back and talked to my brother and my sister, and thought, ‘Why don’t we try to do it together?’ Noel had gone to USC and had experienced Wahoo’s in Southern California, and my brother, being a surfer, had experienced it during his surf trips and thought it was a great business venture.
DO: How has business been at the new Kahala location?
Gambetta: It’s been going well. This is a neighborhood restaurant and bar, and it’s really fun getting to know the people who live around here or tourists that are in town. We’re feeling like we’re part of a community here and it’s slowly growing and developing and we’re starting to get to know our customers on a personal basis. On Tuesdays and Friday’s we also have live music from entertainers like Simple Souls, Kaala Boys and more. Tuesdays are Taco Tuesday and Wednesday is family night.
Pietsch: I think many people are realizing that we have a full-service bar if they’re wanting to drink. The industry people also are really excited to have a new bar to go to. At Ward, we get a lot of people who are in and out for lunch, and then at nighttime they’re going to the movies. They might not necessarily live around the area, so there’s a bit of a demographic difference. But I think being a part of a neighborhood was part of our business model and it’s been really fun for us.
DO: What type of clientele do you cater to?
Pietsch: We definitely cater to people who want good, healthy food at a reasonable price. One thing that is most misleading is, because we’re a franchise, a lot of times people think all the food is brought in, but we’re actually really behind supporting local farmers and local businesses. Our tortillas are from Hawaii, the majority of our produce is sourced from Hawaii and we work with different vendors and different farms across the island. Our client is really someone who is educated and understands what they’re putting in their body, and I think they really learn to appreciate what we’re offering here. And while it is a chain brand and we’re using their systems, we totally adapted it to Hawaii to take advantage of what the island vendors and businesses have to offer.
DO: Great! What kind of food can customers expect when visiting Wahoo’s?
Gambetta: We call it a Baja-California, healthy flair Mexican food.
Pietsch: It’s grilled fish, grilled chicken, so all our meats are marinated in herbs and spices and Cajun spices then grilled. It’s salads, tacos, sandwiches, burritos — basically it’s a lighter play on Mexican food. Our tacos are not fried; there are no preservatives in any of our food, so it is definitely healthy Mexican.
Gambetta: Our beans are boiled beans; they’re not refried beans, so there’s no lard in it, no fat, just herbs and spices — very healthy and natural. We have a lot of vegan and gluten-free options as well.
And if you go into our kitchen, you’ll find that everything is made fresh every day, so no one’s opening cans or cutting open bags. Everything is being cut by hand, it’s always fresh food and ingredients, and that’s really important for our customers to understand what they’re putting in their bodies. It’s energy for their day that keeps them going.
DO: What are some of the popular items on the menu?
Pietsch: The Outer Reef Burrito ($7.99) is one of our most popular burritos, and it’s a burrito that basically has everything in it and you can do it wet-style with our fat-free cilantro sauce and mild enchilada sauce. The flour tortilla is stuffed with ahee rice, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, savory black or spicy Cajun white beans, lettuce or cabbage and your choice of filling topped with our fresh salsa. We also have combo platters like the One Taco or Enchilada and Three Taquitos platter ($10.99). All combo platters are served with ahee rice and black beans or spicy Cajun white beans. Choice of fillings include blackened or flame-broiled fish or chicken, pork, steak, mushrooms, banzai veggies or tofu. Our taquitos are homemade and very good.
Gambetta: The 7-Layer Salad is one of our most popular salads and consists of brown rice, black or spicy Cajun white beans, cheese, guacamole, shredded lettuce and cabbage and salsa with your choice of fish, chicken, pork, steak, shrimp or tofu.
DO: You also have a new bar at this location as well?
Gambetta: Yes, it’s a different concept to have this full bar and we’re really fulfilling customers’ needs. The customers are what really drove the table service here — they want to sit, they want to have more drinks. We wanted to bring items to the bar menu that not only we like, but also things that we knew our friends would like. You can also have wine with your tacos if you want, or the beer of the month, a margarita or Hualalai lemonade. Our food goes with really any type of drink.
Pietsch: The drink menu is really fresh. We have a margarita, which is about 100 calories, and we also use fresh fruit. We have a fresh lime juice margarita.
DO: What’s happy hour been like for customers?
Pietsch: Great! Happy Hour starts daily from 3 to 7 p.m. and then picks up again nightly from 10 till midnight. It draws both the after-work crowd for the first half and then the industry after-work crowd for the second half. I think it’s really catching on. We have $5 Fresh House Margaritas and $1 well drinks.
DO: Although the Wahoo’s brand is from California, you’ve been able to incorporate a great local feel to the restaurant.
Pietsch: Well, we were born and raised here, and when we built the restaurant we worked as hard as we could to get products from Re-use Hawaii. DaKine also donated surf leashes to do our railings. It’s really a place where you can kick back and relax.
Gambetta: We really wanted the restaurant to have a very beachy vibe. You can come right off the beach or right from work and still feel like you’re welcome.
Wahoo’s Fish Taco
- Ward Gateway Center
- 940 Auahi Street #140
- Honolulu, HI 96814
- Kahala Korner
- 4614 Kilauea Avenue
- Honolulu, HI 96821
- (808) 591-1646 (Ward)
- (808) 732-9229 (Kahala)