Wahoo's Fish Taco: No meat, no gluten, no problem

I have great sympathy for folks who can't digest gluten (as opposed to fakers who affect gluten allergies for attention), as well as those who can't or don't eat meat -- because they face very limited menu options if they dare to dine out. That makes Wahoo's Fish Taco a rare fish in the fast-food sea: It not only has a decent-sized roster of wheatless and meatless items, but they're actually good. And the signature fish tacos are a real treat this far from any ocean.

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The first time I tried a Wahoo's fish taco, it came from a cold box in the fridge (roommate and new boyfriend were too busy going through that fuzzy-pink-stupid phase to eat their restaurant leftovers, so I did), and despite being a few hours old and chilly, the grilled salmon taco, smothered with some sort of addictive green sauce, was delicious. Hungry and remembering that taco, I headed through the April snow to the Wahoo's at 8100 Northfield Boulevard in Stapleton for dinner and a reminder that summer will come...some day. The restaurant was warm and pleasantly beach-bum-ish, with bumper-stickered walls and surfboards everywhere; a tasty aroma of corn tortillas and cilantro filled the air..

Wahoo's was founded in Costa Mesa, California, in 1988 by brothers Eduardo Lee, Mingo Lee and Wing Lam, who were apparently huge fans of Mexican food; they developed a menu with hints of Brazilan and Chinese fare, as well as an obvious surf-y Cali feel. The first store was on a street littered with surf -wear shops like Billabong, Quiksilver and Rip Curl, and surfers would cover the walls with stickers from their brands -- and the décor stuck.

Yet another thing I adore about fast-casual restaurants is the ease of ordering -- and the almost-immediate results. Wahoo's is set up so that you can pick tacos, enchiladas or rice bowls; choose your fillings and sides; grab a beer or a glass of wine if the mood; and then wait for your meal in a somewhat comfortable wooden booth or at a table. I ordered four tacos ($2.69 each) with carne asada, sauteed mushrooms, grilled salmon and grilled white fish -- I'm pretty sure it was cod, although the menu was non-specific; a shrimp enchilada ($2.94) and a platter with a cajun-grilled fish taco, fish taquitos, rice and black beans ($7.99). And then I made an impulse buy of a neatly-wrapped chocolate chip blondie ($1.35) made by local Chewy's Cookie Shoppe, LLC.

Dinner was ready in under ten minutes, and to my intense delight there was plenty of Wahoo's signature green sauce on everything but the shrimp enchilada, which I'd ordered with red sauce -- in an experiment to see if the red was as good as that garlicky, cilantro-laden green. It wasn't: The red was a thin, watery tomato sauce with no heat, but the cheese was abundant and so was the shrimp filling, even if the small shrimp were slightly overcooked. But a few dabs of green sauce and all was forgiven.

I've had better carne asada tacos, but the bits of steak were juicy, the lettuce crisp and the diced-tomato-heavy house-made salsa reasonably fresh. Wahoo's puts shredded cheddar on these tacos; it wasn't necessary, but it didn't hurt. I'd never had fish-stuffed taquitos before (although I've had more than my share of the beef, chicken and cheese varieties, as well as the heartburn that follows); the white fish inside the cripy-fried corn tortilla rollups was a tad dry, especially on the edges. But again, a few dips of that savory green sauce worked wonders..

Sides of rice and beans generally bore me no matter where they are served. Wahoo's rice definitely qualified as boring, but the black beans were surprisingly plump and well-seasoned, and I actually enjoyed a few spoonfuls between bites of fish taco, the signature item at Wahoo's. The Cajun-seasoned probably-cod was moist, flaky and piled with green cabbage shreds and more house salsa. Both the regular grilled white fish taco and the salmon taco were garnished the same way, with liberal green sauce swirls over the fish; the char-grilled edges on the filets added a nice bit of flavor.

It was good to see a national chain like Wahoo's use locally-sourced desserts. Chewy's Cookie Shoppe out of Denver makes a pretty boss, very buttery cookie bar: The blondie tasted freshly-baked, but unfortunately was not gluten-free.

The big surprise of my meal was the sautéed mushroom taco, a standout favorite.The shrooms were bathed in a lightly sweet Polynesian sauce, and since Wahoo's uses white corn tortillas, the dish was both meat- and gluten-free. I'm not gluten-resistant or meatless, but I do enjoy vegetarian and vegan dishes for variety. And I also appreciate a fast, inexpensive, special diet-friendly restaurant.

That makes Wahoo's a real catch.

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