Wahaca

For quite some time I’ve been dying to try Wahaca, a real Mexican restaurant in London’s Covent Garden. Not only has it been voted the winner of London’s Best Cheap Eats by the Observer Food Monthly Awards 2008, but a Californian foodie friend has been recommending it to all her pals for ages. “It’s not Tex Mex,” she insists, “it’s REAL Mexican”. That was it. I’ve been salivating in Wahaca’s direction ever since the first mention.

The brainchild of Masterchef winner, Thomasina Miers, and her business partner, Mark Selby, Wahaca’s aim is to bring affordable, fresh and sustainable food to the table, the recipes inspired by street food in Mexico. There’s a no reservations policy. You turn up, leave your name and number with the doorman, and come back at the time he gives you. Considering you need to queue just to talk to the doorman, this can be a time-consuming system, but the reputation of this laid-back Mecca for Mexican means that even the hardiest of reservation-makers will relent and follow the Wahaca Rules.

First question: what does Wahaca mean? Wahaca is the anglicised phonetic spelling for Oaxaca, a region of Mexico. Oaxacan cuisine is known for its diversity, mostly because its population is diverse. Oaxaca’s reputation as a food producer spans chocolate, cheese, mezcal and moles. If you like roasted grasshoppers, they eat them there. It’s also known as ‘The Land of Seven Moles’, for the Mexican sauce called Mole which is a complex blend of many spices, and which varies greatly depending on available ingredients, regional influence and grandmother’s hand-me-down secret recipe.

I reached Wahaca (following two flat viewings and a big delay on the Central Line; God bless our underground system!) just before 7pm. I queued for just under 10 minutes and was told to come back at 8pm. Monsieur was somewhere in Covent Garden having drinks with his friends so I walked around for a while, mainly because he didn’t want to wait until 8pm to eat and wanted me to find an alternative to ease our plan of going to the cinema later, but I admit I wasn’t a committed scout. After all, when the alternatives include TGI Fridays, or Italian theme chain restaurants or pubs full of a Friday night crowd, or extremely traditional British old-school cookery restaurants (a bit heavy for evening eating) or Belgo’s, where we’ve eaten plenty of times. No, moules-frites washed down with Kriek wasn’t tickling my tastebuds that night. It would have to be Mexican, wait or not wait. I met Monsieur back at Wahaca and we went inside to wait in a tiny little area at the bottom of the stairs. We were 15 minutes early for our seating time, but that didn’t worry the buzzy maitre d’ who whizzed us through to our table after just a few minutes.

Monsieur’s first comment to me was this: “They should have a bar. If they had a bar here, everyone would spend money on drinks while they wait for a table. They’re missing out on some serious income here.” I had to agree.

Our waiter was a long-haired ponytailed chap who had that air of having backpacked his way around the world and was now waiting tables until he could afford to take off to trek the Himalayas. I don’t know if my guesswork is accurate, here, but the way he helped us decipher how to order (the idea is to share different plates) indicated that he knew a lot more about Mexican food than your average English waiter, most likely from personal experience of The Real Deal. Before we had time to settle, our order had been taken and in a Mexican flash our guacamole and tortilla chips arrived. The only complaint here would be that we probably needed a serving each, so great was the  Wahaca guac.

Our classic Margaritas were served on the rocks in sturdy tumblers with deliciously salted rims, just as they should be. Then the plates started to arrive. We had a couple of crispy tostadas, one pair topped with tender ceviche and another with nopalitos, a salad of cactus with tomato salsa and Lancashire cheese. (Yes, the cheese came from Lancashire to save food miles and sustain local producers. That’s another Wahaca ethos for you.) The taco we chose was called Fish Pastor – each of the three soft tacos contained this fishy mix which looked like shredded chicken tikka, but was in fact fish in an achiote marinade with relish. What’s achiote? It’s a paste popular in Oaxacan cuisine, with a deep rusty colour and distinctive (although not particularly strong) taste, made from the seeds of the Achiote plant’s inedible fruit.

(nopalitos left and ceviche tostadas right)

So far, so good, but the test was about to come. Would Monsieur like his classic enchilada? It would appear so because one minute it was there, steaming in a terracotta dish with a tempting ooze of melted cheese on top and when I looked across the table again, most of it had disappeared into Monsieur’s happy tum. Yes, the enchilada had passed the Monsieur Test. As for a shared side of green rice flavoured with coriander, garlic and onion, I will have to add it to the Epicurienne At Home Repertoire. It was seriously tasty.

Now we had to race to make the cinema (where, incidentally, we started nodding off after half an hour due to end-of-week fatigue), but I would gladly have stayed on for another margarita (perhaps the one flavoured with hibiscus?) and some chocolate dipped churros, had we had no further plans. I’ll have to wait for next time, when I think I’ll also try the Coloradito mole.

I have to say that as far as real Mexican food goes, Wahaca has some serious competition. Happily for this establishment the restaurants I’m thinking of are in New York and Paris, so if we need a Mexican fix in London Town, we’ll be visiting Wahaca again.

PS A few days after our visit to Wahaca, Monsieur had plans for dinner with a friend. They got there at 7.30pm and the wait was already an hour and a half. It was a Tuesday. I guess that tells you everything.

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13 Comments Add yours

  1. And what’s wrong with Tex-Mex?

    Belgo’s seems very Belgian 😉 It’s the right time of the year for a big moules-frites!

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  2. WWof W says:

    I second Epic’s recommendation of this place – it is great, and they do some mean pork scratchings with guac. The only other guac that comes close was some I had in NYC. Yumscious.

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  3. w1kkp says:

    Well, I’ll be…green rice. Seriously, green as in originally green or flavored green? I have to get out more. No, that’s what you do, travel for me.

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  4. epicurienne says:

    Nat – nothing’s wrong with Tex Mex. Monsieur keeps his emergency Tex Mex in the cupboard where he thinks I won’t find it…
    WWW – Aloha!
    Pat – the green rice is flavoured and coloured by coriander a.k.a. cilantro. Anyway, it’s divine. And green.

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  5. razzbuffnik says:

    I’ve been to Mexico twice and I feel I can say with some authority that most Mexican street food is crap and it will probably give you diarrhoea.

    The average Mexican peasant that I’ve come across wouldn’t have a clue what really good food was. Never mind the concept of good quality ingredients.

    In my experience, the best Mexican food I’ve had was in Santa Fe. It wasn’t Tex-Mex, it was New Mexican.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Mexican food and one can get excellent Mexican food in good restaurants in Mexico but I just can’t stand the bad Mexican food that is sold on the streets in Mexico.

    So, in the best possible way, I hope your food wasn’t genuine Mexican street food.

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  6. w1kkp says:

    Coriander is cilantro??!!! Well, I be amazed! I’ve lived this long without knowing THAT!

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  7. epicurienne says:

    Oooh Razz, I was eating my lunch when your comment arrived. Excellent timing! and thanks for the tip off. If you hadn’t said anything, I may one day have eaten street food in Mexico and lost half my body weight in a matter of hours. Then again, that wouldn’t be so bad!
    Pat – pleased to be of service!

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  8. ricardo says:

    One of your commenters claims to be an authority on Mexican street food because he has been to Mexico twice. Let me guess…Cancun right?

    The restaurant’s reference to street food is more accurately, the street food of Mexico City. There, vendors compete fiercely to feed their customers. Chilangos (Mexico city residents) love their food and are proud of both its heritage and its variety. Food stalls line the busiest streets and well, to forego street food in Mexico city is to practically forego food altogether.

    That said, I tried out Wahaca last night (that is what led me here) and was actually fairly impressed. They’ve made an honest effort to introduce Londoners to Mexico city food while still bringing in some regional food (notably from Oaxaca and Veracruz, though I would love to see more Michoacan food in there)

    My authority? I am a Mexican-American living in London. My family is from Michoacan, Mexico. Several of my relatives own Mexican restaurants in San Diego, California. I lived for 10 years in San Francisco and several years in New York city. Now, I live in London where I am realizing that a food and culture which is to me intimate and familiar is surprisingly undiscovered and exotic, and, unfortunately, also misunderstood.

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    1. epicurienne says:

      Hi Ricardo,
      thanks so much for your comment. Yes, I like Wahaca, too. Just before Christmas we tried the new branch in Westfield Shopping Centre. The food was great but I prefer the atmosphere of the original in Covent Garden. Interesting what you say about Cancun versus Mexico City. I haven’t been to Mexico but I love Mexican food. If you visit Paris, you MUST try Anahuacalli. It’s a restaurant that will make you dream of going back from the instant you walk out the door and away from their moles and cactus salads. If you use the search button on the top right hand side of this blog you’ll find my post about Two Mexicans in Paris.

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  9. razzbuffnik says:

    Ricardo

    “Let me guess…Cancun right?”

    Wrong.

    Guess again presumptuous one.

    I don’t claim to be an expert on Mexican food as I’ve only spent a total of about 2 months there so I can only talk about my own personal experience.

    I’ve eaten plenty of street food in Mexico (I kept hoping to find some good stuff) and in particular, Mexico City.

    Edible maybe, but not THAT good and certainly not very hygienic. After shitting my brains out a couple of times after eating some dodgy street food, I decided to eat in cleaner establishments. Sure it cost more but it was well worth it.

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    1. epicurienne says:

      Ha Razz, your retort makes me smile. Poor you with those street food side effects! Better out than in, I’d say. I’ll have to let you and Ricardo thrash this one out on your own because although I love Mexican food, I haven’t been to Mexico so that makes me far from knowledgeable on what this sort of nosh tastes like IN its country of origin. Fair comment, though.

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  10. leomosh says:

    LOL I came one year later to this post, but I totally support Ricardo about how much I love and miss the Mexican street food. .. Nevertheless if you r a tourist, I wouldn´t recommend Mexican street food unless you come with me, because It is so easy to get sick if your not from Mexico ! (yes razz is right in that, many are not hygienic at all!) . I went once to Wahaca, it was quite good…

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    1. epicurienne says:

      Hi Leo, thank you for your comment on Mexican street food. When Monsieur and I finally visit Mexico for ourselves, we will heed your words of warning.

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