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.