For years I had to go to America to get a decent burrito. Mexican food in the UK amounted to gaudy theme restaurants with cacti painted on the walls where sombrero-wearing waiters served fajitas on cast iron hotplates that left a trail of cloying smoke from the kitchen as they were brought to the table. While this always turned heads, I could never tell whether the waiter was running a fire hazard out the door and into the nearest bin or genuinely serving it up to a customer. That we diners lapped this up with the ignorance that this was all part of the delight of Mexican cuisine always baffled me.
And such was my joy at having tasted all manner of simply-served Mexican food in the States that I’ve felt compelled to pen an article on the British take for years. Fortunately, my chilli-fired diatribe can be no longer. We’ve been saved recently, for Mexican food has taken off in the UK of late – at least in London, so far – thanks to the burrito bars that have popped up about the place. In fact, not 100 paces from the office I have the choice of three. Two in bricks and mortar with a queue around the corner if you get there after midday, and one – oddly, better than the other two – operating from a cart down a cobbled side street. However, if, like me, you thought that these have been a godsend, saving the decision-making of a lunch break, then you haven’t eaten at Wahaca. Admittedly, and as a lover of Mexican food, ashamed as I am to admit it, I hadn’t. Until now. And, alas, my lunch breaks are doomed.
You see, as good as those burrito bars are they’re immediately out-done. Largely because, and this is the trouble with Mexican food in this country, the range is limited and you always know what you’re going to get. Sometimes that can be reassuring but with no element of surprise, there’s often no real pleasure in it. The summer menu we sampled at Wahaca brings the pleasure back into why we go out to eat; to peruse the menu, reading those dishes and ingredients in print and then the anticipation, even surprise, at how they might turn out.
I first heard of Wahaca when a friend of mine presented me with a book of matches from their first restaurant, opened in 2007, advising me to try this great new Mexican place serving street-style food. With my benchmark being Mexican I’d eaten across the pond, I was sceptical and the matches went into a drawer in the kitchen. The name stuck, however, so when Jonesy gave me the call to get out to their Westfield restaurant in London’s White City to try the new menu, I didn’t hesitate.
With only three restaurants in as many years – the others are in Covent Garden and Canary Wharf – I’m pleased they’ve not expanded to global proportions, despite their popularity. By being selective on when and where they open it keeps them unique, a real treat and helps maintain the high standards. And if the standards are high, they should be. Their Chef-Patron is none other than Thomasina Miers, winner of Masterchef 2005, and Wahaca (named after Oaxaca, one of her favourite places) is the culmination of a culinary fascination with the country since travelling there as a student.
The idea behind the restaurant is to experience market or street-style eating, as one would in Mexico. Thomasina’s very ‘hands on’ in the restaurant, concocting all the dishes herself, not based in an office (she doesn’t have one), and constantly ensuring the standards remain high. The emphasis is on fresh and, where possible, local ingredients and they’re used to great effect.
Short of listing everything we tried (I’ll keep some surprises) how about these we sampled as a departure from your common or garden enchilada: broad bean and feta quesadillas (subtly seasoned with mint); summery new potato taquitos (served with Thomasina’s own innocuous-looking but deadly habanero salsa); or their new flagship Chile Relleno, a black bean-stuffed sweet ancho chilli seasoned with thyme and served up with caramelised onions and sour cream. It’s an exact replica of a recipe Thomasina tried in a cafe in Oaxaca itself. Where else can you sample a dish so genuinely Mexican? Short of going to Mexico, obviously.
With tapas-style serving – most dishes are in the region of £3 to £4 – there’s plenty to choose from and everyone will have a favourite. For me, the shrimp and scallop ceviche tostadas were to die for. And if you want surprises, there’s the grilled cactus taco. Yes, cactus. If you’ve never had cactus, it’s a bit like a courgette but firmer. Which is just as well because courgette compliments the cactus in this particular dish.
There’s more to Wahaca than sampling street food Mexico-style, though, and it’s in that taco. There’s an ethical edge to the concept. The summer menu launches their ‘Street Food Specials’ initiative, whereby 20p from every dish goes to Ednica, a UNESCO charity helping to better the lives of Mexico’s street children. If 20p doesn’t sound like much, remember these dishes aren’t much more than a couple of pounds in the first instance. It’s a worthy cause and worthy of mention.
A fourth venue opens in London’s Soho in the near future. If they keep this up I might not need to make that trip to Mexico…
Wahaca, White City, 1074 Westfield Shopping Centre, Ariel Way, London W12 7GB. Tel. +44 (0) 20 8749 4517. Website: www.wahaca.co.uk
Summary: authentic Mexican cuisine to rival anything across the pond.