‘Wahaca’ would be a great name for a Scouse restaurant, but in fact it serves so-called ‘Mexican street food’: tacos y burritos. It’s very London, in the format pioneered by wagamama nearly 20 years ago: there’s no booking; orders are taken electronically; dishes made to share & delivered in no particular order; average spend is twenty quid incl. drink. There’s an impromptu outlet made out of eight shipping containers on the Queen Elizabeth Hall terrace @ Southbank, The Wahaca Experiment.
It gets busy, but there’s a holding area, past the bar upstairs, where you can watch the river, imbibing margaritas or mocktails while you wait. The typography of the drinks menu – black on pink; tiny letters in low lighting – is not legible. It is the WORST thing about the place! However, when they tell you it’ll be half an hour, our wait was no longer. They give you a gizmo that goes off when your table is ready.
Mexican food in London was always poor before Thomasina Miers won MasterChef Goes Large (as the show was known for a while upon its relaunch with Gregg Wallace, whose celebrity redefines ‘cult’) in 2005. Ms Miers then reinvented herself as ‘Tommi™’ and opened the first Wahaca @ Covent Garden in August 2007. Now, they’re all over the shopping centres and avidly surfing the street food wave with a couple of mobile units. What can I tell you, VFM food operations are recession-proof in this City. Plus the second line of Tommi’s bio. says she’s married to an ‘investment banker’, which proably isn’t rhyming slang.
Tommi™ seems like an unlikely expert on Mexican cookery, but I suppose she’s researched the subject and I’m told that the pork pibil served at Wahaca is a worthy interpretation of the classic dish from the Yucatan. That’s what the Big Fellow said, as if he should know. My Glamourous Assistant wasn’t quite so taken with her ‘British steak burrito’, for all its chipotle salsa & grilled spring onions, but she is a tough critic.
There is, I am pleased to report, plenty for those who eschew flesh. The ‘winter vegetables burrito’ – a mix of seasonal vegetables and pasilla chillies, served with feta and avocado salsa, wrapped in a toasted flour tortillas – was practically a meal in itself. I’ve been disappointed, so far, not to taste the cactus tortilla I’ve heard about, but can vouch for the plantain tortillas, spiked with a sneaky smear of chilli.
I’m not a big fan of the quesadilla, a folded tortilla that’s been toasted in a sandwich press. You can skip the Huitlacoche – sautéed mushrooms – but Wahaca’s homemade black beans are especially good when they ooze with melted mozzarella and cheddar cheese. These bodacious black beans – Frijoles – are a staple of the menu and Tommi™ has selflessly provided the recipe on her blog.
It’s basically a puree of cooked beans with onion, chilli & garlic: child’s play, providing you can buy the black beans. Our frijoles didn’t achieve the colour and consistency of Wahaca’s, at least not the first time round, but we did give them more of a kick. Re-fried the next day, after a night in the ‘fridge, the beany mush was even better, with smoother texture and deeper colour, which I roseated slightly with ketchup.
The second time round, I mixed some red kidney beans with the black beans, added paprika, Cayenne, and a dessert spoon of the chilli jam I made a couple of weeks ago. Next go round, I could take it another way, with garam masala in the base and coconut cream on the finish?
Back at Wahaca, star of the menu, so far, for me, has been the sweet potato & feta taquitos: deep-fried corn tortillas wrapped around the roasted tuber and tart cheese, served with shredded lettuce, crema, salsa fresca and Wahaca’s chipotle mayonnaise.
Before we leave, Lottie, a from Cardiff, begs, ‘please don’t make the mistake of forgetting to order something sweet for after your main! Chocolate or caramel churros are so delicious and moreish that you’ll amazingly find more room in your very full stomach to eat more.’ I neglected to do that and so – inexplicably – did my Glamourous Assistant. But we’ll be back!
Wahaca hasn’t yet brought to market a pose-able action figure of Tommi™, but it can only be a matter of time. There is, however, a book that allegedly contains ‘the much sought after secrets of our juicy pork pibil’, plus a range of three Wahaca-branded hot sauces, available via Sainsburys. Their fiery habanero salsa is wahicked and provides a model for my own experimental hot sauce. The label says it contains water, carrot, onion, apple cider vinegar, sugar, honey, habanero chilli, extra virgin olive oil, maize starch, garlic, red chilli, salt, garlic, spices (Cayenne, coriander, cumin), oregano, sunflower oil, white wine vinegar. ‘All of which are totally natural with no nasty preservatives anywhere in sight.’
My own diluted Scotch bonnet ‘n’ bell pepper puree underwent a primary fermentation in the bottle before I added some Tropical Fruit & Carrot juice, which prompted further fizzing. Now, it tastes like zingy, fermented fruit juice with a massive kick to it. Apart from the fermentation issue – which may be desirable? – my sauce is too thin. Its flavour is gob-smacking, but not in a good way. However, the sweet jam I’ve kept in the ‘fridge has possibilities. I’m thinking I could cook down diced onion and grated carrot with garlic, add the salt and spices, deglaze with cider vinegar, mix in the chilli jam, add a bit of water mixed with cornflour and blitz it?
Apparently, it took Tommi™ a year, ‘working tirelessly on the recipe with a specialist company’ to perfect her sauces – and it wasn’t merely a matter of commerce, oh no, but ‘a labour of love’ – so it may take me and my GA a minute to create our own elixir. I’ll let you know how it goes.