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Wahaca Mexican Restaurant (Covent Garden, London)
Member Name: fizzywizzy
Wahaca Mexican Restaurant (Covent Garden, London)
Advantages: Delicious food; seasonal ingredients; my margarita; nice staff
Disadvantages: Tables close together
I was a little sceptical when I learned that there are now a few branches of Wahaca, especially when I found out that some of them are in glorified shopping centres (I despise these places with a passion). However, I've always admired in Thomasina her passion for good fresh, seasonal ingredients and an almost unrivalled knowledge - at least in the UK - of Mexican cooking and its key ingredients so I was willing to keep an open mind.
We visited the branch on Chandos Place at Covent Garden, arriving just after the opening time of noon on a January Sunday. There's no reservations system which I think is great as we had only decided on Wahaca two days earlier and might well have been disappointed had we had to book if the busy-ness of the restaurant on the day of our visit is anything to go by. The entrance is on street level but the restaurant itself is one floor down. It's a big place but the space is broken quite nicely so it doesn't feel too vast and impersonal. The tables are on different levels too which also helps create a more friendly atmosphere and prevents the place looking like a giant works canteen.
The furniture is simple; a mixture of plain wooden tables and some wooden chairs, as well as stone benches with inlaid cushions. Our table was wobbly but we hardly noticed such was our delight with the food.
We were greeted by the Wahaca equivalent of the maitre'd who asked us to wait a couple of minutes then led us to a table. The kitchen is semi open and you can see the chefs placing food at the pass above which are several screens; I presume that each screen was a diagram of an area of the restaurant, covered by one waiter or waitress and the diagram could show where there were free tables. By checking the screens before seating new diners, the 'modern maitre d'' could be sure to be spreading diners around fairly among the waiters. The staff are all youthful (but not really young, old enough to have waiting experience and common sense), enthusiastic and really friendly. Our waiter asked if we'd been to Wahaca before then quickly outlined how to choose from the menu. We'd decided we wanted to try as much as possible so choose only from the smaller dishes; 2-3 dishes per person are recommended and all the dishes are perfect for sharing so it's easy to try a bit of everything without having to carve things up. The tapas style dishes are priced around £3.60 to £3.95.
We ordered chips and salsa to nibble while we perused the menu. The big tortilla chips were freshly made and very, very good. The tomato salsa looked brilliantly colourful and tasted fresh and zingy with a decent kick. The presentation was excellent: the chips were served in a small metal bucket while the coriander flecked salsa was served in a small stone bowl.
Our drinks came with the chips and salsa. Himself ordered a Pacifico Clara, a Mexican beer that we've had before and that is becoming more common in the UK, and I ordered a tamarind margarita. My cocktail was excellent. The sweet tamarind was not lost among the tequila and lime but neither did it spoil the kick a good margarita should have. The glass had been given a chilli and sugar rim and this was very fiery making the drink a real winner for me. Water was offered and we could choose between bottled or tap water.
In a Countdown style we chose two from the first section and three other dishes. They do offer a set selection of five dishes for £19.95 but they are interchangeable so we made our own selection. The food was brought as it was ready which meant that none of our food had a chance to get cold. First up were the tacos; we'd ordered two kinds, one with pork pibil and pickled red onions, the other with savoy cabbage and borlotti beans and sprinkled with a crumbly white cheese. Both were excellent and each dish comprised three soft corn tortillas. The pork was slow cooked and shredded, dripping with paprika tinted oil which I managed to get all over my chin. The strips of pickled red onion, now a lovely shade of pink were wonderful: in the pickling the onion had lost its harshness but still had plenty of flavour. The other taco was a seasonal variation; I was unsure about the use of savoy cabbage in this dish but decided to try it anyway out of curiosity: it was certainly worth it. It had been stewed so that it was soft but still had some texture and the creamy borlotti beans were fabulous. The crumbled cheese over the top was a good contrast for the beans and cabbage, giving a sharp element to the dish.
Next up were the cheese and black bean quesadillas. A quesadilla is a sandwich of two tortillas with a filling, in this case cheese and frijoles or refried beans. While this was tasty enough I would have liked it a bit hotter. The quesadillas were good but not great.
Our final two choices arrived at the same time. There were two chicken filled tacquitos served with a lively tomato salsa and Mexican 'crema', and two colourful herring tostadas. The taquitos were rolled into a narrow cigar shape and broke with a satisfying crunch. I really liked this one but Himself found it a bit dry. The taquitos were served with crisp shredded lettuce and sprinkled with grated Lancashire cheese. I do think the use of British ingredients in the dishes at Wahaca is great, proving that you don't necessarily need to traipase around sourcing authentic ingredients to make really good Mexican food at home.
A tostada is a dry fried tortilla and these ones were perfectly crisp as a tostada should be. They were topped with shredded lettuce and then the smoked herring mixture in which the fish had been mixed with a red salsa. With the addition of a quick squeeze of lime these were really delicious.
There are two Wahaca branded sauces available on the table and if you feel inclined you can buy your own to take away with you (I overheard a waiter tell someone that they are both priced at £4.00). I didn't much feel the need to add extra sauces to my plates but Himself is a chilli fiend and can't see a chilli sauce without trying it and added copious amounts to several of his plates. As it happens neither sauce was outrageously hot but both we very flavoursome.
The waiter made one checkback during the meal but I noticed that all of the waiting staff were alert to the needs of customers. There was minimal chatting among the staff and the emphasis was very much on good service. Our plates were cleared regularly as we finished each dish which was appreciated as the tables are not large.
I couldn't come away without trying a pudding and there were several I really fancied. In the end I plumped for the dulce de leche ice cream which is a salted caramel ice cream (dulce de leche is similar to what you get when you boil a tin of condensed milk when making a banoffee pie). It was served with generous shaving of bitter Valrhona chocolate. It was a nice touch that when it came it was with two spoons. (I really wanted to take home one of these cute and chunky little Wahaca branded orange plastic spoons!) This was among the best ice cream I've ever eaten; full of deep caramel flavour but also just salty enough to give it a grown up edge. When the waiter asked if we'd enjoyed it I asked if I could get some more to take home.
I can say very little to criticise Wahaca. If I was going to complain it would be that the tables are quite close together and warn that if you're going on a weekend lunch time you're very likely to find the place rammed with kids. (The positive spin is that of the two families that we seated beside us while we were there, the American one was wonderful entertainment. "Can you say guacamole, Alxander? Can you say oesophagus, Alexander?" "No to both, I'm two years old at the very most") For those people who do want to spoil the experience for others and flaunt their fertility, you might be interested to know that while Wahaca don't do dishes specifically for children, there are a few dishes they are happy to make less spicy if your offspring prefers that. Although Alexander is not yet able to express it verbally, he did appear to enjoy his chicken.
The bill for all those lovely food, a cocktail and a beer came to £35 which we thought was more than reasonable, more so considering our location. Even a baguette in a London pub can be pricy so getting such great food for what we paid is really quite a bargain.
If it wasn't for the fact that London is full of great restaurants to try I'd go back to Wahaca like a shot. Please Thomasina, open one somewhere in northern England!
Summary: Superb Mexican streetfood at affordable prices in central London