Monday, July 27, 2009

Wahaca: Not just an awkward phonetic spelling of "Oaxaca" anymore.

the sleek interior at Westfield Mall

When I heard about the new Mexican place in (London) town last year, I was skeptical. It's fair to say I've become callaced and embittered by the pitiful selection of "Mexican" food locales on the London culinary scene -- and it's not because I haven't tried to see the good in it.

* * *
Me Trying to "See The Good"

Maybe it was pyschological - a toxic combination of my Mexican blood and ridiculously (ludric
ously) high expectations and hopes - and maybe it was legitimately bad food (it was definitely bad tasting), but the first time we ate at La Perla on London's infamous Charlotte Street, Matt and I were both sick to our stomachs. And after years of indulging in shady but delicious street food everywhere I travel, let me tell you, I have a stomach of steel.

that we made our way to Crazy Homies near Notting Hill (think Nacho Libre minus Jack Black): quirky, full of holy santos, and just a little too weird to be realistically Mexican. The food is fine, and they make this crazy version of a Tequiza that is hotter than hell - I am, of course, a big fan of hotter than hell things, so that works for me. :) Oh, and the churros rock. But sadly, Crazy Homies is a little out of the way for me and not so decadently delicious that I would make that trip with an infant.

Taqueria, which bills itself as a "taco cafe" and is also in Notting Hill, is the closest thing to authentic I'd found in London. They house the only tortilla making machine in the UK (sadly the corn tortillas are like cardboard - something is definitely off in the masa), and make delicious salsas, guacamole, and carnitas. But the place is a little disorganized and doesn't take reservations (maybe this aspect should also count in their favor with regards to Mexican authenticity :/ ), which means you end up having to wait too long for food and it comes at random times. Shame.

Back to the point, after all the disappointments: when I heard about "Wahaca" I was annoyed and skeptical. First, annoyed that it was called "Wahaca" and spelled "Wahaca" instead of "Oaxaca."
Second, that it was run by a British chef. It seemed like my two worst nightmares: bad spelling and bad food. But good old Olive voted it "best cheap eat in London" and it looked kinda cool in a "super-spruced-up-market-taco-stand-in-El D.F." kinda way, so we went. Again. And Again.

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Me Seeing (& Tasting) "The Good(s)"
The Top 5 Reasons I Love Wahaca

and therefore forgive the kinda lame tongue in cheek phonetic spelling

5. Good Story
So, my preemptive discrimination against the British chef is something I regret. Turns out Thomasina Miers won the BBC's MasterChef in 2005 and legitimately spent time in Mexico.
Wahaca is her first restaurant ever and she must be proud - the first week they were open, so many people came they actually ran out of avocados. (I love that story. :) )

(Good) Location, Location, Location
The first Wahaca was opened near Covent Garden - one of the craziest, most touristy, but fun
parts of town. The second location at Westfield Mall has a more sophisticated feel with an open-air patio on the mall's Southern Terrace.

Surprisingly the full-to-the-brim restaurants have a relaxed vibe; they are tastefully decorated with heavy stone and Mexican beer bottles, and are full of tourists AND locals. You know it's good when the line is out the door. And it always is.

3. Good ingredients.

The other good thing about Thomasina is the way she takes Mexican food and makes it her own. The dishes you get at Wahaca look pretty authentic, but you may notice a slight difference once you actually taste them: they are made mostly with locally sourced ingredients. That's right - British habanero peppers from Devon,British avocadoes, and locally made cheeses rather than imported ones. I still like my Mexican cheeses better - and no, Monterrey Jack is NOT a Mexican cheese - but Thomasina's choices are pretty darn close. :)

2. Good Price
Amazingly enough, of all the sheisty Mexican places I've tried in London - this is by far the best and LEAST expensive. A gigantic bowl of delicious (though a little too thick) tortilla soup with actual roasted chiles and delicious tortilla strips will only set you back around GBP7.00. The plates o
f 3 mini tacos are under 4 quid. Hey, I'm there.

1. Good (Corn) Tortillas
I judge all Mexican restaurants - especially outside of Mexico, Texas and California - by the taste and quality of their flour and corn tortillas and how they use them. It drives me NUTS to see enchiladas made with flour tortillas or to pick up a taco and have everything fall out from underneath because the corn tortillas are like cardboard. Wahaca has very good tortillas and even serves the little ones you get in the market or at taco stands in Mexico. My only complaint is that when you order extras they come spread out on a plate rather than wrapped in a towel to conserve their hea
t and pliancy. Well, I guess it is still the UK after all.

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The last cool thing about Wahaca

If you're observant you'll notice what appear to be little blue packets of matches at the entrance to the restaurant. I always take matches - for the hell of it - but on this occasion I was particularly glad I had.

Look a little closer and you'll see that far from mini fire tools, what Wahaca gives out are far fire-ier and tastier: serrano chile seeds with planting instructions! Grow your own chiles! How cool is that?!

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  1. I'm glad you've found something remotely Mexicanish in the land of the Englanders. I miss you guys and I hope you had fun in Brussels. I was kind of expecting a post about your escapades... Soon I'm sure.
    Keep eating yumminess.

  2. This must be a huge relief to get some "close to home" cooking in a place not known for this sort of food. Is this going to be a weekly pilgrimage to get your "fix"

  3. I couldn't resist writing in to say thank is always so lovely getting good feedback on wahaca and yours was really glowing. wahaca the spelling annoys everyone but our food is not from oaxaca, just inspired by the food markets and street food stands tenuous a link it annoys everyone! But so pleased you like the thrilled, tommi xx

  4. Congratulations on finding good Mexican food in London! I have had no such luck myself, trying to find my heritage cuisine (Filipino) in Minneapolis/St. Paul (sigh). Honestly, I wasn't sure how this tale of tacos and tortillas might end given your past experiences but it's great that it was a surprise on the upside!

    I'm going to checkout the matchbooks at restaurants - what cool treats might I have missed?