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16 minutes in a Mexican Market

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I’ve just come back from lunch at Wahaca a place serving “Mexican market food” just south of the Covent Garden Piazza and I have a problem. The food was great, the bill was a very reasonable £14 but the entire experience took 16 minutes.

Here’s my difficulty. I’m English and, last time I looked, male. This means that I am genetically programmed to act a certain way in the presence of highly spiced food with a rice or bean base. I don’t know why. I keep trying but no matter how many stars a Chinese, Thai, Indian or Mexican restaurant effects, no matter how much they are aiming to ‘change the way people look at XXXX cuisine’ the minute the first bite passes over my gums I go into a feeding frenzy.

If I was one of those mad-eyed NLP guru’s I’d believe that the highly characteristic spiciness was a trigger for the memory of an entire life’s worth of lager-lubricated Ruby blowouts. If I applied a bit of food science I could postulate that the combination of appetising spicing with designed-to-fill peasant ingredients was a sure specific for overeating.

Whatever the cause, I simply can’t push my chair back until food spray covers my shirt and the tablecloth and the final mouthful is pressing upwards against my glottis with worrying urgency.

OK, I have no self control.

The second part of my problem comes with the design of the restaurant ‘concept’. I now live in terror of the waiter who asks “Have you eaten at XXXX before?” because I know I will say no, and I know that there will follow a detailed description of why the food will not arrive to my convenience but to that of the kitchen, the floor staff and the business model. They often dignify this with the get-out clause “… you know…. like tapas!” to which I always want to reply “…you know…like battery hens!”

Keep these facts in mind.

I walked down into Wahaca and was genuinely impressed by the interior. An enormous amount of money and design effort has been spent on a fantastic, purpose-built, mass catering room. There’s an expensive open kitchen, and, most costly of all, a battalion of helpful, attentive English speaking staff. As it’s now imperative for a restaurant to have some kind of caring ‘mission statement’ it was declared all over the walls that the food was prepared from fresh English ingredients wherever possible.

The overwhelming impression was of a job terrifically well done. (Which oddly, and as an aside, raised my third problem. The much touted head of this operation is Thomasina Myers, who won Masterchef in 2005 and apparently became interested in ‘market food’ while travelling in Mexico. If only out of bitter jealousy, I’d love to know who stumped up the millions this must have cost on the basis of the gap year observations of an amateur chef . The story is terrific PR but, please God, there has to be more to it than that.)

I ordered pibil pork tacos, a black bean quesadilla and a Sonora salad. The pork was a pulled chipotle-y barbecue like mound of juicy shreds on a puddle of beans and a thick, firm corn taco. Admittedly I’d missed breakfast and sat through a two hour meeting with an editor but this probably one of the nicest things I’ve eaten in months.

I have some history in Mexican restaurants. My first job in London was as a KP at a place we called Break For The Bathroom. I remember unloading giant sacks of precooked ‘Meximeat ’ into vats and grating lumps of EC cheese-mountain plastic cheddar into buckets to make ‘Monterey Jack’. I know how many ways a quesadilla can be bad and believe me, this wasn’t. It was light, neither overcheesed nor beaned, creatively seasoned and at a temperature that avoided both congealment and palate immolation.

The salad, though delightful, was served in a bloated monstrosity that looked and tasted like a deep-fried coffee filter. It was the only disappointment… the sort of cheap Tex Mex gimmick that should have died with leg warmers.

The meal was brilliant: I sat, all the way through it thinking… “This tastes fantastic, I want to bring all my friends here to taste it too. I want to tell everybody to taste this fantastic food”. And then I realised that 16 minutes had passed, my stomach was groaning, the bill was on the way and that nothing would ever change.

If food this good was ever served in a market in Oahaca, it should probably stay there. Though this place produces stuff that tastes so good it could potentially change the way we think about Mexican food, it reinforces every stereotype by making it fast. Serving it ‘tapas-style’ and ‘canteen-style’ just forces us to experience it as fast, throwaway food.

How could I take anyone to Wahaca unless it was for some awful, intra-meeting refuelling stop - So we could snork down a plateful of Meximeat while lying about the sales figure for the North East region before hurtling back to the office for an afternoon of dispeptic lying and bilious recrimination. The only way I could take friends out to Wahaca would be to make an evening of it… to go out mob-handed, spend six hours in a vertical drinking hutch throwing cheap beer down our necks then barrel in, reeking and howling, and spend the last half hour before closing demanding tacos and tequila.

The food at Wahaca is great, I just can’t work out how to eat it.

Tim Hayward

"Anyone who wants to write about food would do well to stay away from

similes and metaphors, because if you're not careful, expressions like

'light as a feather' make their way into your sentences and then where are you?"

Nora Ephron

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The only way I could take friends out to Wahaca would be to make an evening of it… to go out mob-handed, spend six hours in a vertical drinking hutch throwing cheap beer down our necks then barrel in, reeking and howling, and spend the last half hour before closing demanding tacos and tequila.

Sounds like my perfect evening.

Thanks for the review, Tim - very entertaining and it's got my interest up. I've been told that London can't do Mexican food - maybe that's about to change.

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I am genetically programmed to act a certain way in the presence of highly spiced food [...] I simply can’t push my chair back until food spray covers my shirt and the tablecloth and the final mouthful is pressing upwards against my glottis with worrying urgency.

perhaps they should lubricate the burritos with a mild anaesthetic, to reduce the level of sensation and help prolong the pleasurable experience.


I go to bakeries, all day long.

There's a lack of sweetness in my life...

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  • 2 months later...

I wasn't as impressed, but its good very healthy food, it just all seems a little souless, the below is my review written for my blog in January:

Like every other review I will start by boring you with the spelling debate, apparently it is meant to be Oaxaca, a place in Mexico famous for market food, but its been spelled phonetically. So what really. Its well known that people won't go to a restaurant they can't say the name of so who can blame them. (Actually I have no stats to back that assertion up, but it makes sense to me, and is a common observation in the wine trade). The second obligatory thing to mention is that Thomasina Miers is a winner of Masterchef and then did a TV programme about wild food. So now we all know.

As it serves all day I went here for a solo late lunch as its near where I work and I wanted to give it a go. Unfortunately, despite being open all day, the staff are decidedly inattentive outside normal hours and getting served was a bit of a mission. The restaurant is in a basement but despite that there is plenty of light. The décor is very bright and music very upbeat, others have told me this works well in the evening and I'm sure that's right but it was a bit full on at lunch.

Everyone gets two bowls of salsa to pep their meals up and these prove to be necessary. The salsa verde lacked the promised punch, it was fine, but when its described on the menu as fiery you expect it to deliver a little more than it did. The red salsa had a bit more of a kick two it, and both were clearly made with good ingredients. I had Frijoles Tostadas and Skirt Steak Taco with a chippotle sauce with a green salad. The food arrives when it is ready and I had quite a delay between each dish, but when they did arrive everything was very fresh.

The tacos were clearly home made and had a good doughy taste but were a little on the small side. Nonetheless it was clear that some effort had gone into them. The food is simple but the skirt steak had a good flavour, and was not chewy as I had expected. The sauce was a little indistinctive and was another item that lacked a kick despite the expectations. There is however chilli sauce on the table, but I don't see why all the food had to be quite so bland to start with. It seems to be obligatory to mention that the chilli sauce comes from Devon, all very eco-friendly and the taste doesn't suffer.

The fried tortillas for the tostadas were very crisp and not at all greasy. In fact they must have been about the cleanest tasting deep fried thing I've ever had, making them a little dull and characterless. The 'frijoles' mix of beans was good however, there was a real depth of flavour that reminded me of a good dark dahl. This was about the best thing I had at Wahaca. However, it was topped with a very small amount of cheddar cheese, in keeping with the local sourcing. All very well but cheddar doesn't really melt right and using the wrong cheese, albeit for arguably sound reasons, spoiled the dish a little. It reminded me of being a student and putting cheddar on any dish (pasta, gratin...) because it was cheap and readily available.

The green salad was all present and correct with a nice dressing, but was the only dish that seemed a little steeply priced, especially compared to the others. Portions here are small but prices are low, and the £20 platter for two looks like a particularly noteworthy bargain.

The problem here is the food is not very fatty. Its an odd complaint but it all just tastes a bit too healthy and lacks heart. Its not really authentic market food which is greasy and filling. I have been to Mexico and like Mexican food and even the much maligned Tex-Mex. But, a few truly great dishes aside, it is simple filling stuff. I wish there were more good examples in London, but here it hasn't really benefited from the attempt to make it healthy or make out its something its not.

There are lots of ethical policies on the menu here, bits of cod-philosphy which I have obliterated from my mind, explanations of the policy on local sourcing, Belu water etc. Its all very right on, and probably a good thing but here it all feels a bit too rammed down your throat and a little forced.

Echoing the initial difficulties in ordering, at the end of my meal it was almost impossible to get the bill in a virtually empty restaurant. There was no shortage of staff to back up their claims of all day dining, but mid-afternoon they simply seemed more interested in chatting to each other than dealing with customers.

This place has been damned by faint praise by many, and in a way I am doing the same. I guess people were expecting more of Ms Miers. But the food is fresh and cheap, and there seems to be a consensus that there is a much better atmosphere in the evenings. With that in mind, I'd probably go back with a group and share lots of the bargain platters and explore the interesting looking tequila menu. All in all then it is a useful addition to Covent Garden but in no way a 'must visit' restaurant.

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