LONDON (Reuters Life!) - After decades in a culinary desert of Tex-Mex eateries with plastic cacti and dreadful cheese-drenched nachos, Wahaca is leading a wave of modern restaurants bringing the authentic flavors of Mexico to London.
The British capital has been transformed from a land of pie and eels shops into a global food lovers’ paradise over the last few decades by dozens of nationalities making it their home.
But few Mexicans have settled in Britain and their culinary riches have remained largely unknown until former Tommi Miers and business partner Mark Selby opened the first branch of Wahaca in 2007 after falling in love with Mexican food while traveling.
“Mexican food is so badly depicted in the UK. There are so many more interesting things to offer,” Selby told Reuters in an interview at the company’s third restaurant which opened in Canary Wharf in November.
“I really wanted to do proper Mexican food ... it can be fresh, it can be wonderful, the flavors can be brilliant.”
Miers and Selby traveled around Mexico in the late 1990s, with Miers returning to cook her way around its food hotspots for over a year, collecting recipes as she went.
On her return, she won British TV cookery contest show Masterchef in 2005 with a Mexican dish and the two opened the first Wahaca (phonetic pronunciation of Mexican state Oaxaca) in a basement in trendy Covent Garden two years later.
That branch now serves around 5,500-6,000 people a week, with queues often stretching up the stairs and down the street. The company is now looking to open a fourth branch soon.
“We love the idea of what Oaxaca state stands for. It’s a culinary center, it’s a cultural center, it’s got this wonderful feeling about it,” Selby said as the waiting staff buzzed around the gleaming Canary Wharf branch preparing for the long queue of bankers that soon gathered at the door.
“Everything about Wahaca is that we are inspired by Mexico but we are not just copying it. We never say we are authentic. But the style, the tacos, the flavor of the markets, the speed of the food, that’s what inspired us,” he said.
Many Mexican restaurants in Britain claiming to be “authentic” are anything but, serving up a movie-set parody of Mexico, complete with sombreros, ponchos and garish neon beer signs to crowds looking for a place to party.
Wahaca and a few other eateries in the capital, like Mexican-run restaurants Mestizo and Taqueria, are fighting back. Trying to bring real flavors from south of the Rio Grande out from under the Tex-Mex shadow.
Only dishes actually from Mexico make it onto the menu, and Tex-Mex favorite Burritos only got on there once the two had traced its origins to Baja, California.
Wahaca’s Pork Pibil is as good as any Cochinita Pibil you’ll find on the Yucatan Peninsula — the home of the slow-roasted meat dish — while the Chicken Tinga tacos match anything you can scoff in a Mexico City taqueria.
All can be drenched in sauce made for Wahaca from chillies grown in southwest England — ranging from the devilishly hot bottle of habanero sauce on your table, a crucial accompaniment to Pibil, to the green and red sauces in small bowls for those looking for a more moderate tingle to their tacos.
Wash it down with a fire-taming glass of Horchata, an almond and rice based drink with a hint of cinnamon, or a variety of tequilas and Mexican beers.
Although the flavors are distinctly Mexican, most of the ingredients are sourced locally.
Edible cactus leaves, green tomatoes and uniquely Mexican delicacy called “Huitlacoche” are currently imported from Mexico. But the company is trying to persuade European farmers to supply them to cut its carbon footprint.
The Huitlacoche taquitos are another highlight of the constantly changing menu. The corn fungus is expensive even in Mexico, but could be harvested anywhere.
“Tommi has spoken to loads of UK farmers, because it is in all corn on the husk, but they all just strip it off ad throw it away,” Selby said.
“It’s one of our biggest sellers.”
Many traditional dishes are fixtures on the menu already, including chicken enchiladas smothered in a chocolate-tinged Oaxacan chilli sauce and the classic tomato-sauce covered enchiladas that one Mexican diner proclaimed among the best she had ever had.
Wahaca plans to add a new monthly special dish from February, with the biggest hits becoming permanent fixtures on the menu.
But fans of “Al Pastor” — a pineapple and coriander topped marinated pork version of the lamb kebab introduced to the Mexican capital by Lebanese immigrants — will have to salivate patiently until summer for Wahaca’s take on the tacos that have become an obsession among residents of Mexico City.
“We have played around with how we would cook it and it is delicious and hopefully when we do the taco stand down here in summer,” Selby said, glancing down at the grassy square lying between the new branch and many of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers.
Perhaps the Canary Wharf owners could replace the ice rink currently filling the square with a beach to eat them on? Hammocks would be good, too.
Reporting by Daniel Fineren