When Wahaca opened in 2007 in Chandos Place, Covent Garden, I was thrilled. Finally Mexican food was available as something more than gluttonous fajitas and oversized plates of nachos. And it was good, very good in fact: fresh ingredients, ethical sourcing, interesting combinations of flavour & texture, kick-ass frozen margaritas. I completely credit founder Thomasina Miers for inciting a market for ripe avocados in Britain. But then, as with so many great affordable restaurants, something intrinsic shifts as it expands. More and more branches open, and with them, originality and finesse are diluted in the process. It becomes more about selling a brand, a veritable conveyor belt of average-ness.
In a refurbishment that is desperately trying to be ‘edgy’, their latest London branch is now in Brixton on the site of the former squatters’ paradise that was Brady’s Pub. It opened with murmurings of controversy regarding its status as a chain restaurant setting up shop in Brixton, seemingly jumping on the foodie nomenclature with which our neighbourhood is now associated. A dark, rainy Tuesday evening saw several tables filled with diners, but we didn’t have to wait long until we were seated, and a pleasant waitress had brought drinks, crunchy tortilla chips and under-seasoned guacamole. Bottles of Wacaha’s special chipotle sauces sat on each table to add additional, what? Spice? Flavour?
If you’ve never eaten at a Wahaca, suffice to say it is a majority of small plates made up of tacos, quesadillas and the like, with larger plates for burritos, meat dishes, and salads. The food comes as and when, and is ideal for sharing. We ordered chipotle chicken quesadillas, fish tacos, confit duck taquitos, frijoles (black beans), and plantain tacos, the latter clearly Brixton-inspired.
The chipotle chicken quesadilla was a confusion of chicken and cheese; the slightly sweet but essentially bland chipotle was heavy on tomato and light on the smoked chilli. The tasteless “panko-crumbed” fish tacos were drowned in chipotle mayonnaise, creating a sort of Baja-inspired waste of time. Confit duck was rolled in blue corn tortillas and served with coloradito mole, fancy sounding words for what is basically enchilada sauce. The duck lacked any of that glorious silky sinew confit offers, and while I liked the idea of using blue corn tortillas, the taquito filling had what I imagine to be the texture of cat food and tasted roughly of nothing.
The two decent things we ordered were the plantain taco and frijoles. Earthy black beans, twice cooked, rendered the frijoles creamy, the taste of bay lingering in the background. Served with cheese and sour cream, they made everything else taste better. The plantain taco was also rather good. Tangy plantain was served slightly crispy with more frijoles, feta cheese, sour cream and chipotle in adobo sauce. This time, the chipotle was a decent match for its compadres.
In their Brixton invasion, Wahaca paid local artists and designers to design the interiors and exteriors. They went local with Brixton Brewery for their house beer. They have provided jobs in the community. The company as a whole is still deeply concerned with sustainability. All of these things are genuine positives. But this isn’t about the food at Wahaca in Brixton, this is about the food at Wahaca in general. When it has become so decidedly mediocre, what really is the point?
Dinner for two, including drinks and service £60
Lindsay blogs at blondevsbland.com