After winning the BBC's Masterchef in 2005 and travelling in Mexico, Thomasina Miers opened Mexican restaurant Wahaca in London's Covent Garden last month. Fiona Sims reports
You can get practically any cuisine in London these days - but authentic Mexican? Not so much. There's Hoxton's Green and Red, with its authentic, and delicious, Jalisco cooking from the boys behind Hawksmoor and the Marquess the cosy Crazy Homies in Westbourne Grove and now Wahaca - a huge, bright, buzzy basement restaurant in Covent Garden.
There's been much anticipation about Wahaca, mostly because it has been created by BBC Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers. The statuesque posh gal spent a year working in Mexico learning about the country's regional food before the competition, and has been back many times since, scribbling about her experiences in various newspapers and magazines, storing up ideas galore for her restaurant, which was two years in the making.
Fluent in Spanish - and now Mexican Spanish - Miers easily found her way around the market stalls and roadside kitchens that have inspired her menu in London. There's a board outside on the pavement that declares Wahaca's offering: Mexican street food.
It must be pushing the right buttons, because the place has been heaving since the day it opened in early August. The food is cheap: average spend here, with booze, is £15 a head. And there are no reservations at Wahaca customers happily queue for a table. "It was a bit of mess to start with, but we're getting better at handling it now," admits Miers.
Average queuing time, she reckons, is about 20 minutes - more at peak times on Friday and Saturday nights. And she is pulling them in. "We're seeing about 500 people a day. It's been like this since week two. We didn't expect that," she grimaces.
It would help if she had a sous chef to share the load (they're still looking) as Miers hurtles around her open kitchen, biting her lip, with just a six-strong brigade behind her.
Some dishes you might recognise: there are enchiladas and burritos, tacos and tostadas. Others are less familiar: pork pibil (£8), a classic dish from the Yucatan, marinated and braised for hours, then served with smoky black beans, green rice and pink pickled onions and there's a quesadilla stuffed with smoked aubergine, potatoes and goats' cheese - which doesn't sound very Mexican at all.
"Actually that's one of mine," she admits. "I love vegetables, and the Mexicans don't use many vegetables in their cooking. I think it's important to have the choice."
Most popular dish? "The burritos are flying. I didn't really want them on the menu, as they have such Tex-Mex associations, but they did actually originate from a northern state in Mexico, and they work."
If you're expecting a lot of fire in the food, then you will be disappointed. Chillies are used in moderation. "Lots of Mexican food just isn't that spicy," she explains. "The seafood dishes are, though, and when we have developed those dishes we will be putting them on the menu." At the moment there are just two fish dishes: a mackerel tostada (£3.25), served with chipotle slaw, guacamole and black beans and fish con salsa verde (£9) - "grilled, sustainable fish of the week with our fresh tomatillo sauce," reads the menu.
There's another reason why Miers has been a little slow on her fish uptake: "We're still working with the Marine Stewardship Council to source more fish. I could put prawns and tuna on and serve loads of it - they work so well with this cuisine - but the reality is, I want to stick to sustainable foods."
Er, isn't Mexico rather a long way to fly out ingredients? "I lost a lot of sleep over the whole Mexican idea before we opened. Was importing ingredients from Mexico such a good idea in this day and age? But I've managed to source a lot here.
"Our hot table sauce is made here from Devonshire-grown habanero chillies and UK-based Peppers by Post grows and supplies our dried chillies. I'm also talking to growers about planting stuff for me," she reveals.
Miers will change the menu every three months or so to take advantage of the seasons. One dish she has up her sleeve for this autumn is venison with a poblano mole. "I cooked it for a bunch of chef mates recently. They loved it," she says.
To drink? Not wine, certainly. I tried the Chilean rosé, one of 10 wines offered on the menu - it clashed horribly. I should have stuck to beer (four from Mexico) or a Tequila. Miers offers 13 different Tequilas and nine different Tequila-based cocktails.
What's on the menu
- Wahaca nuts, slow-roasted with garlic and chile de arbol, £1.75
- Chicken tinga tacos - shredded, marinated chicken with chipotle chillies, £3.25
- Flaked mackerel tostadas, with chipotle slaw, guacamole and black beans, £3.25
- Chicken tortilla soup - chicken, avocado, toasted pasilla chilli, crumbled cheese, sour cream and totopos in lightly spiced tomato broth, £5.80
- Chargrilled skirt steak tacos with crumbled cheese and salsa, £4
- Green rice - brown rice blitzed with coriander, onion and garlic, £2
- Frijoles - rich, creamy black beans cooked twice for flavour with crumbled cheese, £2
- Sweet corn on the cob with chilli, lime and crème fraîche, £2.75
- Slow-cooked pork burritos with pink pickled onions and salsa cruda, £5.75
- Churros y chocolate - Mexican doughnuts with a rich chocolate sauce, £3.40
- Vanilla ice-cream with caramel cajeta sauce and toasted pumpkin seeds, £3.40
Wahaca, 66 Chandos Place, London WC2N 4HG. Tel: 020 7240 1883. Website: www.wahaca.co.uk