Wahaca is the brainchild of Thomasina Miers, winner of TV's MasterChef 2005. Ms Miers is a woman with her heart embedded in the Sierra Madre, and her taste-buds tinglingly attuned to Mexican food. The front window of Wahaca boasts the words "MEXICAN MARKET EATING" in mile-high letters, above picturesque sacks of dried chillies.
Downstairs, in the airy main eating area, brightly lit with panels of green and blue glass, a mocked-up grocer's window shows off jars and tin drums of "Mexican" produce, while through a mesh screen you can see the lemons and hot bonnet peppers that will feature in tonight's supper. Cop this, the restaurant seems to say, could this be more authentic?
Only, as we discover, it's far from a genuine flavour of Mexico. As a breathlessly written booklet called Ola London! explains, "Whilst it's easy ... to ship Mexican products into the UK, we believe in making the effort to find ... suppliers closer to home." So Ms Miers and her team use Lancashire cheese instead of queso fresco, chillies from Devon and beef from Hereford, and everything is scrupulously "sourced" from sustainable fisheries and free-range piggeries. If only it made the food better.
You can't book at Wahaca, but queueing is no hardship: the staff are friendly and helpful as they explain the menu. You start with beers and guacamole nibbles and choose some "street food", which means little china trays of three tacos (or two tostadas, two quesadillas or two taquitos) featuring pork, chicken, steak or fish. You can also order soup or salads, and "platos fuertes" which aren't so much main courses, as larger versions of what was on your tostado.
While the menu seems to promise a crazy prodigality of mad flavours, "smoky" beans, incendiary salsas, tender this and succulent that, served in melt-in-the-mouth envelopes of corn or flour, probably to the accompaniment of a gun-toting, eye-rolling mariachi band, the reality is a little different. There are basically six food items available here, served up in minimally different ways: marinated chicken, char-grilled steak, slow-cooked pork, grilled fish, vegetables and beans. That's it.
We munched down the guacamole with pork scratchings, which were feather-light, glazed like costume jewellery and delicious. The "street food" chorizo'*'potato quesadillas, however, were greasy, and short on chorizo, the "chicken tinga" tacos were boringly flavourless, and the "smoky aubergine, potato and goat's cheese", served in two long deep-fried cigar tortillas, lacked any hint of cheese, or aubergine, smoky or otherwise. Two salsas are on offer, a red chipotle and green salsa verde; they're nicely piquant (rather than explosive, which is how they were described on the menu), but the suspicion dawns on you that, without them, your meal wouldn't taste of anything at all.
"I don't want to be vulgar," my companion said, "but this is perfect period food. Cheese, potato, starch, red meat – it's got everything." I can't personally verify this, and having never been to Mexico I can't verify this isn't how street lunch really tastes. But I can't believe the locals would regard such bland, defeated, tasteless stuff as a must-have snack unless they were starving to death.
Our platos fuertes were similarly uninspired. My char-grilled steak was a loose-textured onglet fillet, smeared with more red salsa and a truly horrible yoghurt of puréed black beans. My date had pork pibil, which was shredded to a million teeny fibres, doused in some tomato marinade and served with beans and rice. Something off-puttingly acidic lurked beneath it, possibly citric, but unquestionably wrong.
"It's good food, and it's cheap," she said, "and if you were given it in Mexico you'd be very happy." I growled that I was spending £50 for rubbish in Covent Garden, but was cheered up by the pudding of churros y chocolate, those finger doughnuts dunked in choc sauce, that count as breakfast in southern Spain. The lemon margarita sorbet (offered, for some reason, with blue and red plastic baby spoons) was fine, but had no "hint of tequila" as promised by the menu.
The tequila was, I suspect, only a gesture, and that's what's wrong with this place. It's gesture cuisine, pretending to be hot, edgy, sexy, smoky, street-cred Mexican, but turning out food that's far too cautious about upsetting gringo appetites. If it's to get anywhere, Ms Miers needs to deal in some proper Mexican ingredients, no matter how un-PC their "source", and the kitchen needs a habanero chilli up its collective fundament.
Wahaca, 66 Chandos Place, London WC2 (020-7240 1883)
Around £54 for two with drinksReuse content