When people ask me what I miss from living in the USA, my answer is always Mexican food. It’s a bit of an obnoxious reply, as generally Americans ask this question expecting that I might miss something actually originating from the US. I don’t especially miss crappy chocolate or diner food, although if I’m being honest, I do sometimes crave biscuits and gravy. But it is Mexican food that is the big loss, and I don’t mean it as an insult because I think of Mexican food as more than just an import. It’s a crucial part of the North American culinary landscape, whether in Susan Feniger and Rick Bayless’s fantastic restaurants in Los Angeles and Chicago or in the more everyday influence of Mexican immigration to the farmlands of Iowa. I miss going to the farmer’s market to buy tomatillos and poblanos. I miss the local bodega that sells fresh corn tortillas and nopales by the pound. And oh how I miss hot, greasy carne asada quesadillas for lunch, eaten on the hoof, with the promise of carnitas with crunchy pig ear on Sunday.
The UK doesn’t have a lot of Mexican immigrants and so very few of these ingredients or flavours have seeped into the culture here. There’s no range of dried chilies in the stores, and while you can buy tomatillos in London’s Borough Market, paying £7 for a tiny bag might make you weep. Britain can also seem stuck in a racist vision of Mexico that wouldn’t fly at all if aimed at South Asian cultures – Southern Rail has a shockingly offensive campaign featuring a stupid Mexican who speaks pigeon English and a local taqueria actually has a sign of a “lazy” Mexican sleeping under a cactus!
But recently, things have started to change. The Cool Chile Co. makes fresh tortillas daily and ships them to your door, along with masa harina, spices, and of course chilies. I used some of their ingredients to make my traditional Christmas mole this year and the knowledge that proper tortillas are just a day away by first class post is highly reassuring. And the success of Wahaca, Thomasina Miers’s Mexican street food restaurant in London has spawned a rash of new, ‘authentic’ Mexican eateries, such as the excellent Lupita, which focuses on Mexico City food.
It’s something of a sign that Miers felt the need to spell Oaxaca phonetically, so unfamiliar was this mecca of Mexican cuisine to the demographic she was aiming for, but her food – like the chorizo quesadilla with pickled vegetables above – has won over the crowds. When I first visited, every single table was eating burritos. I ordered the cochinita pibil (pork braised in achiote) and soon had enquiries from my neighbours (the tables are closely packed) about my vibrant dish. Now the place is always jumping, and the Mexican market small plates are the draw.
So when our good friend (and brilliant photographer) J visited from Stockholm this week, we took him to Wahaca. We began with a refreshing hibiscus flower mojito, a delicious combination of sweet and sour. We followed cocktails with a spread of small plates: a highlight was the pork pibil taco, garnished with traditional pickled pink onions, which is the image at the top of the post. Another standout was the smoked mackerel taco, with the lightness of a ceviche, balanced by the punchy flavour of mackerel. This was a new dish, and a real winner.
We also went traditional with guacamole and pork scratchings, entertainingly billed as a ‘healthier’ option. Admittedly, the pork skin was baked rather than fried, but still, let’s face it, there’s not much healthy about pork skins dipped in avocado. Delicious, yes. Healthy, not so much.
The cabbage taquitos with pasilla sauce were also new to the menu (yes, I come here quite often, what of it?) and while the vegetables got a little lost in the deep frying, the robust pasilla flavour nicely cut the richness of crispy tortilla and soft crema.
Wahaca is clearly a very successful restaurant on its own merits, but for me the real story is the slow but discernible growth of a Mexican presence on the London food scene. Having the choice of more than one Mexican place you can take an out-of-town guest to as representative of what’s great about London eating is a pretty good position to be in. Now, if I could just arrange for someone to sell those pig’s ear carnitas in Brighton…