Mexican food, but not as you know it
I’ve never been a fan of Mexican food, although my experience has mainly been the Tex Mex chain style experiences that the likes of Chiquito offers; where every dish has the same low quality ingredients and are just folded in a slightly different way and given a different name that I struggle to pronounce. However, Wahaca on the corner on North Street and New Road, occupying the space that was previously Strada, has changed my perspective.
Normally I prefer to dine at independent restaurants but this ever-growing chain, with impressive sustainability credentials has managed to keep the quality and character in it’s overall offering. A restaurant like this is always welcome in Brighton.
Thomasina Miers, the winner of Master Chef in 2005, is one of the co-founders and it was her time spent living in Mexico and exploring its fresh, honest market food that sparked the inspiration for Wahaca.
The venue has a relaxed and informal feel to it, with thought going into the lighting and the section planning, so even when packed it feels spacious. The service is laid back and friendly but still attentive in manner. The servers do introduce themselves, which harks back to the cheesy American restaurant days of “Hi I’m Chad and I’ll be your server tonight, awesome”, but it’s more sincere. If like me, you often forget what you’ve ordered its helps that the staff highlight the dishes as you pick them by circling them on your menu-come-place-with a brightly coloured felt tip.
The food and drinks live up to the atmosphere and funky décor, delivering the right level of quality and flavour without having any unnecessary fuss and pomp to them. I’m yet to venture into the ‘big dish’ section of the menu and on each of the three occasions I’ve visited I’ve shared a selection of street food bites with my guest. Instead of recounting every dish I’ve devoured, I’ll limit myself to my highlights and recommendations:
The Margaritas – £6.95, certainly deliver and if you’re not drinking, the Passion Fruit and Hibiscus Cooler (mocktail) -£3.25, is a refreshing way to cool off your mouth after the spicy treats the food provide.
Pork Pabil – £4.25, the tender braised pork cooked in their Yucatecan marinade is topped with fiery pickled pink onions which gives your mouth a wake up call.
Grilled British Steak with Grilled Cheese – £4.50, medium cooked slices of steak smothered with a chipotle salsa. The crisp cheese is a great twist. Imagine the taste of the extra cheese that has oozed out of your toasted sandwich and baked itself on the sandwich toaster – that’s what this is and it works well.
Both are served on soft mini flour tacos and the three portion serving leaves you in a game of rock, paper, scissors to decide who gets the extra one.
Ancho Chicken – £4.95, the two flat corn and flour tortillas are layered with grilled chicken thigh meat. The sweet and smoky marinade on the chicken sets the dish off well, alongside the spicy haberno mayo and jalapeno pickled carrots that top it. The cabbage and coriander add a healthy crunch and finish off the spectrum of colours the dish presents.
Smoky Chipotle Chicken – £4.95, a simple dish that alongside the others we tried would be the first you forget but still delivers on what I expected. Tender chicken is spread within the folded tortilla and the lava hot cheese and lightly spiced tomato sauce needs careful management to remain inside the tortilla as you devour it.
Sweet Potato -£3.50, these days everywhere seems to offer sweet potato fries as an alternative to regular chips, most unsuccessfully though. But these were divine. Soft inside with crispy jacket like skins coated with rock salt.
PRICE: £29.60 (5 dishes for 2 people + 1 mock tail)
RATING: Must Go | Worth a Try | Give It A Miss
I dined as an invited guest at the press night, just after Wahaca opened, as well as with colleagues at the trial lunches a few days before. The first experience was easily a ‘must go’ but the press night more a ‘worth a try’. I therefore wanted to wait a month or so to see how things were once the pre-opening creases had been ironed out, and I am glad I did as last night’s experience was unequivocally a ‘must go’. The food is fresh, good quality and good value and the service is friendly, attentive and unpretentious.
La Choza was as good as Mexican food got in Brighton, until the arrival of Wahaca. Whilst La Choza is still a good choice, Wahaca has taken top spot in town for this cuisine.
Need to know:
Be prepared to wait for a table, even on a Tuesday night, as you can’t book after 6pm and if like me you wait in the bar for a table, be aware you can’t transfer the bar tab to your restaurant table.
Wahaca’s QuickPay app is also a handy little gadget that allows you to pay via your phone. The app works well, allowing you to split bills, leave a tip and even post feedback on your experience, and if you’re claiming the meal on expenses your receipt is saved too.
*Disclosure: I was invited to the press dinner on a complimentary basis. However, I have since returned as a paying customer as well to test out the usual dining experience.