In the same way no one wants to go into an empty restaurant, people are prepared to queue to get into one that’s full. Brighton’s booming food scene is attracting a wave of restauranteurs to the city. But with good locations hard to come by, often a new place to eat replaces what used to be an old place to shop. More commonly, as tastes change, one restaurant replaces another.
Wahaca is the Mexican restaurant chain created by Thomasina Miers, arguably the most successful winner MasterChef has produced and with her siblings living here, Brighton is where she’s been especially keen to open for a long time.
The restaurant claims authenticity and serves small plates, in their case, Mexican street food on rectangular platters. Now I’ve not been to Mexico, but I have every reason to believe that Wahaca (which, if you were wondering, is the phonetic spelling of Oaxaca) is about as close to the street food you’d find on Mexican streets. Indeed, I was told that one of my fellow diners was a bona fide Mexican and this was not her first visit. Considering the place had only been open for less than two weeks that seemed like a pretty good endorsement.
Being street food, this is casual dining. The menu is expansive, but easy to navigate being divided into nibbles, street food, sides and what they describe as bigger food. Having previously sampled the guacamole and nachos as well as the pulled pork tacos a couple of weeks earlier from their free food truck, I lost all sense of adventure and ordered them again. They say you can’t get too much of a good thing and at Wahaca they’re right. The portions are generous, but manageable and both appetisers tasted just as good as I remembered.
Guacamole is one of those dips that’s easy to make but even easier to make wrong. It doesn’t contain many ingredients, but it’s all about the balance and the freshness. Wahaca’s guac (that’s what they call it) is zingy and refreshing, containing the two essential ingredients: freshly squeezed lime juice and lots of chopped coriander. It was delicious, as were the accompanying nachos. Again, nachos are ubiquitous, but Wahaca’s are a bit special, a bit crunchier. It might have something to do with their making them fresh each day and adding a secret seasoning.
The pork pibil tacos (£4.25) are another taste sensation. You get a set of three, with each being about two bites, one if you’re greedy. Filled with melt-in-the-mouth pork, slow cooked in Yucatecan marinade and served with sliced, vibrantly pink, spicy pickled onions it’s delish. Pibil is a Mayan word meaning buried or cooked underground.
For my main I sought the advice of my server. Rita was a ball of energy and enthusiasm, just the right side of attentive and surprisingly knowledgeable about Mexican food despite hailing from Connecticut. Her recommendation of British steak the Mexican way (£10.95) was on the money. Tender strips of bavette steak with bags of flavour having been marinated in a Pasilla de Oaxaca rub, served rare on a bed of green rice and the most refreshing side salad you could wish for. In fact, my only problem was I could have done with another bowl of it!
To wash everything down I started conservative and ended up off piste. An ice-cold Corona (£3.85) with a wedge of lime is perfect for cooling the spice, but whilst it’s a Mexican beer, it’s one we’ve all had. Less common is Negra Modelo (£4.25), a dark amber beer that was new to me. But what made it really memorable was having it Michelada-style (+65p), that meant adding it to a salt-rimmed glass of spiced fresh lime juice. The best way to describe it is it’s like a beer version of a bloody mary. Indeed, I was told that in Mexico they even add tomato juice to it.
With no room for dessert, I finished with another revelation: a glass of mescal, something else I’d not tried before. I assumed it would be similar to tequila, but it was quite different: something to be sipped like whisky, rather than downed like a shot. It’s complex, with smoky accents followed by a nice warm feeling.
And that’s just what you get at Wahaca. Not just from the food and the staff, but when you get the bill. The most expensive item on the menu is under 11 quid. With great food and great value, it’s no wonder it was packed. It may be a chain, but it doesn’t feel like one. There’s nothing corporately bland about it, even the huge murals on the wall were hand-painted by Mazatl, a street artist who they flew over from Mexico. You can’t get much more authentic than that!
Wahaca is at 160–161 North Street, Brighton BN1 1EZ
*Photos: Images Out Of The Ordinary