Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Wahaca, Covent Garden

It is the Holy Grail for restaurateurs, I'm told, to run a successful business with a no-reservations policy. Anywhere good (and/or popular) enough to have punters happily facing down a 45-minute wait for a table and still recommend it to their mates is in a pretty enviable position, and various recent openings in London (Polpo & Polpetto, Draft House Battersea, Dishoom) seem to indicate this is the direction things are headed. In New York, with their restaurant scene ever so slightly ahead of the curve, this trend is even more evident and Big Apple diners have become quite accustomed to playing the table lottery in the city's hippest (and busiest) dining spots. Whether as a paying customer you think such arrangements are commendably egalitarian or a giant, frustrating pain in the rear end probably depends on how much you like to control the ebb and flow of your evenings. At one time, being the slightly autistic control freak, I despised anywhere that couldn't guarantee I could turn up, sit down and eat at a particular time, but I like to think my attitude has mellowed over the years. After all, it's not the greatest hardship to knock back a pint or two in a Soho bar while waiting for a table to become available, especially if the end reward is a crispy pizzetti and a plate of warm stracchino.

So while I can understand the fact Wahaca doesn't take bookings may deter some (though based on the crowds and the queues last night, they're clearly in the minority), being ten steps away from the finest cocktail bar in London (Rules) meant that our 45-minute wait (after we'd put our names on the waiting list) passed in a cosy, Negroni-sodden blur. And when we returned at our allotted time, the table was ready and waiting for us as expected. Surely this is a far more pleasant experience than trying to book some other fashionable restaurant du jour (I'm looking at you, Deux Salons) and being told they want the spot back in a couple of hours?

But enough obsessing on the technicalities of getting a table, what of the food? Firstly, for a smart, popular spot in the heart of touristy Covent Garden, Wahaca is commendably good value. Between the two of us we ordered a recommended five 'street food' items - perhaps not quite a feast but plenty enough for a pleasant dinner - and a couple of tequila-based cocktails, and the bill came to just over £15 each. My margarita was very good, on the rocks in a thick tumbler and half-and-half salting on the rim, a nice touch, and a longer drink containing orange juice, vanilla and cinnamon was very easy to drink. Also, this being Mexican Day of the Dead, we were brought a couple of extra shots of tequila for free. Which always wins points in my book.

Pork pibil was my favourite of the street food dishes. Moist, spicy pork topped with pickled red onions, they dribbled rich marinade onto the plate as you bit into them, yet kept their shape well enough to remain finger food. Chicken mole was pleasant if slightly tame, yet still streets ahead of the awful (far more expensive) stuff at Cantina Laredo. Two chicken taquitos contained moist chicken and good crispy deep-fried tortilla, a surprisingly decent tomato salsa, and a topping of Lancashire cheese (the menu is studded with these little nods to localism); and chorizo and potato quesadilla, though tasting largely of cheese and not enough of their 'own recipe' Mexican chorizo, was still decent enough. The only dish that didn't work for me was the scarily-titled 'MSC mackerel', which although pretty fresh and with more nice tomato salsa sat on a thick dollop of nasty, cheap-tasting white mayonnaise - I don't know for sure where Wahaca get their mayo from, but if it was homemade, they need to revise their recipe.

It would be easy to complain about the food at Wahaca being a bit "safe", and indeed I found myself dousing some of what we were given last night in hot sauce, but I'd be the first to admit my abused palate isn't representative of the general population and at the very least it was all fresh, tasty, and - most importantly - cheap. I should also put a special mention in for the staff last night as they seemed calm and friendly despite the frantically busy restaurant and we never had to wait too long for anything. A perfectly decent dinner, then, in a perfectly nice restaurant that's obviously popular for a reason. Get in that queue.


Wahaca on Urbanspoon


Manne said...

How the heck do you get an "allotted time" when they don't take bookings? I keep going back to Wahaca in Covent Garden only to see the queue spilling out the door and leave for somewhere else... What's the secret Chris?

Good thing they have the one in Canary Wharf, hardly ever any queues. :)

Rich said...

Nice.. I remember being very fed up the first time I tried to eat at Wahaca and encountered the (unexpected) wait system, but as you say, if you're planning for it and are happy popping into a local bar, it's no bad thing.

It's especially pleasant when that bar is the French House in the case of Polpetto..

The Americans are, apparently, now going beyond the no reservations policy.. at the Spotted Pig the other week I learned that certain, select regulars can make reservations.. but you have to be invited apparently! Are they going full circle?


Jordan said...

How funny. I ate Wahaca last night too (but at the far less busy Canary Wharf branch).

If you didn't try the Churros for desert you missed out. And the Pork Torta is absolutely amazing too (more of the pibil pork, but in a bun with guacamole, refried beans, habanero sauce and sour cream).

Katy Salter @ Pinch of Salt said...

I've heard quite a few sniffy comments made about Wahaca, but I think they do what they do very well - and they've got a commendable sourcing policy. Admittedly Not all the dishes always hit the mark, but I'm addicted to those pork pibils. Oh, and the Westfield branch rarely has long queues either.

tommi miers said...

Yes, we do try to make the waiting painless if possible. With the system we have at least we can let customers know when they can expect their table and call people back if it comes up earlier than expected. We are hoping that the opening of Soho will help the Covent Garden queue.

Re the mackerel tostada, I'm afraid it is good old Hellman's just what the Mexicans use. We have gone back to a more authentic tostada - they spread mayo all over the place but we have only just put it on the menu. I kinda like it though. I think it works. Very sad you didn't try the veg taquito...a personal favourite of mine...and yes, the torta is pretty bad-ass.

Gin and Crumpets said...

Wahaca is our office's destination of choice for leaving lunches, birthdays and the such like because

1) the no bookings policy means we have to sneakily leave the office earlier than our official lunch hour, then we come back at the same time as everyone else, thus gaining an extra long lunch hour (and that's how we stick it to The Man).

2) the menu covers pretty much every taste and dietary requirement.

Like you say, it's safe enough to suit to everyone and makes my team lunch bonding sessions much more appealing than the terrible Italian trats and cafe Rouges I;ve been forced to in the past.

ade said...

MSC Mackerel means it's from a sustainable source certified by the Marine Stewardship Council - a very good thing when so many fish stocks around the world are being decimated by industrial fisheries.

At least, I think that's what you meant was scary about it...

Kavey said...

Last time I went to Wahaca I went early, and didn't have to queue, though it was snaking up stairs and outside by the time we left.

Enjoyed the food (and the churros with chocolate, oh yes) but found the music/ noise levels really high for me as the evening progressed.

Otherwise, loved it.

Brad @ Gastronoms said...

I've been three times now and enjoyed each time thoroughly; possibly because I've usually been out drinking cocktails, and this type of food lends itself perfectly to drunken refuelling.

Have you been to Lupita? Very similar affair. I went recently and found it be perfectly nice, just perhaps not quite as good.

Anonymous said...

That is one HUGE! menu..... Food looks good though, how long was the wait for food?

Im still not a fan of the whole no reservations things, it can just mess up the whole evening lol.

Chris Pople said...

Manne: Apologies. Have entered some parenthesis to explain the waiting list system better :)

Rich: Interesting. I can't see why anywhere doing well with no reservations would change to the other system, but perhaps they have good reason.

Tommi: I just really don't like cheap mayo (hence my intense hatred of Pret). I'm sure they're authentic! Thanks for the feedback.

ade: Thanks for the info, and yes it's a great cause. Don't know why I found it scary, but the acronym just reminded me of BSE or GM or something :)

Brad: Not been to Lupita but plenty of people have and say it's alright... not rushing there to be honest.

matthew: Once we were sat down, the wait was a matter of minutes really. Normal.

Sarah, Maison Cupcake said...

I've walked straight into the Westfield and Canary Wharf branches on Saturday lunchtimes without any queueing at all, why ever anyone would spend ages waiting in Covent Garden is beyond me.

We enjoyed it very much, I'm sick of Italian chains so this makes a nice change.

Jazzy said...

We went in Convent Garden Wahaca recently and the waitress that was serving us was to say the least disinterested, she made us wait and wait and wait.

All three of us ordered hot chocolate with churros. To our utter horror we were served with a drink hot chocolate and churros with chocolate each (double dose of horror).

The waitress never bothered to point out that they have hot chocolate drink and chocolate with churros. Usually you get churros with hot chocolate and that's it.

It was all nicely presented but the taste of the chocolate in both drink and chocolate with churros was totally killed with sugar. You can easily call them sugar drinks with a hint of chocolate.
Very disappointed with service and quality.
We're amazed how much praise this eatery gets.
Our experience was not nice and would definitely not go back again.

Unknown said...

Ah, Rules. You remind me how fabulous it is. The no res trend is certainly egalitarian, though only for us Londoners. What about out-of-towners who want to try these places, but have to make a special visit and therefore are less likely to risk a long wait/no table? I've queued at Barrafina more times than I can remember, never managing to get a table before grumbling tummy dragged me elsewhere.
Wahaca is on a par with Leon for me, as far as fast decent food goes. Dependable, and fairly priced. Have you tried Hazuki down the road? Great little (and cheap) Japanese spot.