From market stall taquerias to fine dining, Mexico is leaving its mark on the capital's culinary scene.
Back when Tomasina Miers opened Wahaca—about a decade ago, now—it felt almost revolutionary. You'd slip into the basement, kick back with a drink, order a couple of tacos, a side of roasted corn and be transported from London's tourist-choked Covent Garden to something almost like Mexico. Almost.
At the time, there were entire American cities where you could not find anything close to as good as Miers' cochinita pibil—somehow, that classic Yucatecan preparation of piquant, citrus-marinated pork had leap-frogged right over much of the United States and the entirety of the Atlantic Ocean. It was served up as a taco that avoided all the usual taco pitfalls, when one is so far away from the center of the taco universe. These tacos were boldly simple, and remarkably tasty; there were notably good corn tortillas, the meat was high quality and, finally, there were no unseemly adornments. It was honest-to-goodness Mexican street food, or as close as you could expect to find, all the way over here.
Of course, nothing good ever seems to stay the same for long, in London—it's never enough to have a great restaurant, or a couple of great restaurants. Sooner than later, investors come calling, expansion plans are drawn up. Today, the Wahaca concept has been rolled out all over the United Kingdom, with more than two-dozen locations now in operation.
It may be a chain now, but Wahaca—particularly the original location—can still be a pleasure. What the brand's popularity seems to have helped to spawn, however—a raft of new Mexican-ish offerings, typically rather corporate, dreary—has been less exciting. Most of these places are close to terrible. Many are still thinly-veiled Tex-Mex, of the variety that the capital once enjoyed (and still does, if we're being honest); others are more earnest, or at least try to appear as such, which is perhaps even worse.
But every city has to start somewhere, when it comes to Mexican food—however clumsy the rollout may have been, more and more people began to become acquainted with the ins and outs of the genre, the ingredients, the names. Slowly, things that many Americans by now had been taking for granted became normal in London. The usual Columbusing began to give way to a new breed of real-deal chefs and cooks, some of them actually from Mexico.
Then, a few weeks ago, a restaurant opened on Park Lane, a restaurant with things like chapulines (grasshoppers) and huitlacoche (corn fungus) on the menu. Pozole. Mole negro. Pulpo.
Park Lane is to London what those extremely stuffy parts of Fifth Avenue are to New York. People don't go to Park Lane to eat guacamole, or tamales, served by waitresses wearing Frida Kahlo-style floral headbands. They do now, apparently—Martha Ortiz, a Mexico City celeb chef, has opened Ella Canta at the Intercontinental Hotel, and London is quite literally eating it up.
Well, make that the London that can afford to indulge on a night out, in this rarified bit of the capital—the food may be new to this address, but the prices will have stayed much the same. Unless you like the idea of paying $16 for a tamale, you're probably not going to darken the door anytime soon.
Which is fine, because there's now so much else to try. You can now, for example, get quite good tacos al pastor at a walk-in-only spot, called Tacos El Pastor, at Borough Market, not far from where celebrated tortilleria and importer Cool Chile offer an impressive array of Mexican ingredients for an increasingly savvy crop of home cooks. The food might not be worth crossing town for, but there's a group of expats—around 12,000 are estimated to be living here—that like to hang out at Mestizo, not far from Euston Station. (Thursday nights downstairs are the thing, apparently.) Stuck in South London? Stop by Brixton's Maria Sabina, a close-to-the-real-thing taqueria in an actual market; if you're stuck in touristland(ia), three locations of Lupita, which claims roots in Mexico City, are available to serve you—there's one practically underneath Charing Cross, spitting distance from Trafalgar Square.
Or, you can just go where everyone else appears to be going, which is Edson and Natalie Diaz-Fuentes' Santo Remedio. A massive hit after opening in cooler-than-you Shoreditch last year, the restaurant has quickly eclipsed pretty much every other offering in its class and is now spoken of quite frequently as London's most authentic Mexican restaurant.
After multiple issues with the original location, they've found a permanent home south of the Thames; spread out across two levels, this allows them to operate both as a casual cantina/taqueria, as well as a proper restaurant. A proper charcoal grill means lots of al carbon options they weren't able to present before. The menu is short, to the point, and refreshingly un-dumbed down; there's something oddly wonderful about scarfing down a tostada de pulpo before catching a train at London Bridge Station, just steps away. There are wines from Mexico, and local craft beer. Most any American city would be happy to have a place like this.