Though Pork Belly and I are widely travelled we have never been to Mexico.
We have eaten in Mexican-style restaurants in Texas, and sipped a fair few tequilas in our time but can’t claim to have eaten ‘authentic’ Mexican street food. Based on our trip to Wahaca in Chichester I think we might like it.
Wahaca was born from our love of fresh, honest, Mexican market food
Thomasina Miers, Co-founder Wahaca
When we received the invitation Pork Belly’s instant response was ‘Just so long as I don’t have to eat re-fried beans’. A bit of a negative start for one usually so enthusiastic about world cuisine, but then perhaps we haven’t had the best experiences in the past. Greasy tortillas, an over-reliance on avocado (which sadly I can’t eat) and the ubiquitous beans have given us a rather skewed view.
Former Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers was well aware that many shared that perception when she and partner Mark Selby established the first Wahaca in 2007. So they set out to turn that section of the food world on its head.
“We’re constantly looking to the markets of Mexico for inspiration and recreating their wonderful food over here. We’ve worked hard to match the flavours of Mexico with ingredients that we can get hold of to create a constantly evolving, seasonal menu with ingredients sourced as locally as possible.’
For the newly opened Chichester restaurant that means street food for sharing with a wide range of ingredients like pork, crab, shrimp and scallops as well as the ubiquitous black beans and avos.
Chain restaurants have their place but we usually prefer smaller, independent eateries. Wahaca go out of their way to make sure each outlet has its own look and feel, giving artists and designers a free hand to leave their own unique mark.
In Chichester this means the bold and beautiful designs of Barcelona-based street artist Gola Hundun. Flowers, leaves and representations of animals and spirits adorn the walls in shades of greeny-gold, reds and yellows.
The lighting is interesting. We were initially attracted by the bright lights and fake foliage of the alcove at the back of the restaurant where individual tables are set for small groups rather than the long bench tables in the body of the room.
But we soon noticed these lights have a strange flicker, like that of an old TV set from the sixties, which would be distracting for anyone with a migraine or visual problems. It quite threw Pork Belly’s camera off, but we got used to it.
A nicer touch was the fact that all the restaurant lights slowly dim as the evening goes on – both energy saving and mood-creating.
The 360 degree bar is clearly an attraction, serving a wide range of beers, cocktails and authentic tequilas and Mezcal. If you’re one for slammers according to Wahaca you’ve been doing it all wrong. Their high quality blends are to be sipped, savoured or served with floral and fruity mixers.
I went for a fresh tasting virgin mojito and Pork Belly sampled the Pacifico Clara beer.
But we were really there for the food.
The Chichester branch, being so far from Wahaca’s London base, is a full blown restaurant with a fully staffed kitchen behind the open galley preparation area.
To ensure consistency some of the sauces are delivered direct from the central kitchens but everything else is freshly cooked on site.
Unfortunately one of my selections, chicken tinga, fell foul of a logistics problem that day so was not available, but the chicken enchilada offered instead was a good alternative, although probably not as zingy.
Pork Belly and I always prefer tapas style meals, so opted mainly for the street food and dishes to share. With my allergies I have to be careful, but the staff were excellent – producing a detailed chart, clearly marked as to what allergens were included, what dishes could be modified and what were a definite no-no.
Our waitress Lynsey was quick to check and triple check and the house manager that night, Jack, came over for an in depth and knowledgeable discussion about the possibility of traces and cross contamination.
If you have a severe allergy you would find the choices restricted but for people like me there was a good selection. Each dish prepared dairy-free came with a little flag, so there was no possibility of a mistake at the table.
Pork Belly of course knows no such restriction and had a great time.
His guacamole with pork scratchings, an unusual touch, was the best he’d ever tasted – fresh and creamy avocado blended with lime juice and coriander.
I started with tortilla chips and fresh tomato salsa. Initially I thought it looked a little watery but it was great, very fresh and not glutinous with more than a hint of salt and a warming bite. Generous portion too.
Everything arrives at the table when it is done, not in any set order so before long we had an array of exciting little dishes to taste. I’m glad they put us at table for four, so we had plenty of room to spread out!
The pork pibil tacos are Wahaca’s signature dish, three mini tacos, each gone in two bites (well one, if you’re Pork Belly).
The sweet potato fries are to die for, definitely something I’d take as a quick snack on a cold winter’s day. Spicy and warming but melt-in-the-mouth in that comfort food sort of way.
The scallop and shrimp ceviche is the exact opposite, light, fragrant and gently spiced, almost a palate cleanser. I’m not a massive fan of any seafood but I’d order this one again.
Desserts are off limits for me at most restaurants but to be honest after all the above I didn’t need anything else. Pork Belly opted for the traditional churros (slightly greasy) and chocolate and a kids portion of the vanilla ice-cream with toasted pumpkin seeds and a caramel cajeta sauce.
I finished my meal with a strong black coffee and a square of excellent chilli chocolate.
Presentation is simple but stylish and the atmosphere even on an ordinary Monday night was buzzin’ with Latin influenced music just loud enough to enjoy but not so loud as to drown out conversation.
Best dish of the night? The smoky tomato fideus. Sadly not one I could sample but Pork Belly sang its praises so well I could almost taste it. Angel hair noodles in a smoky chipotle sauce topped with avocado (of course), crumbly Lancashire cheese and an optional extra Devon crab.
And that’s what Wahaca does so well – takes sustainable, locally sourced foods and incorporates them into fresh and fiery Mexican style dishes.
Disclaimer: Wahaca kindly invited us to eat free of charge at their restaurant in Chichester. All views expressed are our own.
Photograph of Thomasina Miers ©TaraFisher
More information about Wahaca
Sadly Wahaca Chichester has since closed leaving 13 restaurants across the country.
For details of your nearest see their website