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Wahaca

Since the authenticity of Mexican food in London seems to be a hot topic amongst food bloggers, I’ve heard a lot about Wahaca and since it has opened a new branch in Wardour Street and I’ve recently sampled the food at their competitor Lupita, how could I say no when Mister North suggested eating there this week?

We arrived about six o’clock, absolutely starving and in no mood to queue. Luckily we were early enough to beat the dinner rush and found ourselves seated almost immediately by a very friendly waitress. On first glance the menu was so immense I could hardly focus on it to start choosing and was happy to have Mister North take charge and order two Modelo Especial and some scratchings and guacamole to take the edge of our hunger and help us focus.

The scratchings describe themselves as lighter and healthier and they look quite different to our pork scratchings in their pillowy vastness. They were delicious, somewhat like a porky flavoured Crackerbread (trust me, this is an excellent thing) and they scooped up the guacamole nicely. I found the guacamole enjoyable at the time, but can’t remember anything about it now.

Sure that our eyes weren’t bigger than our bellies, we ordered heartily, choosing the Wahaca selection for two as a way to sample as many dishes as possible as it includes tacos, quesadillas, taquitos and tostadas. We also went for the special of queso fundido, unable to resist the combination of mushrooms and cheese, and added in some of our five a day with the sweet potato and the spicy slaw on the side.

Plates started arriving almost immediately and while it was nice to have to wait too long, it seemed a tad canteen-esque to me. Everything was pretty much tepid apart from the bubbling cheese of the queso fundido, but it all looked fresh and appealing and I was keen to get stuck in, if I could decide where to start?

Figuring that pork never goes amiss, we both went for the pork pibil tacos first. These were incredibly rich with soft, pulled style pork and were very tasty, but something about the flakiness of the meat didn’t really appeal to me, feeling a bit claggy in my mouth. The incredibly tasty softness of the black beans on the tostadas were the perfect counterbalance for me and I was more than happy to have the second one of these, leaving the pork pibil to Mister North. In fact the black beans were so good on the tostadas, I heaped some of the extra side portion onto them and bemoaned the fact I cannot get pulses to taste this good at home.

The queso fundido had cooled down enough to prevent taking the top of the roof of our mouths and was well worth waiting for. I am a recent convert to mushrooms and these made me very happy about that. Juicy and tasty with a nice tang from the cheese, I had to be careful not to shovel the entire dishful onto my warm tortilla and leave Mister North without any. The last scraps of this one were hotly contested, but I’m pleased to say my big brother let me scrape the bowl clean…

We also made short work of the nicely spiced sweet potato, with Mister North dipping into the hot mango sauce and devouring the chipotle dip while I didn’t dare risk it as I don’t really like particularly spicy food. I did adore the spicy slaw though and thought the green rice was great. I am always impressed when side dishes are as good if not better than the main dishes and I thought Wahaca was great for this, especially since so many of these dishes are meat free.

I was slightly disappointed by the seasonal vegetable tacos. The veg selection just felt a bit like tinned veggies, thanks to the sweetcorn, with some highly unseasonal cubes of tomato and a bit of lettuce to bulk it out. They weren’t particularly flavoursome and were a direct contrast to all the other tasty meat free offerings. I much preferred the huitlacoche quesadilla with its mushroom infused flavour and almost buttery filling.

We finished up with the taquitos and these were an excellent end to meal. Fried til crispy but filled with soft creamy chicken, these were my favourite of any of the meat dishes we had. Small and perfectly formed, despite being very full, I could have happily had a second taquito, possibly even a third. Despite our waitress warning us that we had probably ordered too much, we cleared all the plates bar about one mouthful of the rice and decided we could make room to try the mango sorbet, along with another beer.

The place was absolutely hiving at this point with a queue nearly to the door and even thought we only ordered one sorbet between us, there was no sense of being rushed or coaxed into ordering anything more to keep our spot. The sorbet arrived quickly with two spoons and we tucked in. It was deliciously mango-y and a lovely refreshing end to the meal, and although quite a large portion, it seemed expensive to me. Probably because secretly I wanted churros, but couldn’t have fitted them in!

Our bill came to just over £50, including 4 beers at £4 each, which I thought was pretty good value aside from the vegetable tacos and the sorbet. I liked Wahaca. The food was pretty good, the service was excellent, but I didn’t get a huge sense of atmosphere from the place, pretty as it was. I’d go back for the black beans, taquitos and the queso fundido*, but I’d prefer it to feel a little bit less like a chain next time. Maybe Wednesday isn’t the best night to try them or maybe I need to get over my dislike of tequila?

* And I am totally sold on the idea of the matchbooks of chilli seeds to grow at home!

Guestrant at Electrik with Deanna Thomas*

I’ve read about Electrik Bar’s ‘Guestrant’ sessions since they started last year, but despite making mental notes to check them I’d never managed to organise it. Their most recent event, with guest chef Deanna Thomas of North Star Deli fame, tipped the balance for me. This was on Valentine’s Day, and the prospect of a night out, unencumbered by saccharine-sweet clichés, red roses and crappy piped (or worse still, dodgy live string) music provided a fine excuse for a good meal out with my partner.

For those who don’t know it, Electric Chair was one of the venerable institutions of the Manchester club scene from the 90s onwards (Mister North has fond memories of multiple occasions spent in darkened basements listening to Detroit deepness, dirty disco, Mancunian classics and rampant riddims thanks to these guys). These days the Electriks empire has perhaps mellowed and diversified with age, and they opened the unsurprisingly-named ‘Electrik’, a fine café/bar in south Manchester’s Chorlton, a couple of years ago.

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Lángos and beer for breakfast…

The locals love lángos

(Mister North’s in Budapest for an old university friend’s wedding this weekend). I was determined to enjoy lángos for breakfast, as I’d read it’s as Magyar a food experience as paprika or goose liver, and much more unhealthy.

The local English language edition of Time Out recommended a stand-up gaff in Fény utcai piac market near Moszkva Tér. My friend and I wandered about, eyes on stalks at the profusion of local produce, from freshly picked cherries and strawberries, kohlrabi and paprika to kolbász sausages and fogas (pike-perch from Lake Balaton). Eventually we tracked down a tiny stall at the back of the building: the smell of fat and garlic wafted across the queue of punters waiting patiently for their cholesterol levels to be boosted heartily.

We tried ordering two sima lángos (the basic kind where one paints on a garlic paste and flakes of salt) in halting Hungarian, but the nice lady behind the counter helped up out by replying in much less poor English. We also decided to accompany these with a pint of the local dark beer (well, most locals seemed to be doing this even though it was only mid-morning, so who where we to argue?)

It may’ve been unhealthy, but boy was it ever good. Think deep-fried garlic bread or focaccia; light yet filling, with a superbly nutty beer on the side. Next time I’d like to graduate to the significantly more unhealthy sour cream and cheese numbers which are so popular with the locals. Who needs an Ulster fry when you can have your heart attack on a napkin in your hand, with a pint on the side? Marvellous!

I’m surprised we Norn Irish folk haven’t fully embraced lángos: they may be ‘foreign’ but after all they’re made with flour and potato, deep fried, and salted heavily. If it wasn’t for the lashings of garlic on the top I’d suggest this would be a prime candidate take over kebabs and pizza as a post-pub meal in Belfast on a Saturday night.

Meat the mighty Waberthwaite sausage…

Every time I drive to the northern Lakes or Scotland I make it my business to stop off at the wonderful Westmorland services Farm Shop on the M6 at Tebay. This is foodie nirvana, and a shining beacon of inspiration in a landscape of motorway mediocrity. My understanding is that this is the only independent family-owned services on the motorways in the UK: the landowners allowed the M6 to be extended north through their land, but only on the condition of being granted the right to operate services there. Well, good for them… travellers like us get to reap the rewards. I’m constantly reminded of how good this farm shop is: depending on the season you can pick up great veg, superb cheeses, meats, charcuterie, pickles, sauces, pies… I could go on and on.

Something which I grab every time, a true meaty necessity, is a Waberthwaite Cumberland sausage from Richard Goodall. This is the real deal, a proper Lake District classic long sausage; rich and seasoned, and flavoured with a drop or two of the local Jennings Cumberland Ale (which is a reet good accompaniment to this sausage).

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A little slice of Pexommier cheese…

Sometimes the simplest things bring the greatest pleasure. This evening’s meal was based around local food: incredible fresh bread from the Height Top Barn Company, and gloriously melting Pexommier cheese from the Pextenement Cheese Company.

This is the latest offering from this local start-up producer, coming hot on the heels of their wonderfully fresh East Lee soft cheeses. Having sat at room temperature for some days, this cheese was just starting to ooze runnily when I cut it open: the mild aroma did little to alert me to the fantastically rich, smooth taste and texture. One might lazily start by comparing it to a good cambembert, though without the slightly ammonia-esque tang you might expect of that more matured cheese. However that comparison doesn’t aid in highlighting the slight sweetness of the cheese, the oh-so-soft skin and the harmonious pairing with some really good bread and local butter. All washed down with a great beer (in this case a Trippel from Chimay… the one with the white label).

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