By Ellie Philpotts and Georgia O’Brien
(Shorter version of this is in the current and final print issue of Quench – https://issuu.com/gairrhydd/docs/quench_163)
Intro – Ellie
If you’ve ever tried to track down Cardiff’s best international restaurant, you’ll know you’re in for a mighty mission. There’s an abundance of choice in every corner you turn – from the Arcades’ Madame Fromage; New York Deli and Wally’s, to Kimchi, Falafel Wales and Calabrisella over in Canton, and, closer to home in Cathays, Irie Shack, Hellenic Eatery and Mowgli’s. But in the city centre, where a cluster of restaurants congregate, one international option stands out – Wahaca.
Wahaca was the brainchild of Thomasina Miers, whose impressive CV extends to winning Masterchef back in 2005. Two years later, she decided it was high time a stylish, fresh take on Mexican cuisine found its way to the UK, and, a decade on, Wahaca stands proudly in 23 locations across the country, as well as three bars and two street kitchens. Sadly, the latter additions are all in London, but we’re hoping Cardiff’s growing street food industry encourages them to make the leap to another British capital soon enough…
So it’s fair to say Wahaca are pretty established as a chain, courtesy of their generous variety, often with a street food influence meticulously authentic to Mexico; Instagram-worthy colourful decor; and the brand’s general feel. But they haven’t let this get to their heads, always eager to improve on what they’ve already got, without losing what made their name in the first place. So when Quench Food Editors Ellie Philpotts and Georgia O’Brien were invited to sample their dishes and drinks, we were quick to accept, and before long found ourselves sat under the trademark lights of Wahaca’s Cardiff branch, trying to make those all-too-tough menu decisions. Here’s how we found it!
Food – Georgia
Yum. If I had to summarise the food at Wahaca in one word I think that would be it!. What I love about the food at Wahaca, and I’m sure many fellow foodies will agree, is the option you have to try not one dish, but two or three when you go for the street food range. Cleverly served in smaller sized portions, these give you the chance to try out everything that tickles your fancy without putting you into a food coma! Dishes in this range cost between £3.95 for the corn, black bean and guacamole, to £5.50 for the MSC Battered cod tacos. Wahaca recommends you have 2-3 of these dishes per person, making the grand total for your meal anything from £8 to £16.
With such a vast array of Mexican favourites to choose from, including Tacos, Tostadas, Taquitos, Quesadillas, Baja Tacos and Market treats coming in meat, fish and vegetarian varieties, it can be a little overwhelming at first to try and narrow it down to just 3 options. As a result, Ellie and I went for the Mexican Feast sharing selection, made up of 7 dishes and 1 dessert, all for a reasonable £36. Although every dish was equally scrummy, I would definitely recommend the salmon sashimi tostadas- a sensual blend of salmon, fresh lime, soy, tobacco onions, chipotle salt, avocado and chipotle mayo with a melt in the mouth texture that is both refreshing and incredibly moreish.
Drinks – Ellie
Wahaca’s focal point is obviously the food, but that doesn’t mean drinks don’t get a look-in. The theme prevails – drinks both individual and collective have all the connotations of Mexico, from tequila and mezcal which stem from the country itself, to citrus flavours transporting us from the ever wet, wintery Wales to sunnier scenes. The drinks list is almost as comprehensive as the main menu, which isn’t helpful for those of us who already struggle with the art of decision-making, but the actual drinks compensate. There’s a real mix of unique flavours, such as the El Recuerdo de Oaxaca Blanco, which is all ‘smoky, salty and ripe tropical fruits’ for £3.75, and ‘molten caramel, spiced agave and vanilla’ Jose Cuervo Reserva De La Familia Anejo, somewhat pricier at £7.20.
As with most restaurants, wine, beer and cocktails feature heavily, with classics like mojitos and daiquiris, but Wahaca’s individuality definitely commands the most attention. Their Tequila Experience won the Class Awards’ Best New Product, while a favourite from the Wahaca Margaritas has to be the Tamarind, dutifully named a ‘Mexican favourite.’
Fear not if you’re in dire need of an alcohol detox – Wahaca’s juices make you feel you could give one of those health bloggers a run for their money. After a passion fruit vanilla mojito, I had the Vampiro, aka carrots, beetroot and ginger, and Wahaca can count both me and (probably) Edward Cullen as fans.
Atmosphere and Decor – Georgia
Even on a weekday evening, Wahaca’s popularity is noticeable amongst the lively downstairs dining area. This, combined with the colourful yet minimalistic décor, successfully creates a welcoming atmosphere where any diner would feel obliged to sit back, relax and socialise with friends or family. The visibility of the kitchen area where you are able to view the preparation of your food adds to the honest, authentic feel that is consistent throughout the wholesome Mexican menu. With some key statement pieces, including circular lights that hang impressively down almost the full length of the room, I found myself admiring my surroundings as much as the food itself!
Service – Ellie
You go out for a meal, for, well, the meal itself, but that doesn’t give every other element a free pass. If the customer service is poor, or you’re sat watching the clock do its rounds only to be eventually greeted with stone-cold food, you’re probably not going to rush back. However, there seems no chance of this being the case in Wahaca Cardiff. Our staff were attentive, friendly and charming, from taking the time to navigate us through the Specials, to suggesting to seat us at the best-lit table because of our review. Anyone who actively encourages snapping Insta photos is a winner in our book… As the old adage ‘teamwork makes the dream work’ says, the community feel in Wahaca is clear to see, both literally and figuratively. Some of the kitchen is visible to diners, and we appreciated the chefs playing such an open role in the whole experience. Overall, everyone from waiters to the manager were accommodating and lovely – which does make a difference.
All in all, Georgia and I reached a matching conclusion – that Wahaca makes for a fab meal out. The Cardiff branch has the situational advantage of being in the city centre’s Hayes, but that’s not solely responsible for its popularity. The only Welsh Wahaca proves catering isn’t their only talent – they’re also alliteration aces, promoting ‘the tidiest tacos on the Taff’, and double as hosts, with events like ‘What is meczal? – a Master-class in tequila’s divine cousin’. They’re also not just a pretty face (or taste), bearing accolades including repeat Sustainable Restaurant Group of the Year. Other Wahaca brownie points are that they ethically source produce, support children native to Mexico, are cost-efficient and considerate of dietary requirements, such as gluten-free and vegetarianism – what’s not to love?
Taco Kits – Ellie
Wish you could feast on Wahaca more often than your student loan (or motivation to trek into town) allows? Fear not – why not bring it to you?! And you don’t need to rely on any takeaway service – Wahaca have just launched their range of Soft Taco Kits, which house all the flavours with a much kinder price tag to boot – £3.69.
Wahaca’s sparkling new business outlet is alongside All About Food, which places much-loved food brands onto supermarket shelves, and the winning formula is now stocked in Tesco, as well as select branches, although sadly not Cardiff’s just yet. They come in three distinct flavours, ranging from the mild Tomatillo & Garlic Mojo, more daring Tomato & Smoky Chipotle, and Fiery Habanero & Achiote which is ranked as ‘hot.’ Wahaca kindly sent a selection on a voyage to Cathays, where they ended up in my kitchen for me to sample for myself before concluding that they’re the perfect way to spruce up a dull post-lectures evening.
Each kit is described as ‘Wahaca street food at home’, comes in a lunch-box style that’s quirky, colourful and even eco-friendly in line with the brand’s ethos, and contains 10 tortillas, marinade and salsa of the spectrum of heat. The recipe is simple to navigate even if you’re contending for the role of Cathays’ Worst Chef – simply mix the meat, seafood or veg of your choice (the contents of the kits are entirely vegetarian) with the marinade for 15 minutes, fry or griddle, add to the tortillas then don’t forget the salsa, and voila, less than half an hour later and you definitely have something to taco about.
My favourite had to be the Tomato and Smoky Chipotle, though the Tomatillo and Garlic Mojo wasn’t lagging far behind. All in all, while Wahaca’s main priority is of course their restaurant dining, their new venture bringing a more bite-sized dose of Mexican goodness to both the aisles of Tesco and your student kitchen, is one we can get behind.
All image credit: https://twitter.com/wahaca