Review: Habanera, Mexican In Shepherd's Bush
Decent Mexican food is as hard to find in London as a baby pigeon (think about it — never see them, do you?).
For years we settled for Tex-Mex, an American-Mexican fusion cuisine which can be really quite gross, actually, and is very different to 'proper' Mexican grub. It tends to involve dishes like fajitas and too-sweet chilli con carne —minced meat and sweaty cheese served next to giant cardboard cacti.
When the Wahaca chain came along it did the admirable job of showing us that Mexican food isn’t something involving students and an Old El Paso dinner kit. Street food stalls like Buen Provecho followed (what happened to them?) and now, the restaurants are opening.
The cuisine of Mexico is a combination of indigenous Mesoamerican and European (mostly Spanish) cuisines. It is complex and varies widely by region.
Corn is hugely important to the history and development of the country, a staple food used in hundreds of different ways — tortillas, tamales, gorditas and huarachas, to name a few.
Around 300 different types of chilli are harvested, bringing not just heat to dishes, but smoke and fruit flavours. The food is vibrant, well balanced and full of fresh ingredients: zingy limes, complex chilli blends, fresh cheeses, creamy avocado, cactus, agave, chocolate, pork… we could go on.
Why has it taken so long for Mexican food to hit London? Availability of ingredients has been a problem. From fresh tomatillos, to specific chillies and vegetables, they've been either unavailable, or prohibitively expensive.
The UK’s (and possibly Europe’s) only Mexican cheese maker, Gringa Dairy, operates from a railway arch on the Old Kent Road and its owner Kristen Schnepp thinks that Mexican food has finally started to take off, seeing a huge jump in demand for her cheeses.
And so it was that we had high hopes for Habanera. A bright little spot on the Uxbridge Road, it looked modern, colourful and full of promise.
We had come, specifically, for the tacos.
Soft tacos made with corn are quite different from flour tortillas. Made via the process of nixtamilisation, dried maize is boiled with diluted lime and ground into a paste. In this form, the maize becomes malleable when mixed with water, and can be pressed into fresh tacos.
In recent years we’ve been seeing more corn tortillas in London, but there’s something odd and flabby about those at Habanera. We tried four fillings: the Baja fish (fried fish tacos are popular in the Baja California region), cochinita pibil (pork slow-cooked with citrus juice and annatto, an orange coloured seed), carne asada (beef) and a wild card of goat with cherries.
They arrived looking lacklustre, and it became clear very quickly that the main flavouring in everything is lime juice.
There's no balance or complexity. The cherries that come with the goat are the glace cherries one might associate with Mr. Kipling’s Bakewell tarts, and the various sauces and squirts on top do nothing to enhance the tired flesh underneath.
What really rankles about Habanera however, is the pricing. To start, we snacked on tortillas with guacamole and salsa, both of which arrive in teeny pots charged at £4.50 and £3.50 respectively. Now call us tight-asses, but £3.50 for a few cubes of diced tomato and onion feels like a major rip off.
A side dish of coleslaw on the other hand (fresh and bright with red cabbage but again too lime-heavy) is gigantic at £3.50.
The tacos come in threes and it was suggested that we have two-three racks per person. We struggle with four between two.
The Tommy's margaritas we had to start are charged at a whopping £11 each — hardly an eyebrow raiser for, say, Soho, but come on, this is the Uxbridge Road.
Service is bright and efficient but to be fair there wasn’t much to it; looking back, the meal should have been a few quid more expensive since they stuffed up the bill. As it was, it rang in at a punchy £76 for two (including service), high indeed for something that is essentially Mexican street food.
Sure, they've got overheads, but the food and portion sizes don't justify the cost, and we leave feeling as squeezed as the limes in their kitchen.
Habanera, 280 Uxbridge Road, W12 7JA
Last Updated 11 March 2016