¡Ay, caramba! A Mexican restaurant with not a sombrero in sight – just lashings of tasty and fashionable fast food, in a stylish setting just off Brick Lane.
The ‘DF’, in case you were wondering, stands for ‘Distrito Federal’ – what Mexicans call the conurbation of Mexico City, a vast sprawl bigger than Greater London. Not that you’ll find many Mexicans in this Whitechapel namesake.
Plenty of attentive graphic designers and off-duty DJs, maybe, but not many Spanish-speaking North Americans raised on corn, beans and chili. For DF is very ‘London’. It’s a fashionable and affordable modern Mexican diner created by the Wahaca chain. They are dabbling in something even more mass-market and affordable than Wahaca’s cool Mexican cantina format. DF still bears a lot of Wahaca signatures – strikingly modern design, cheery staff, reservations not taken – and will be a long-running popup (until 2015 at least). It feels and looks like a pilot for a new chain in the making.
How can DF be cheaper than Wahaca? No table ordering keeps staffing costs low. You sit down, leave your bag and jacket behind for opportunistic thieves to eye up, then queue at the counter to use the supermarket-style touchscreen. There are real humans working behind the tills too though, and they can take your order if the touchscreen drives you loco. But this part of the experience is about as much fun as being told you have an unidentified item in the bagging area.
Then a human brings you your booze, you collect your soft drinks from the self-service coolers, and wend your way back through the forest of awkwardly-placed chair legs – the bag snatchers don’t have a chance, not even a couple of chihuahuas could get across this room without a headlong collision.
So far, so what. But the Wahaca crew have done a clever thing: conflated their expertise and experience of Mexican fast food with London’s current fetish for burgers, finger food and US-style grills, a penchant which Mexico City also shares. So if you order the exotic-sounding ‘pork bibil torta’, what arrives looks like a burger. But the toasted brioche bun is filled with slow-cooked pork in a citrous Yucatan-style marinade, and comes with a spread of refried beans, sharp pickle and avocado – me gusta mucho.
More recognisably Mexican are the tacos, served open, so that inside the face-flannel flatbreads you can see the colourful dressings of refried beans, yogurt, coriander leaves and – in our case – crumbed cod, like fish fingers. The fish is Marine Stewardship Council approved (hurrah!); the Wahaca chain also consistently gets top ratings for sustainability from the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
A dietician may take a dimmer view of our meal order though. I left feeling as if I’d eaten a week’s quota of salt, saturated fats and sugar in one meal. This, of course, is not just true of DF Mexico, but could equally well apply to a thousand other fast food joints in London, especially the burger joints. This is the catch with damn tasty food; it’ll cost you in other ways, maybe by taking years off your life, if you eat too much of it. Still, you’re going to die with a smile on your lips.
By Guy Dimond