Skip the Westfield White City Wahaca.
I have an inherent distrust of excessively showy-looking restaurants – anything too flashy is usually covering for deficiencies in the kitchen. That doesn’t have to be the case as Habanera shows. The rear half of the dining room at this Mexican restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush borders on the cheesy – faux creeping vines cover the rear wall, while semi-kitsch murals depict the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe and, rather oddly, the Mona Lisa dressed up as a mariachi musician.
The menu is mercifully brief consisting, with few exceptions, mostly of tacos. Those taco fillings can be embiggened into burrito form.
Weekend lunch at Habanera
Habanera’s horchata was milky with a subtle rice-derived sweetness that was perhaps a little too subtle for its own good. There was a hefty dusting of distinctly flavoured cinnamon which didn’t detract from this drink’s cool refreshing nature.
Although the tacos were made out of corn flour, the ones at this first meal were a little stiff, muted in taste and overstuffed too. Small bits of lean, anonymous beef passing for steak were cooked well-done and mildly dense. They were highly dependent on the mildly zingy sauce for flavour.
Mushroom filled tacos were more pleasing. Taut, slippery and lightly earthy mushrooms had a mild herbal zing.
Weekend dinner at Hanbanera
Habanera only has a truncated menu available at lunch, so it’s worth going for dinner instead to get the widest choice of taco fillings. The quality of the maize flour tacos was unchanged, but the fillings showed modest improvement. Meaty, glossy cubes of raw tuna had a spiced umami glaze that turned out to be tamarind – an unexpected revelation.
Firm, woody and reasonably moist chunks of pork shoulder were complimented well by a lightly spicy sauce and tart pickled onions.
There was a return to previous form with the baja fish tacos. Although the batter was too stodgy and crunchy for my liking, the glossy cod underneath was flaky and delicate. It was highly dependent on the one-dimensional chipotle mayo for flavour though.
The horchata was more chocolatey sweet and somehow thicker this time around. While still refreshingly cool, it was moving away from being a classic horchata and into Nesquik territory.
The technical excellence of Habanera’s churros couldn’t be faulted. Its crisp exterior wasn’t too oily and was dusted with demera sugar. It was delightfully soft and fluffy on the inside, but the accompanying chocolate dipping sauce was perfunctory at best. The quality churros were best appreciated without it.
Weekday dinner at Habanera
The tortillas at my final Habanera meal were a little thicker than before and not as stiff, but were still muted. This didn’t detract from the higher standard of fillings this time around though. Dense and lightly earthy goat was neatly offset by sharp, boozy cherries. An unusual but nonetheless successful pairing.
Squash had a measured buttery sweetness that meshed well with earthy feta. Habanera’s kitchen clearly has a knack for the more offbeat fillings.
The least successful of this taco trio, but still better than many of the others from previous meals, was the prawn filling. The prawns were drowned out by the salsa, but its fruity, citrusy, aromatic heat was so tingly and pleasing that I was willing to overlook this flaw.
The horchata this time around was pretty much identical to the chocolatey version from my previous meal. A dessert of caramelised plantains was generally a success. The firm, starchy and lightly sweet slices show that plantains aren’t just misguided rogue bananas. They were doused in a relative heavy caramel sauce. The kitchen attempted to counterbalance its relative richness with salted caramel ice cream, but this only worked due to its cool creaminess and not its muted salty-sweetness. Once again, one of Habanera’s desserts verged on greatness only to be let down by so-so accompaniments.
Habanera’s tacos and desserts need more finesse. Nevertheless, even in their current state, the Mexican food here makes a refreshing change from the otherwise Levantine-majority restaurants of the local area and it’s generally better than the only other local alternative that I’m aware of – the Westfield-branch of the increasingly so-so Wahaca. Habanera isn’t quite good enough to set your world alight, but you could do a lot, lot worse.
What to order: Goat tacos; Squash tacos; Churros
What to skip: Steak tacos
Address: 280 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush, London W12 7JA
Phone: 0208 001 4887
Opening Hours: Monday-Thursday noon-23.00; Friday noon-midnight; Saturday 09.00-midnight and Sunday 09.00-22.30.
Reservations: yeah if you want
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £35 approx.