Early last year, this column railed mischievously against Tex-Mex as a cuisine. Some readers objected, saying the whole point of this vile food genre is that it is cheesy, sloppy, gooey, oily, squishy and often stringy. To keep such fare plebeian, fast and cheap (actually more profitable than cheap) it has to be packeted, tinned and bottled, and dolloped out of tubs.
What I was really lamenting is that there is such wonderful food in Mexico, it seems an awful pity that Tex-Mex has come to shape our understanding of Mexican food.
At long last, there is now a choice in Cape Town with the opening of San Julian, the city’s first real Mexican restaurant with actual Mexicans serving Mexican food as close to authentic as one can get with South African produce.
The owners are the Garcia family from Culiacán, the largest city in the state of Sinaloa on the west coast of Mexico, regrettably known as the heartland of the drug cartels though spared the anarchy of places such as Juarez.
Located in what was formerly Chef restaurant, the interior is low key, but is nothing like the tat-filled Tex-Mex canteens familiar to us with their amateur knock-offs of Frida Khalos. There are Catholic crosses on the walls and an altar-like display of colourful blankets and a sombrero. The chairs are pretty hard; the owners might consider some cushions.
This was the home base of the Mexican soccer fans during the FIFA world cup. They donated the big screen television that dominates the dining area. When I ate here the sound was turned off, but our barman seemed mesmerized by the shopping channel which was running demonstrations of power drills and electric sanders. Somehow this was all seemed oddly quaint – part of the family atmosphere.
Either that or it was the effect of the thickest margarita in town, Don Arturo’s (R39), made with a secret ingredient. The story goes the grandfather invented it to woo his girl, later wife. The waitress wouldn’t tell me what it was, but I suspect some kind of fruit, perhaps pineapple or a syrup.
Everything is homemade. There are no factory Doritos, but handmade nachos served with guacamole made on the spot (not the usual discolouring avocado from a bucket, half-preserved with lemon juice).
The tortillas are made from corn, though you can go cheaper and ask for the flour option. Chef Ricardo Garcia says they can’t use our yellow sweetcorn, so they have to source white corn from up north. The preparation is a time-consuming process. The skin of each kernel has to be stripped before it can be ground. Interested diners are welcome to watch the kitchen at work.
The basis for almost every dish is these handmade tortillas, which may also be deep-fried, and can be served open, coiled, stacked or filled. Most courses have a vegetarian option and come with mozzarella, guacamole, and onion with coriander salsa. The food is mild for those accustomed to spice, but they offer one incredibly hot chilli oil on the side made from a variety of jalapeño unavailable locally which they import directly.
A good idea is to order a few courses and share for variety. The vampiro (R80) is a corn tortilla, toasted crisp on the grill and topped with diced steak, not mincemeat. The flautas (R75) are three deep fried, coiled tortillas filled with a solid piece of chicken breast embellished with a piquant green sauce (made from green tomatoes), a sprinkling of feta cheese on top and accompanied by red rice.
Finish up with a few shots of Don Julio, an imported “sipping” tequila. At R40 a tot you won’t want to down this.
San Julian hopes to expand its menu to offer a wider variety of Mexican dishes, many hardly known outside the country. This is something to look forward to.
Another restaurant moving away from Tex-Mex and towards more genuine fare is El Burro. This attractive eatery with a balcony that looks straight on to the Green Point stadium opened about a month ago, and the service has the enthusiasm and attentiveness of a fresh place hungry for success. Observant and thoughtful, the waitresses in their Mexican folk dresses past every test so well I began to wonder if I hadn’t been identified. One hopes they can keep it up.
The chef isn’t Mexican, but has experience. He does a passable chicken mole (R80) – a deboned chicken in a burnt umber-coloured, highly spiced, chilli sauce which has chocolate in it. As someone who loves mole but has always loathed the fillet in chilli-chocolate sauce made famous in Cape Town by Madam Zingara, I was apprehensive. El Burro pulled it off with aplomb.
On the downside, the flour tortillas are rubbery (inedible to a critic) and the margarita (R35) is a non-event. But overall the food here beats Tex-Mex hands down and the menu gives a broader experience of Mexican cuisine.
San Julian, 3 Rose Street, Cape Town. Open Monday to Saturday for dinner only. Tel: 021 419 4233.
El Burro, 81 Main Road, Green Point. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Tel: 021 433 2364.
See also Tex-Mex for Habanero, Fat Cactus and the Mexican Kitchen.
Published in the Mail & Guardian, 19 November 2010.