The plethora of Tex-Mex joints that exploded on the 20-somethings’ restaurant scene in the early 1990’s had their place in the sun. They added variety to the existing 80’s Italian and Greek cafés catering to this price-conscious market – a crowd that wanted to get fed and liquored with the R30 set aside for Friday night. I know. I was one of them.
|San Julian Taco & Tequila
+27 (0)21 419 4233
3 Rose St
(the bottom end, near Green Point)
Central Cape Town
In the decade before grunge they lured us in with cheap red wine and sangria. We thought it was sophisticated. To dine in a restaurant without one’s parents was a novelty.
These 80’s cafés were located in low-rent areas such Yeoville in Johannesburg, behind Durban’s beachfront hotels and in Cape Town’s Observatory. Names such as Mama’s pizzeria, the old Spiga D’Oro and Pancho’s are recalled. Timeless and universal: you can still can find places with the same names in any big city in the world. Of the three neighourhoods only Obs retains a smidgen of its old high street character and indeed only Pancho’s (an early taste of the Mexican trend) survives.
In the plethora of newer 90’s Tex-Mex restaurants the food was (and indeed still is) rarely fresh or authentic, even to North Americans but nobody cared (or knew). We were about a decade behind the global trend curve but thought we were cutting edge (the rest of the world was cutting lines). Disposable paper tablecloths were a novelty. Apart from this they also introduced many to the then exotic drink: tequila. It was believed to be a mind-altering drink at the time but there was always a downer: the bill. It took as long as the meal itself to rustle up the funds. For there was always one. One who underpaid.
Tequila’s reputation for mild hallucination – like our hair and flat stomachs – hasn’t endured. Luckily for those of you still in the flush of youth, albeit in a more cosmopolitan world, the opportunity to have a blast without conscience or consequence, is still there. The neighbourhood local was our city – the world is yours (with a nod to Jack Parrow).
In these joints Tupperware-aged avocado in guacamole was preserved with vinegar* instead of being flavoured by it. Soggy nachos (corn chips) were likely bought from a factory and the tortillas (like savoury pancake) likely the same (the memory is fuzzy). If the tortillas were fresh they were made of flour. While Mexicans are also now known to make tortillas from flour, the traditional ingredient is their native corn. Other indigenous Mexican foods include beans, chocolate, avocado and the spice vanilla.
San Julian, in the Bo-Kaap’s Rose Street (at the Green Point end just above Truth coffee), distinguishes itself by the kitchen-hot maize tortillas (whether the toasted crisp variety or the softer wraps). You can watch the Mexican chef make them. The taste of mealies lifts a simple nachos dish of the ubiquitous refried brown bean paste, guacamole, cheddary cheese and pickled jalapenos (mild chilli peppers).
This grainy freshness is also in evidence in the crispy tortilla that comes with the vampiro, served with authentic chopped steak, not the mushy mince you will find elsewhere.
A less exciting option is the vegetarian option the sencilla, a rather boring soft taco (a folded soft or crisped tortilla) filled with guacamole and mozzarella cheese. (You can order any dish and ask for the meat to be left out. And with beans in most and the bit of extra cheese and avo offered you won’t feel short-changed.)
Both the good vampiro and ordinary sencilla are elevated by good (tomato) salsa and an even better burny salsa XXX. Diego, the Chilean waiter won’t reveal what the XXX stands for as there are “ladies present”. He doesn’t know the kind of ‘ladies’ we hang out with. But he does reveal that x-rated salsa is made with green tomatoes, though is a see-through brown in colour. The tomato component of the taste is similar to the tomato consommé that is all the rage in foodie-filled restaurants at the moment (Jardine and Bizerca). Though in these institutions they exclude the chilli, lest it interfere with your delicate wine palate. Here an even hotter version is produced later. Fiery but without destroying the flavours of the food.
For digestifs we choose a ‘genuine’ Mexican sipping tequila**, a gold Don Julio. It is as smoothe and caramelly as the waiter says. Rot-gut shooters such as Olmeca and Jose Cuervo ain’t the real deal, he says. R40 a shot but worth it.
As you might expect there is Corona beer, one of the best ways to bottle summer. For those not imbibing there is a horchata (or orxata), a lovely milky-sweet mildly spiced ground rice drink (nuts such as almonds are used instead of rice in Spain). Spirit can be added and there is also an array of Mexican cocktails.
The chef and his brother (the barman) are Mexican. As you would expect their mother, who handles the till, is too. Daddy sometimes plays the guitar on weekends.
The interior is airy (only one other table is occupied) and thrown together, lacking the often unnecessary work of an interior decorator. Several traditional football masks and a TV adorn the bar counter – donated by Mexican World Cup football fans.
The bill for four is R309 (including drinks and excluding tip). Opportunities to order small portions so you get more variety, though common themes such as cheese, guacamole and salsa render many of the dishes similar.
Only open at night. Apologies don’t know the telephone number yet (here it is +27 (0)21 419 4233) but on the night there is no need to book. No desserts available but you can phone ahead to order them. For those that prefer wheat they offer tortillas from this grain too.
3/5 stars on the night. Despite this just above average rating well worth checking out for the authenticity of the food.
* Guacamole is essentially a paste of avo and salt. It can be flavoured with lime juice. Vinegar shouldn’t ideally be used as a substitute.
** There is a pop-up bar called Tequila Town on the corner of Buitengracht and Castle Streets. When it will subside I do not know.
And just in case Maritzburgers feel left I would like to take a moment to remember the ‘lovely’ Plaka Taverna. Only ‘Plaka’s’ mother and those that were young in the 80’s could have loved it. Not to mention PeterRabbitsBorough’s ground-breaking band: Hypnotick Erra. It was.
Posted August 20, 2010