San Julian Taco & Tequila, café run by real Mexicans

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)
Bo-Kaap
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.

Tom Robbins
Posted August 20, 2010

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14 Responses to “San Julian Taco & Tequila, café run by real Mexicans”

  1. Tom Robbins says:

    Not all Tex-Mex themed restaurant food is dull (see my comments in the review above). The chicken and refried bean filling in the enchilada at the Mexican Kitchen in Bloem St (off Long St) was lively with just enough chilli heat. The enchilada (rolled tortilla)was made of flour. The guacamole was poor (too acidic).
    Tom Robbins

  2. David Donde says:

    hey, thanks for the small mention! dying to try my neighbor’s fares out! from David Donde of coffee shop Truth

  3. I went to San Julian last night. As a Canadian from Vancouver, a city full of Mexican immigrants, students and Mexican resturants, I found the food at San Julian authentic and delicious. It might even have been better than the food I’ve had at Mexican 5-star resorts. The Margarita is to die for (the grandfather’s special recipe) and the chicken flautas made me drool. The owners are the warmest people I have met in Cape Town, and they were playing a very funny vintage Mexican comedy on their big screen that had us laughing all night. I will be making this a regular hang-out for sure. I miss the latin vibe in Vancouver, and San Julian makes me feel like I’m at home.

  4. For Real says:

    I have eaten many meals in Mexico and at many authentic restaurants in various taquerias and Mexican restaurants in various parts Cali, all run by Mexicans. I am certainly not a connoisseur, but I am a converted lover of Mexican cuisine. I was very excited to try them out amidst the the other typical Tex Mex offerings in this city.

    So we ate at San Julian a few weeks back, and though i agree with the writer, that the hosts are the warmest genuine people and the food was in someways authentic,it was not very imaginative at all.
    No tomales no Mole, the green tomatoes salsa was not made from proper green (tomatillo)tomatoes but rather what seemed like unripend red tomatoes, nowhere near the salsa verde you get in every mexican hangout. The writer clearly has not tasted this distictive taste. Black beans rachas chipotles,anchos radishes where?

    I guess this wasnt tex mex but it was way less exiting to the pallet than any sidewalk taquria I have experienced in central mexico. Where were those amazing spices the babecoa? Most of these, besides the tomatillo green tomatoes are available here.

    The menu was repetitive and the meat was just so bland. Bland, mexican in the same sentence, that is simply not easy to achieve. The filling of the chicken flautes was poor and tasteless.We tried many of the options, and they were ok but repetitive and rehashes of the same theme without changing any flavour profiles.
    The prices were reasonable, so we didnt feel cheated about 330 bucks for the 2 of us, We had margaritas (not available in authentic mexican cuisine, a tex mex invention) and tried most options.

    Though these lovely people make there own corn tortillas from imported cornflour and they are indeed from Mexico, I am saddened to say they are not doing one of the most richest world cuisines due justice. The decor is souless but if the food was any good It would’nt be relevant. We were both disappointed and I think 3 out of 5 is way generous as far as the taste experience goes.
    I do wish them luck as they deserve it but more than that they need a trained Mexican chef, from… well wherever, otherwise it will be a wasted opportunity.

  5. admin says:

    Thanks for your comments which appear to be extremely well informed – and very educational for South Africans, who have no tradition of “real” Mexican food. You are right that I have never been to Mexico. Because of this I am continually on the look-out for the next best thing to the authentic Mexican restaurant and San Julian is the closest I have found in Cape Town. Please let me know if you find a better alternative.
    Tom Robbins

  6. Heinie Venter says:

    I went to this restaurant twice already and is no doubt the best in Cape Town!!!

    The owner and staff are very friendly and kind!!

    Thank you guys!

    Kind Regards

    Heinie

  7. Justin says:

    I was also there last night and will definitely be going back soon! Such warm, friendly people – they make you feel like part of the family. And the food was amazing.
    And the grandfathers margarita – wow!
    The best Mexican food I have had in Cape Town by far.

  8. Dale says:

    As a USA citizen living in CT it is very rare to find authentic Mexican food in South Africa like you find in the USA. This place comes close to one of those hole in the wall authentic Mexican restaurants you find in LA, but is just not there yet. Hats off to them making there own corn tortillas from scratch! But they need to seriously work on their margaritas (please use real lime whatever the cost), guacamole (this should be hand mashed and not put through a blender) and refried beans (this should be able to be eaten with a fork and not drunk with a spoon). The carne asada served in the combination platter lacked flavour and the meat could have been a better quality, although the Flautas were very tasty. Hopefully they will get it right as it’s run by a very charming authentic Mexican family!

  9. paco says:

    I was in san julian, I think Dale is a little bit wrong as a mexican I undertand the copcept of the menu also the service and for me its correct. tacos are acompainned with “frijoles de la olla” Soup beans refried beans comes in other dishes, nachos for example, that guacamole is named in mexico “guacamole taquero” is not wrong to put it in a blender we have also that hand made preparation but normaly we use that texture for other kind of dishes is not usual in tacos.

  10. Ricardo says:

    hi everybody,
    a few days ago I met a Mexican food restaurant and was impressed when you enter the place and received the smell of corn tortilla, I couldn’t believe it because I have lived here a some months and hadn’t found any place to make corn tortillas made hand.I’m Mexican and assure you that San Julian is like a piece of Mexico in Cape Town, if you want to try the tacos with corn tortillas made by hand and know the tastes of my Mexico, San Julian is the only option you have in this beautiful City. And remember is Mexican food made by Mexicans, that is the secret.

    Esmeralda Peralta

  11. Joanne says:

    The people are fantastic and real, although I have little experience with Mexican food their food is delicious. I would have it any day over every other “Mexican Reastaurant” I have eaten at in Cape Town.
    I look forward to what more they have in store!

  12. Angelique says:

    Hola everyone!

    My fiance is Mexican and I stayed with his family for 3 months, eating Mexican food everyday! I have been to Mexico and whilst there had taco’s virtually everyday, served on the streets and in restaurants!

    I may not be an expert, but from what I remember, I can say without a doubt that the food from San Julian is great! I crave for it as I type this! I am going there for my BIRTHDAY! That’s how high I think of their food. I don’t think any other Mexican restaurant can compare to the authentic taste, and smell, of San Julian! I was so happy to have found this place as I use to crave that authentic Mexican food taste upon my return to SA! I honestly think it is unnecessary to analyse every little thing as they are doing their best with what they’ve got. After all, they are not in Mexico and do not have the exact same resources.

  13. Jake says:

    As a native southern californian and after having worked in Mexico for a year Casa San Julian is the real deal. For a native angeleno living in CT for the past 11 years and who’s had to learn from scratch how to make everything from tortillas to mole and civiche to pico de gallo, Casa San Julian is a dream of Mexico made real in South Africa (hell that its in Cape Town is unreal…but realistically its the first authentic mexican food in SA). Everyone wanting to taste real mexican food should visit!

  14. Chef Rodlfo says:

    As a mexican and living outside my country for the past 5 years (Caribbean, Texas & Johannesburg) San Julian is the place where I feel most at home…the food, the people- all authentically mexican. Culture+Traditions=Real Flavor. Congrats García family, San Julian smells like México. (freshly squeezed margarita, grandfather recipe, the correct aperitive to start the delicacy)
    Viva México amigos…

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