Down South aint down south but in central Cape Town’s Long Street

I had thought Down South, the name of this ‘good ol southern cookin’ barbecue, a clever play on the Deep South nickname for the Southern Suburbs, which has its head quarters in one of the Access Park factory shop garages.  What people in retail euphemistically call a retail outlet mall. 

Down South Food Bar
+27 (0)21 422 1155

267 Long St
City Bowl
Cape Town

The residents south of the Woodstock-Mason-Line range from the middle classes of Kenilworth, where it is socially acceptable to go and get your bread and milk in your pyjamas (furry puppy slippers mandatory), to the well-heeled chattering classes of dark Newlands but they all have one thing in common, as Clare Mack has pointed out in Spill.  There is nowhere decent to eat. 

Mack said of Deep South: “I’m not so sure it would work in the staid Southern Burbs (pizza and pasta being the preferred nosh).”  This angered at least one Burbanite who said “sure, as parents you may end up in pizza/pasta restaurants so you’re home and have the kids in bed by 8, but that doesn’t mean you enjoy only pizza or pasta”.

Of course they are both right.  Up to a point.  The middle-class suburban sprawlites in many cities do have a safety first approach to food, unlike the seriously rich or the child-free hipster crowd that live centrally.  But I have eaten fine food in Newlands homes (think Oyster Bloody Marys).  Indeed the Southerners and Northerners from Durbanville are among the best customers of the Winelands restaurants, be they cutting edge fine diners, traditional faire joints or simply kid-friendly picnic spots.

I have also dined in the edgier City Bowl with friends from the South.  This massive market is willing to travel for a bento box but curiously want a middling steakhouse for a local.  There must be some scope to improve the quality of the restaurants there.

So it is to Long Street, dodging drug peddlers and beggar-addicts that we venture to sample the cuisine of the American South.

The interior is attractive, lending a slickness to the well-worn joints in this hood that attracts heavy foot traffic on weekends and holidays.  Stone walls and comfy-looking wooden chairs add texture.  Outside, where we choose to sit, there are a couple of tables with benches on the throbbing street.

I am seeking out the most authentic Southern food so order the barbecue ribs with prawns and cheesy grits.  I have never been to the Deep South but I have read that the American suburban barbecue is usually a misnomer.  Frying burger patties on a gas-fired skillet outdoors or grilling on a Weber is not strictly a barbecue but rather a fry.

A traditional Southern barbecue is like a feast day that goes back to the time not long after the first settlers came to the US and the meat is pork not beef, unless you’re Texan.  Even green vegetables are boiled in cured pig.  In one account of a Virginia Barbecue, set in the early 19th Century, it involves days of planning and work.  No blitzvinnige- Fanie here.  In a clearing in the woods pits were dug, fires lit and a ball room and banqueting hall had been fashioned out of wood.  Hickory coals were chosen for their smokeless heat and when they were ready the pigs were speared and voila you had a manual spit-braai.

This big event may have been at the elaborate extreme but what is not in doubt is that an ol’ fashioned Southern barbecue is a manual rotisserie cooked over coals in a pit.  What hasn’t changed is that it is still a piss-up.

Obviously I am not looking for this complete experience at Down South but just something of the essence of ‘healthy’ Southern cooking, which is dominated by pork, seafood and chicken.     A Southern-fried chicken recipe I once saw instructed housewives to fry drumsticks in an inch of lard, pig of course.  That makes KFC sound positively healthy. 

Jack Black beers here are a refreshing relief from the over-carbonated lagers in a can for my guest and I who is known as Ed-Ed-and-Eddie despite there only being one of him (I have no idea why).  So I order a special of barbecued loin ribs, prawns and cheesy grits (think Joburg-style stywe mealie pap, or porridge).  The ribs are overly licoricy for my taste but what isn’t in dispute is that they are overcooked and dry as an old piece of jerky.

Even the ribs at the takeout section of my local Pick n Pay are juicier looking, though I have never tried them.  There is nothing cheesy about the maize porridge, though it is creamy.  I grew up eating phuthu, the crumbly Zulu version of grits, enjoying it with milk and sugar for breakfast but never quite got into the more traditional way of serving it with maas (rough sour milk).  Three big prawns are okay, giving an aquatic New Orleans come Louisiana touch to Southern dining, but nothing to write home about.

There have been some rave reviews of Down South so maybe I am unlucky tonight but with top chef Karl Penn running the place it is surprising.  Penn came from steakhouse Carne where I once devoured a masterpiece of a hanger steak.  How difficult is it to spice, marinade and baste ribs?  The kitchen will have a formula for spices and cooking time.  Clearly they aren’t following it tonight.  I mean at & Union the cooks don’t even preside over the outdoor gas braai’s but simply turn the meat and then take them off the grill when the remote timer tells them to.  I have never eaten a bad meal there and I am often there for lunch, though the lovely beers are pricy.

Starter options at Down South include Buffalo Wings and grilled lightly smoked thick-cut bacon (both R40).  For these hard times there are also po’ boy sandwiches (pulled pork, prawns or brisket).  Specials change by the day and include gumbo, jambalaya, hamburgers, fried chicken and cajun fish.

This diner promises a value offering, with the purposefully limited menu.  I like this uncomplicated approach as it helps keep prices down while it (should) keep quality up.  The rib special is R75.  From the menu the ribs with one side dish are R65 and grilled prawns R70.  Side dishes include corn bread, whipped potatoes and home fries.

Some of the desserts are mud pie and pecan pie.

Wine list fine for a barbecue, listed under categories of cheap, decent and good, but best to drink beer.

Cocktails include bourbon and Southern Comfort liqueur drinks such as Louisiana Jam (with apricot jam), Passion Julep and Southern Ice Tea.

2/5 stars on the night. 

Tell me if I was unlucky. 

Explanatory Notes 

The trad Virginia barbecue account is an excerpt from John M. Duncan’s Travels through Part of the United States and Canada in 1818 and 1819, published 1823.  The account is brought back to life in the wonderful ‘American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes’, edited by Molly O’Neill.  In Texas beef was preferred to the pork of the South and South-East. The word barbecue is an Anglicisation of the Spanish word barbacoa which in turn came from the indigenous Indian Arawak tribe.  The Indians loved cooking en plain air so much they did it every day.  Of course they didn’t have stoves.

American Food Writing published in 2007 by the Library of America includes excerpts and contributions from no less than Calvin Trillan, MFK Fisher, JA Brillat-Savarin, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, and a minor politician who went by the name of Thomas Jefferson.  A book to treasure for the rest of your life.  I bought it at the Book Lounge.

Influences on Southern Cooking

Soul food (African American, think Okra which is frequently used to thicken stews).

Cajun or spicier Creole from Louisiana and New Orleans. (French and Spanish, think gumbo soup and jambalaya, a stew, frequently with crawfish, in which rice is cooked)  Gumbo and jambalaya are both based on the ‘trinity’ of onions, green peppers and celery. 

American Indians taught the early settlers, initially the Spanish, how to braai, particularly slow cooking with smoke.  They also introduced them to maize. 

Low Country of Virginia gave us Smithfield Ham and popularized peanuts. Grits with you guessed it, bacon, are a popular breakfast here too.

Tom Robbins
Posted March 19, 2011

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2 Responses to “Down South aint down south but in central Cape Town’s Long Street”

  1. Katharine says:

    Will give this one a miss and stick to Obs – Hello Sailor getting rave local reviews

  2. Lee says:

    I have travelled to Texas several times and this places food is a joke. I was so excited to try the brisket which was warmed up beef on a stale roll! Terrible. The wing starters were ok, but I have had better.

    The meat doesn’t taste like it has been NEAR a smoker which is the basis of Southern Cuisine.

    Cocktails are exorbitantly expensive as well. Just avoid!!!

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