While on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, each morning I enjoyed a 39 peso (R26) buffet at a pleasant family-run restaurant.
As part of the breakfast ritual, the cheery owner would, not altogether jokingly, offer me his daughter in marriage while he took my order for eggs.
She’d blush and keep on stirring a pot of tasty refried black beans. In such a macho culture the father of this family fascinated me, because he wore a frilly pink apron and he alone cooked the food. Gentle and warm, with his black moustache and hairy arms protruding from the lace, he somehow glowed with an almost maternal charm.
I had expected to fast while travelling through Mexico, but the food was revelatory, especially further from the United States border. It was spicy, but you could taste the individual ingredients: the chillies, the achiote, the lime. From Merida to Mexico City the food bore no resemblance to what passes as Mexican cuisine elsewhere in the world. Nobody I met in Mexico had heard of nachos with melted cheddar cheese.
So-called Mexican food in South Africa tends to be popular with young people (because it is cheap and unsophisticated), with an older, boozy crowd who need some cheesy quick-fix to neutralise the alcohol swilling about their guts and with novice vegetarians who like beans.
The establishments generally look as though the hippy crowd decorated them two decades ago, with rickety furniture, tatty sombreros littered about the place and always bad art, usually gruesomely amateur copies of Frida Khalo nailed to the walls.
“You’ll think you’re in Mexico,” claims the homepage of one such restaurant. Yes, if you’ve never been there.
With more than seven of these Tex-Mex outfits, Cape Town seems to have a disproportionately large number, more than Johannesburg or, surprisingly, Durban.
One of the oldest (among the longest surviving restaurants in Cape Town) is the Mexican Kitchen off Long Street. The grunge creatives might also have done the electrics, as the lights went out with a loud bang shortly after my lunch order reached the kitchen. A bored manager gave the impression this was a regular occurrence. Their refried bean soup (R25) was surprisingly yummy. Munchkin, whom I dragged along, examined everything with gastric paranoia, but finally asked for potato wedges (R20). These turned out to be spongy discs of sliced potato, not wedges, dusted with peri-peri, leaching oil.
Habaneros in Kalk Bay follows the norm. There’s only so much you can write about mush. Things here drip and leak yellow cheese. The black bean burrito (R58) is bland and, you guessed it, nothing like any beans in Mexico. Their stodgy refried beans (R64) come with a tomato salsa, some feta, a sprinkling of Doritos and the blandest guacamole. It’s fast food that takes 30 minutes to be served. But the clientele doesn’t seem to mind.
Tex-Mex places are profitable. The ingredients are cheap and arrive pre-packed in tins, bottles, tubs and packets of tortillas and factory-made corn chips (some places, shamelessly, even make these into displays). No chef and minimal effort is required to microwave and slop it on to plates.
The Fat Cactus, originally of Mowbray circa 1998, is spearheading a new generation. Considerably more professional and upmarket, but let’s not exaggerate, its new flagship in Park Road is spacious and comfortable. But it too is American and not Mexican, with funky visual references to Hollywood and cowboy motifs. The glossary at the back of the menu tells one that an “enchilada is like a cannelloni”. No, it is not, if you’re running a Mexican restaurant.
The food here is cleaner and more self-conscious, which is a good thing. Overall though, their Tex-Mex component is not great value for money. Patrons might have cottoned on to this, for I was the only person trying their quesadilla, which was quite acceptable in our context. The other six tables (I counted carefully) ate burgers (from R42,90 to R62,90) and salads. There’s an “Obama burger”, which is a standard American cheese burger.
The menu is part “Mexican”, but mostly steak ranch (Buffalo Wings, Cowboy Calamari, Coyote Chicken) with a Tex-Mex twist. “Need more tortillas, shout hey gringo, and we’ll keep em comin”, the menu instructs. You can take the Fat Cactus out of Mowbray, but … In its latest incarnation, I suspect it will be very successful.
Don’t let Tex-Mex put you off visiting Mexico. The Yucatan has some of the finest cuisine of the Americas.
Fat Cactus, 5 Park Road, Gardens. Open for lunch from Monday to Sunday, dinner from Monday to Saturday. Tel: 021 422 5022
Habaneros, 138 Main Road, Kalk Bay. Open for lunch from 12pm Wednesday to Sunday and for dinner from Tuesday to Sunday. Tel: 021 788 6967
Mexican Kitchen, 13 Bloem Street, Cape Town. Open from 9am until late, seven days a week. Tel: 021 423 1541