Taiwanese Mexican Food, Made in South Africa

Mexican/Latin-American food is one of the things I’ve missed most in South Africa. There are a couple of Mexican restaurants in Joburg, including one in Melville called Café Mexicho. (Read my reviews of that establishment — which I now think were overly generous — here and here.) But Mexican food in this town tends to be mediocre.

It’s to be expected. My home country is filled with great Latin American food, but that is because it’s also filled with great Latin American people. Quality Latin American ingredients are available in every U.S. grocery store. In South Africa, on the other hand, I haven’t met a single Mexican. And unless you know how to make your own corn tortillas and salsa, you aren’t going to find anything decent here.

At least not until now. I have some exciting news on this front. But before I get to the main subject of this post — my review of Joburg’s new Mexican restaurant — here’s some context.

Check out these photos of the best Mexican food (or more generally, American-ized Latin food) that I ate on my recent trip to the United States.

Tacos El Centro

Tacos from the high-end El Centro in Washington D.C. I ate here on my first night back in America. I think these were fish tacos but I can’t remember (jet lag).

Pica Tacos

Traditional tacos from a hole-in-the-wall called Pica Taco in D.C. One chicken, one fish, and one carnitas (a type of roasted pork often served in tacos).

Breakfast taco

Breakfast taco from the Taqueria in D.C. Eggs, chorizo, cheese, tomato, and cilantro.

Key West tacos

The best “Mexican” meal that I had in America was not from a Mexican restaurant, but rather a seafood joint in the Florida Keys called the Hungry Tarpon. Blackened mahi-mahi fish tacos with tomatoes, cabbage, and some delicious mystery sauce, with a side of beans and rice.

While I was in America I saw a Facebook post about a new Mexican restaurant, called Mama Mexicana, opening in Joburg’s Maboneng Precinct. I had my doubts. Kevin, Mama Mexicana’s head chef, is from Taiwan and I’m suspicious of any Mexican restaurant not run by a Latin American person. (I later learned that Kevin trained at a Mexican restaurant in Taiwan.) I made a mental note to try Mama Mexicana when I got back.

I ate at Mama Mexicana two days ago with a group of South African bloggers, and I’m pleased to report that the food is by far the best Mexican fare in Joburg.

I started by ordering chips and salsa, even though it was not listed on the menu. But I believe that every Mexican meal should begin with chips and salsa so I insisted.

chips and salsa

Mama’s chips and salsa.

The Americans will spot the problem right away: These chips aren’t authentic and there aren’t enough of them. But this turned out to be my only complaint of the meal, and the flavor of the salsa made up for the mediocre chips. The salsa was tangy and spicy with tons of cilantro (coriander to the South Africans).

Next were the chili poppers. I don’t really consider chili poppers to be an authentic Mexican dish but South Africans love them, probably because jalapeno peppers are so abundant here.

poppers

Mama’s chili poppers. Kevin let us in on a little secret: The jalapenos are wrapped in Chinese spring roll wrappers.

I loved the poppers, especially dipped in the tasty salsa and sour cream, which is real sour cream rather than the thin sour cream sauce served by the other Mexican places in Joburg.

My main entree was tacos, of course.

Mama Mexicana tacos

Chicken tacos a la Mama: authentic presentation, nicely spiced meat, fresh toppings and sides. Impressive and affordable at R45 (less than $5) for three tacos. The corn tortillas are good too — I forgot to ask Kevin where he gets them or if he makes them himself.

At Joburg’s other Mexican restaurants, I find the biggest drawback is the flavor of the meats and sauces. Everything tastes okay, but lacks that Mexican zing. Mama’s food has great flavor though.

Mama Mexicana is on Fox Street in Maboneng, around the corner from Market on Main and next to Origin Coffee. Mama’s is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (I need to go try the huevos rancheros), and has nice atmosphere and free wifi. Mama’s doesn’t have a liquor license yet so right now it’s BYOB, but I’m sure that will change. Mama Mexicana also has a stand on Sundays inside Market on Main.

I give Mama’s a score of 4 chilis out of 5. Start making your own chips, Kevin, and I’ll raise your score to 4.5.

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33 Comments

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough October 19, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    I am, obviously, living in the land of Latin cuisine, but I can’t get a decent corn chip. What’s up with that? Even the Mexican restaurants I’ve been to don’t serve them.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • Reply oscar gutierrez October 19, 2013 at 2:01 pm

      They call them self Mexican rest or latin rest. is only the name. The people in the back they have no idea where these food came from. Sorry

      • Reply 2summers October 19, 2013 at 7:22 pm

        I had a feeling you’d have something to say about this, Oscar. I should have said I know one Guatemalan 🙂

    • Reply Pat May 30, 2014 at 10:59 pm

      Real mexicans DO not eat chips with salsa or anything, they are only use for chilaquiles or nachos.

      • Reply 2summers June 1, 2014 at 10:44 am

        Thanks for clarifying this and of course you’re right. I of course yearn for the Americanized, less healthy version of Mexican food 🙂

  • Reply Just a Little Background Noise October 19, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Those wraps look so good!

    • Reply 2summers October 19, 2013 at 7:22 pm

      They are!

      • Reply Just a Little Background Noise October 19, 2013 at 7:44 pm

        Hahaha! I deserved that 😀

  • Reply Mathieu October 19, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    yumi

  • Reply colin October 20, 2013 at 2:38 am

    I l spent a lot of time on business in Los Angeles and they have Mexican food. They understand it like no else. A friend told me that Mexican food is good, simply and inexpensive with lots of beer or wine. I looked at your photos and I wanted to lick the screen.

    • Reply 2summers October 21, 2013 at 6:52 pm

      Haha, I’m flattered that my pics made you feel that way.

  • Reply Kelly October 20, 2013 at 7:57 am

    Hello,

    I found your blog a few weeks back as I am moving to JoBurg at the end of the month. You are a very talented writer and photographer and I love all the things you discover and write about. I can’t wait to arrive and start exploring.

    I am an American who has been living in France for the past 13 years and the thing I miss most about the US is Mexican food (I lived in Arizona) ! It is impossible to find here, so I am happy to see there are some candidates to try out in JoBurg. You are so right about the chips !

    Thanks again for such a great blog, you have a wonderful outlook on life (which is amazing as I have read what you have been through) and it is a pleasure reading about JoBurg through your eyes. I am sure we will enjoy it as much as you do.

    Take care,
    Kelly

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun October 20, 2013 at 7:59 am

    Hello,

    I found your blog a few weeks back as I am moving to JoBurg at the end of the month. You are a very talented writer and photographer and I love all the things you discover and write about. I can’t wait to arrive and start exploring.

    I am an American who has been living in France for the past 13 years and the thing I miss most about the US is Mexican food (I lived in Arizona) ! It is impossible to find here, so I am happy to see there are some candidates to try out in JoBurg. You are so right about the chips !

    Thanks again for such a great blog, you have a wonderful outlook on life (which is amazing as I have read what you have been through) and it is a pleasure reading about JoBurg through your eyes. I am sure we will enjoy it as much as you do.

    Take care,
    Kelly

    • Reply 2summers October 20, 2013 at 9:36 am

      Hi Kelly,

      Thanks so much for your message – I really appreciate it. You sound like someone who will understand and enjoy living in Joburg. And yes, there will be at least one place where you can enjoy Mexican food!

      I’m very glad you found my blog and I wish you best of luck with your move.

      Heather

  • Reply Yasmin October 20, 2013 at 10:45 am

    Actually you don’t have to make your own corn tortillas here. You can buy them from Mexicorn. http://www.mexicorn.co.za/

    Some of their nacho (corn tortilla chips) flavours are rather strange (paprika and cheese?) but the plain ones are absolutely authentic. And I say this as someone who has lived in Texas three times in my life and in California once.

    You can find their nachos (corn tortilla chips, still can’t figure out why they call them nachos when they’re plain but eh, this is South Africa) at Dischem usually. I buy the soft corn tortillas for cooking from them directly, and just make my own Tex-Mex food at home.

    Need to figure out how to make carne asada/pollo asado tho. I miss that Baja food! 🙁

    • Reply 2summers October 20, 2013 at 11:59 am

      Wow Yasmin, that is a great tidbit of information. Thanks! I’ll definitely check it out.

      I miss tomatillo and mole sauce and I’m pretty sure there is no chance of finding then here.

      I definitely want to check out your post about US accents.

      • Reply Yasmin October 20, 2013 at 12:01 pm

        I haven’t even found tomatillos down here at all, just regular tomatoes. 🙁

        • Reply 2summers October 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm

          I know! And the tomatoes aren’t as good here as in the US, in my opinion.

      • Reply Ant November 1, 2014 at 8:16 pm

        Mexicorn has tomatillos and chipotles in adobe, I think only big cans though

        • Reply 2summers November 3, 2014 at 3:26 pm

          Thanks. What’s Mexicorn?

  • Reply @za5 October 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Hmmm… I really need to try this new place.

    • Reply 2summers October 20, 2013 at 12:44 pm

      Yes, you do! I thought of you when I was there. You’ll like it.

  • Reply horsesofthesun October 21, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Oh yum! Now I’m hungry…that looks awesome

    • Reply 2summers October 21, 2013 at 6:51 pm

      I don’t blame you for being hungry.

  • Reply aspiringimagesbyrachel October 21, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    I agree that the meal must begin with chips and salsa. Maybe you can convince them to add that as a staple? 😉

    • Reply 2summers October 21, 2013 at 6:50 pm

      Yes, I’m doing my best.

  • Reply selmamatter June 2, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    Oh wow your blog is really, really special; so interesting! And a great inspiration for my blog – I choose one country per week to blog about and at the moment it`s mexico 😉

    • Reply 2summers June 2, 2014 at 8:44 pm

      Cool! Thanks, I’m glad I inspired you.

  • Reply Julie Neogy January 27, 2016 at 9:53 pm

    They do or did have a liquor license, because I’ve had an orange margarita there! It was fantastic! Agreed on the food and also think the people who work there are very sweet! Laughed at your chips comment 🙂

    • Reply 2summers January 28, 2016 at 9:02 am

      Oh yes, I need to update this post because it was written ages ago. I actually haven’t tried their margaritas – need to go back! Oh, and happy belated birthday Julie 🙂

  • Reply iconoclasia March 14, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    Try El Jalapeno in Linden. The chef is Mexican and he is from Mexico City. There is a place in Midrand called Azteca where you can get corn tortillas, taco shells, masa harina, Mexican canned goods and even mole sauce from California. The owner is from Mexico City–and knows the chef at El Jalapeno.-st

    I am from California and have been in Joburg for 7 years–I share your opinion of the places you mention. El Jalapeno is as close to the border-style Mexican food I grew up on as I have ever come here.

    • Reply 2summers March 14, 2017 at 4:55 pm

      Yes! I’ve actually been to Azteca in Midrand and blogged about it – that place is awesome. I also wrote a blog post about Lucio years ago when he was working at Mexican Fresh in Sunninghill. He eventually returned to be chef at Cafe Mexicho, and improved the food there significantly, before going to work at El Jalapeño. I went to El Jalapeño once shortly after it opened and wasn’t wowed. Maybe it’s time to give it another chance 🙂

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