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