Three years ago, right after I moved to Joburg, I ate at a Mexican restaurant in Melville called Café Mexicho. I was very disappointed in the meal and wrote a post about it called “Where Not to Eat in Melville”.
I’ve eaten at Café Mexicho a few times since, and although it’s not as bad as I originally thought, it’s also not great. I like the atmosphere, but the service is slow and the food bears little resemblance to Mexican food served in North America.
A few months after that meal, I bemoaned the lack of decent Mexican food in Jozi to my friend Oscar, an expat from Guatemala. Oscar told me the food at Café Mexicho used to be good, back when the restaurant had a Mexican chef. “But then he left,” Oscar said.
Remember this Mexican chef. I’ll come back to him later.
Last year, I had dinner at a take-away-style restaurant in Craighall called Mexican Fresh. (At the time, Mexican Fresh had locations in Craighall and Bryanston.) I didn’t have my camera with me, and for some reason the food didn’t make a major impression. I decided to go back for another meal before blogging about Mexican Fresh. Then I got busy and forgot.
Fast-forward to last Wednesday, when I was researching Bryanston for the SandtonPlaces book. I googled Bryanston restaurants and stumbled upon Mexican Fresh, which has a shop in the Epsom Downs Shopping Centre. Perfect excuse for a Mexican lunch. I drove to Epsom Downs, a nondescript shopping complex in Bryanston. I found Mexican Fresh, sat down at an outdoor table, and ordered a chicken burrito.
I was surprised by how good the burrito was. The sauce was tasty and the burrito was just the right size, with a perfect mix of ingredients.
Mexican Fresh’s Maximo Chicken Burrito.
I asked to speak to the manager and wound up meeting the owner, Liron. Liron’s father lives in Los Angeles, and it was there that Liron got the idea to start a Mexican restaurant chain in Joburg. Mexican Fresh is similar in many ways to Baja Fresh, my favorite Mexican chain back home, which also started in California. Like Baja Fresh, Mexican Fresh does not use frozen or canned ingredients.
I asked Liron if I could try a few tortilla chips. Decent tortilla chips are nearly impossible to find in South Africa. He brought me a small plate.
Best chips I’ve had in South Africa, by far.
Mexican Fresh has the best tortilla chips in South Africa. Hot, un-flavored except for salt, and triangular. (In my opinion good tortilla chips must be triangular, not round.)
Mexican Fresh’s chips are not made on-site. Liron gets them from “a Mexican lady”. That’s all I know. (I plan to do more research on this front.)
During our conversation, Liron also mentioned that he has a Mexican chef, currently working at the newest Mexican Fresh shop at the Chilli Lane Shopping Centre in Sunninghill. Later on, I mentioned that I live in Melville and have always been disappointed in the food at Café Mexicho. “Our chef used to work there,” Liron said.
Aha! The Mexican Chef did not leave Joburg after all. He simply relocated.
Three days later I drove to Sunninghill, to yet another nondescript shopping centre. Damn, Sunninghill is far. But I felt I had to meet Joburg’s Mexican Chef.
Lucio, Joburg’s Mexican Chef.
Lucio Arias’ business card says, “Head Chef from Mexico”. He has lived in South Africa for seven years, and also spent several years as a chef in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Lucio was busy and the restaurant was loud, so I didn’t learn much more than that. But the slog to Sunninghill was totally worth it — seeing Lucio made me pleasantly nostalgic for home. Plus I got to eat another Mexican lunch.
Chicken enchiladas with refried beans and rice (left), and an order of chips and salsa (right). I didn’t really mean to order this much food. (Suggestion for Mexican Fresh: It would be great if you offered a smaller side portion of chips and salsa.)
The enchiladas were great, and they came extra spicy as I requested. My only poor mark goes to the salsa — I find it too watery and lacking in flavor.
Mexican Fresh has not unseated Mama Mexicana as my favorite Mexican restaurant in Joburg. I still prefer Mama Mexicana for the atmosphere and subtle flavoring of the food. In fact, I really wish I could combine Mexican Fresh’s chips with Mama Mexicana’s salsa, which is chunkier and more flavorful than Mexican Fresh’s salsa. That chips-and-salsa combo would rival even the best chips and salsa in LA.
Anyway, Mexican Fresh is a close second to Mama Mexicana overall. The Craighall Mexican Fresh has really nice atmosphere — less fast-food-like than the Bryanston and Sunninghill locations — and Mexican Fresh is fully licensed. I need to go back with a designated driver so I can sample the margaritas.
In the meantime, I’m hoping Liron will open his next Mexican Fresh branch in Melville and bring the Mexican Chef back to his original Joburg roots.
Another look at my Mexican Fresh burrito. Thanks to Liron and Lucio for making Joburg a better place for Mexican food-lovers.