Six Secrets from San Julian Mexican Restaurant in Cape Town

This 100% authentic eatery brings south of the border to South Africa

A few Cape Town food lovers were invited to an afternoon of storytelling and Mexican cuisine at San Julian, a charming taqueria wedged between Waterkant and Strand streets in Green Point. Members of the Garcia family, a clan that moved to Mzansi from taco country a few years ago, shared stories of their restaurant and food, and unveiled both a few new additions to their authentic menu and six secrets that revealed why paying a visit to this little slice of Mexico is as refreshing as a holiday.      

One: We’re not in Cape Town anymore!
Walking into San Julian, an intimate eatery secretly tucked into a corner on Rose Street, is like stepping straight into Cancun. It’s bright; reds, yellows and oranges tango with cultural tokens like piñatas, lucha libre (wrestling) masks and sombreros, and the owners keep telling us to feel at home because in Mexico there’s no such thing as strangers. Even the first course is a summer-y trip to somewhere else; fresh ceviche – lime-cured angelfish with chilli and tomato and onion salsa – on a crisp corn tostada (a fried tortilla) brings a zing of simple but powerful flavours, conjuring up images of white sand beaches and sparkling oceans. 

Two:  This is as authentic as it gets
The restaurant may be one of the few authentic Mexican eateries, or taquerias, you’d hope to find this side of the Atlantic, and nothing can be more legitimate than the endearing lilt of host Arturo Garcia’s Spanish accent, which is native to the west coast of Mexico . Together with his father and brother, Chef Ricardo, Arturo opened the restaurant simply because, though there are a few Mexican–style restaurants in Cape Town, there was nothing that cured the craving for a traditional taco made with corn and filled with authentic chillies, refried beans and Hass avocado guacamole. His daughter, Patricia, is the waitress and sometimes translator, and the recipes used are Garcia-family trademarks.

Three: Good corn tortillas are key
The most important element passed down from Grandma Garcia has to be the corn tortilla-making process, called nixtamilisation, in which the corn is cooked in limewater and then ground to make a sticky dough called masa. If given two different lumps of dough to feel, one using nixtamilised corn and the other using processed corn flour, you can feel and smell the difference between the two. The first is a deep yellow colour and has the aroma of warm, roasted corn while the second is basically a grainy ball of pap (mielie meal). It’s easy to see why San Julian prefers making their own fresh soft, pliable discs every day rather than importing horribly mealy versions.

Tortillas are a very important component to Mexican cuisine and are part of practically every dish on the menu for the day: they provide a crunchy tostada base for the ceviche, they are shells for the tacos de carnita (pulled porked tacos) and tacos baja (tempura angel fish tacos), and are fried into tortilla baskets, crisp on the outside soft on the inside, filled with Mexican-cured chorizo and roasted seasonal vegetables. 

Four: Chillies! Lots of chillies!
Chillies are crucial in good, authentic North American dishes that have originated from south of the border, and the one problem the brothers Garcia had in setting up shop in Cape Town was that they couldn’t find the fiery peppers native to Mexico. In order to keep things fresh, they turned to South African chillies, and they were more than satisfied with the heat. Chef Ricardo, a seasoned chilli eater, said some local peppers are too hot even for his palate, but they work perfectly with the eatery’s spicy salsas and sauces. So technically, San Julian considers itself to be Mexican/South African restaurant, embracing the fusion and even creating a special sauce called Mole de Cabo (Sauce of the Cape) made of South African chillies and chocolate. This unique offering, which was served smothered over chicken and cheese wrapped in soft tortillas, is one of the star attractions on the new menu and is definitely worth a try.  

Five: Mexican food is a not just Mexican
Mexican food is actually fusion food by origin as it is an amalgamation of the cuisine from the Mayan population in Peru (who moved up north and settled in Mexico) and Spanish food from the Conquistadors who came along during the 16th century. As Arturo explains, the quintessential Mexican dish, the quesadilla, is the epitome of this combination of cuisines because it contains queso (cheese), which is a traditionally Spanish ingredient, and tortillas, the bread of the Mayans. 

Six: There’s more to Mexican drinks than just tequila (although, you should definitely have some tequila)
At San Julian, all of this fine food is washed down with three different traditional Mexican beverages. The first is Agua de Flor de Jamaica, a refreshing deep red-coloured juice made from hibiscus flower that tastes like a blend of pomegranate and cranberry juice. Next is Horchata, a concoction made with sweet rice pudding-tasting milk mixed with cinnamon and vanilla that seems just as perfect as a bedtime treat as it is a stomach liner. The frozen lime margaritas – they’re sour-y sweet and laced generously with tequila - are an indicator of how quickly an innocent meal can turn into a full on fiesta at San Julian. Soon enough, shots of clear liquid are being taken; though, instead of limes, they bring out slices of oranges and pineapples with salt to chase the tequila flaming down your throat. If you happen to go there for your birthday, the folks at San Julian will regale you with traditional mariachi music and tequila, which you have to shoot in a wrestling mask while someone shakes your head. Arriba!   

 Opening Hours: San Julian is open from Monday to Saturday from 5pm to 11pm.

The Bill: Be prepared to shell out for the fresh, homemade dishes: starters range from R28 to R70 (for a plate of their amazing, authentic nachos); mains range between R75 and R125 and the current lone dessert on the menu costs R30.

Tip: Get a jug of their famous margaritas for just R85 (they usually go for R140) on Mondays, half-price tacos on Tuesdays and a Chef’s Special on Wednesday.

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