Authentic Mexican flavour is reinvigorating the Johannesburg food scene, and El Jalapeño in Linden is a new addition to the growing list of eateries following this theme. The chef, Locio Arias, is originally from Mexico and has been consulting on the Mexican food scene in Joburg for past nine years. The menu is a testament to the aim of the owner, Venezuelan-born Denis Cardenas, to expose locals to Mexican dishes from regions other than those we are used to.
Familiar favourites like jalapeño poppers and burritos are available, but for the true experience you need to dig into the arepitas, cloud-like corn meal balls filled with pulled beef and feta cheese. Another unique starter is the plate of flautas: deep-fried tortilla cigars filled with chicken, beef and cheese, and served with a chipotle salsa dip. Even the empanadas are made differently here, with cornmeal dough instead of the usual pastry, and are stuffed with spicy chicken and marinated feta. The best way to get a taste of the starters is to order the sharing platter, which includes spicy chicken wings and jalapeño poppers with a coriander pesto.
While the menu includes usual options like tacos, burritos and quesadillas, you should continue to explore other unique dishes. I opt for tamales, made with a special style of Mexican ground corn, rehydrated before use, steamed in a corn husk and topped with chicken or jalapeño and onions, and finally drizzled with a mole (chilli and chocolate) sauce. This is reminiscent of the most delicious pap, but flecked with a spicy filling and topped with a complex sauce.
My next course is the tostadas, crispy corn tortillas topped with a layer of refried beans, guacamole, pico de gallo and a choice of garlic lemon prawns, beef mince or soy mince for the vegetarians. With each perfect bite of authentic flavour, I could easily imagine eating from a traditional street vendor.
No Mexican meal is complete without some caramel and chocolate, so be sure to try the well-executed flan or the decadent churros with dark chocolate sauce.
The food here is rustic and delicious and care has been taken to differentiate the flavours by serving condiments that best complement the dishes. Take care not to add salsa and guacamole to all dishes – this really changed my view of how a good Mexican fiesta should be experienced.
If you eat Mexican, you have to drink margaritas. You’re spoilt for choice, with everything from classic frozen and shaken lemon margaritas to a cucumber-and-basil margarita. Try some of the traditional combinations like the Vampiro, a combination of tequila, grapefruit and tomato juice, or the Michelada, which is a Mexican beer served with lime juice and assorted spices.
The restaurant has only been open for two weeks, but while the staff are friendly and well versed on the menu, the service can be a bit slow when the restaurant is full. Their focus is on training staff fully before lunch service will be offered.
El Jalapeño is located in the up-and-coming eating hub of Linden, next to a host of other little eateries. The interior is an eclectic mix of bright colours with reclaimed wood tables, and the space is anchored by a large chandelier made of recycled bottles.
Denis plans on offering a special Mexican breakfast menu once her restaurant is running smoothly. I’ll be first in line to try the huevos rancheros.