Diane de Beer
A few Mexican restaurants have suddenly popped up in Pretoria and this one is the coolest with the best contemporary food. With two chefs in the kitchen in quite a small restaurant, you expect fireworks and that’s what you get. Everything from the nachos to the guacamole is freshly made, including the inventive starter, ceviche (hake or yellowtail, depending what’s available) with red peppers, lime and orange juice, and pickled jalapenos, textures and taste sparkle.
For mains there’s a choice of one of their tacos, including slow-cooked pork belly, adobo (paprika and oregano-based stock) pineapple and coriander salsa or, if you want to stick to a fishy theme, deep-fried fish consisting of Zamalek battered hake, pickled jalapenos, slaw, tamarind and ancho paste – all served in two portions so you can swap around for different texture and flavours.
Concluding on a sweet note, you have to tuck into the most delicious churros with a grateful nod to Mexico. These are great meals to enjoy with friends – finger food, in a sense – that can be shared around for the best experience.
They’re waiting for a liquor licence but you can take your own and dip into their great soft drink options, including homemade coriander lemonade or hibiscus iced tea.
The staff is hip and happening and keeps an eye out while not imposing too much.
Their crockery, while mix and match, is very stylish and adds to the visual delight of every dish, saying everything about their design ethos, which is unique especially in the Mexican context. They steer well clear of any stereotype. No sombreros or paper umbrellas here. The inside space, with yellow as the accent colour, is tight but not uncomfortable. On summer nights patrons can spill onto the outside wrap-around balcony.
The style of eating and the costs appeal to the youthfulness of their patronage.
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When the owner and chef of Pretoria-favourite Ginger & Fig reveals he is opening another restaurant, you know it's going to be good. However, when it emerged that said restaurant would be an authentic Mexican joint in Pretoria, a few reservations popped up. Is Pretoria ready for that? How authentic are they actually going to make it?
To answer the first question: most definitely. There has been a movement by Pretorians away from franchises; many patrons want something new, exciting and original. Of course, there will be those who complain that the nachos aren't covered in cheese and served with sour cream, but this is where Zane Figueiredo excels: he educates the palate and broadens food horizons.
His menu at El Pistolero is small and simple but packed with flavour and interesting ingredients, and everything is handmade and as fresh as can be. Nachos are made with their homemade corn tortillas, topped with queso fresco and fresh coriander, and served with their addictive guacamole and salsa made with burnt tomatoes, black garlic and pickled habaneros. Other starters include chicharrón (drool-worthy pork rinds), corn on the cob served with black-garlic aioli, cheese, cumin and lime, and ceviche made from the freshest yellowtail with red peppers, lime, orange juice and jalapeños.
For mains, their tacos are perfection. The zamalek-battered fish taco is everything you want it to be and will instantly become a favourite. They also have slow-cooked pork belly, chicken, beef and a vegetarian option. The quesadillas are equally fabulous, with the mushroom version being a personal favourite. Its mushroominess (yes, that's a word) is out of this world. The pulled pork and chicken burritos are also winners, judging by neighbouring diners’ moans of delight.
Whatever you do, make sure you save space for dessert. Their churros are perfectly crisp and golden, and come drizzled with milk jam (dulce de leche) and a pot of coconut white chocolate ganache. The ganache is so good, I want to bathe in it.
As they are still awaiting their liquor licence, they don't serve alcohol yet, but fear not, they have plenty of options to quench your thirst. Their aguas frescas (fruit waters) are absolutely the thing to enjoy in summer. (The watermelon version is particularly delicious.) They also have virgin margaritas, homemade tepache (pineapple beer) and, if you're after good coffee, their moka pot coffee can't be missed.
The vibe is very cool, contemporary and trendy. Interiors are absolutely beautiful, from the utterly gorgeous Mexican tiles to the wooden ceiling.
Staff are friendly and attentive, with plates being cleared promptly and food served speedily. Waitrons are very knowledgeable about the menu and eager to chat to you about the food and drinks.
What stands out is the absolute passion the owners and staff of El Pistolero have for this establishment. It's infectious and exciting.