Muizenberg has more than surf – the food turf’s good too
Suit up, wax up and head into the waves, laze on the beach, go for long walks at sunrise, and when the appetite strikes you, take your pick from a variety of eating options.
My mom grew up in Muizenberg. She lived with her parents and brother in a house in Albertyn Road, next to the train tracks – which in my head is built of red bricks; my granddad worked for the railways. My step-paternal Granny Mary lived close by but that house is gone now.
For all the familial connections, my relationship with the area has been sporadic. Beach outings as a child were via train to St James, with its bathing huts in which I played in the damp dimness, tidal pool and rock pools where I would collect tiny fish with a homemade net made from a bamboo stick and a plastic bag which once held oranges. They’d be carried carefully home in a bucket, and there my memory ends.
I’ve been to Muizenberg in the intervening years. There was the time we took a dog there for a walk. I’ve done the coastal pathway to St James with a parasol and been harassed about my “tjappies”. I’ve surfed, not as often as I’d like to, and I’ve had takeaway fish and chips on the beach. It never really struck me as a destination for food though.
Aside from the soft serve ice cream cone with a Flake from Majestic Cafe, that is. It’s been there for donkey’s years, and for the longest time I’ve been fantasising about that ice cream cone, eaten on a cold and blustery day. Don’t knock my fantasies and I won’t knock yours. The problem I’ve found with these nostalgic food cravings is that they so seldom live up to expectations and that’s just so disappointing. It ruins everything.
When I decided to explore the foodie scene in Muizenberg, the ice cream was a no-brainer and central to the entire mission. Majestic Cafe is still filled with ancient memorabilia but it seems somehow cleaner and less cluttered, if not lighter. You can get your vanilla soft serve in a normal cone or a sugar cone. A normal one will do me fine, I said. If I’d blinked I’d have missed the Flake being inserted, roughly the size of my thumb but in proportion to the cone. Next thing I knew the man was handing me a massive top-heavy tower of soft serve that looked as if it would tumble over and splat on the pavement if I looked at it wrong. There would definitely be tears.
There was no elegant way to eat it, and my friend Mel had to do the “mom thing” and wipe ice cream from my cheeks and it somehow got all over my mask too, which I’d lowered under my chin to tackle this task. But damn, it was delicious; so cold and creamy, and I have no regrets.
You can go to one of the fancy places with gelato in every colour and flavour, but this classic is hard to beat.
At the other end of the beachfront, over the railway line, is another Muizenberg institution, Empire Cafe. It’s now owned and run by Clayton Bell, formerly of Uitsig restaurant until it closed in 2014, Cape Point Vineyards, and who opened Villa 47 where he worked for five years until Covid retrenchment. Longtime close friend and colleague, the late David Jones, opened Empire in 2002. After he died a few years ago, his brother tried to keep things going but decided to sell in 2020. Given Bell and Jones’s history, taking over the business couldn’t have been more natural.
After fixing up the electrics and kitchen and giving it a coat of paint, Bell reopened Empire in October 2020. Just in time for the season, they said. It will be fun, they said. That was the summer our beaches were closed and booze was banned.
“It was one of those things where it was make or break. We were lucky we were able to keep our heads above water through these ‘trying times’,” said Bell.
The menu is small and not over-complicated, which Bell says is pretty much what he’s been doing most of his life. I’m a staunch supporter of the all-day breakfast; there’s steak, egg and chips, and bacon purses filled with spinach and potato, mushroom and tomato, poached eggs and hollandaise; a three-egg omelette, huevos rancheros, and shakshuka, and pastries, oh my word the pastries. Bell’s wife Mitzi bakes everything (and also supplies the industry with puff pastry, tons of the stuff), from the breads to the croissants, banana bars topped with salted buttercream, and lemon cheesecake with Italian meringue.
The pastéis de nata are sublime, but two things you must try are the chocolate cruffins and the muffin jars. A cruffin is croissant pastry baked in a muffin tin and filled with chocolate ganache. Heavenly. And it’s a lot lighter than it looks.
A muffin jar works like this: a muffin sliced in half and layered in a jar with icing. There’s chocolate and vanilla and carrot cake. Carrot cake is one of those things for me that I don’t hate but I also rarely eat if there are other options. Actually, even when there are no other options. I’ll just go without. No, I don’t know why. But I decided to give one of these a try; cue choirs of chubby angels.
The carrot cake is chunky and textured with all the good stuff that goes in there, and the icing was creamy and not too sweet. The sad part is that you obviously can’t have these to take away, until Bell figures out a workable jar deposit plan.
Even though, as my son is fond of saying, life’s short, eat dessert first, we had in fact had our savoury meals already. Mel loves a caprese salad, which is such a beautiful example of simplicity on a plate. She asked for some bread to go with it, and was served a toasted slice of sourdough studded with cranberries and sunflower seeds. It was good enough to buy an entire loaf to take home, and she’s planning to go back for more. Apparently Mitzi bakes this bread every day.
My afternoon breakfast was scrumptious butternut and cumin rosti with bacon, mushrooms, two poached eggs perfectly soft as requested, a side order of pork sausages, and plenty of hollandaise sauce. There are blackboard specials, and non-breakfast dishes include salads, pastas, sirloin skewer, a burger and fish of the day. The most expensive item is R150.
A new addition to the main drag is Mexican-inspired Tortuga Loca (around the corner from Empire, which is in York Road). I’ve been there twice and I’m pretty sure I’ll be heading back for another chicken burrito with spicy rice, cheese, guacamole, pickled cabbage slaw, salsa and fresh coriander. The decor is funky, the vibe is a buzz, and the margaritas are cold. It’s owned by Georgina Mccloughan with her business partner (and nephew) Grant van Rensburg.
Mccloughan has been involved in the hospitality industry as an owner and/or manager for more than 30 years. She was co-owner of Sebastians in Sea Point and Stones in Observatory, managed the original Ricks Café Americain and subsequently a foreign investment company which operated 20-plus restaurants and bars and two boutique hotels.
“Grant lives in Muizenberg and identified an opportunity for a Mexican inspired restaurant in the Deep South. He was also my partner in Stones, which we had closed during Covid, and we were actively looking for a ‘gap’. We are both big chilli fans and love the vibrant colours and energy that a Mexican theme allows,” said Mccloughan.
Interesting thing about Tortuga Loca is that it doesn’t serve red meat. “We wanted to offer a menu that was sustainable. We use only free range chicken and eggs, line caught fish, non GMO nachos and local, fresh produce,” said Mccloughan. “We believe that if everyone reduced their red meat intake it would make a difference and to encourage this we decided to omit red meat from the menu altogether.”
I was particularly taken with the use of jackfruit which I’d heard of but never eaten. “Grant and his fiancé are vegetarian and they discovered jackfruit during lockdown. They loved the ‘pulled’ texture and that you could flavour it in a variety of ways,” said Mccloughan. “Once we decided to eliminate red meat, the inclusion of jackfruit was an essential alternative. Our smokey-barbecue recipe has been a hit with vegetarians and meat lovers alike, and we consulted with local vegan foodie Katie Beard to ensure tasty and interesting vegan and vegetarian options.”
I promise you won’t even miss the red meat; everything else is super tasty, and the menu has all your Mexican favourites like enchiladas, nachos, fajitas, quesadillas, tacos, and chilli sin carne. I’m not a fan of spicy food, less and less so as the years go by (why must food hurt? Isn’t there enough pain in the world?) and everything I’ve had at Tortuga Loca has been manageable for me. My friend who is the opposite was accommodated with a bowl of vibrant chopped red chillies so we were both happy.
I love the decor with its jewel colours and pink neon and a bar you want to sit at all day and all night. “With lots of time to kill during Covid, we started scouring marketplaces. We liked the idea of repurposing and salvaging wherever possible,” said Mccloughan. “We had great input and assistance from friends and family members but were ultimately guided by the expert eye of Jacqui Hunter (good friend and interior designer Imagenius) who steered, inspired and curated.”
Back across the train tracks, we climbed a steep well worn staircase to The Commons. Here everything is vegetarian or vegan; don’t be like me who at first didn’t see the quotes bracketing “chicken”. In my defence, they are very small quote marks.
It’s a great space though, with a striking mural covering one wall. There are books and records on sale (the latter quite expensive, and I know of what I speak), a meeting room with plug points, and another room at the back where I think they have yoga classes or something. They have live music and other performances on some evenings, and lockers for surfers to stash their stuff. The whole lot overlooks the beach and a balcony runs the length outside where you can smoke. I think this would be lovely in the morning because that’s the only time this part of the beachfront gets sun.
I was late and Mel was hungry so she’d already ordered a bagel with carrot laks (sic, I think they mean lox), pickled red onion, sour cream and dill. “It totally has the mouthfeel of salmon, and the flavour, but no fishy aftertaste,” she told me, and very kindly sent me a recipe she’d found online. And you know what? I might just give it a try. No need to call the authorities, I will never give up my bacon, butter or cheese or let my hair grow into dreadlocks but there’s nothing wrong with trying out new things. Especially if those things use ingredients I already have in the cupboard.
The menu is appealing; breakfast is served until 12.30pm, and thereafter you can tuck into pesto mac and cheese, kimchi fried rice, arancini with chilli jam, rice noodle salad, burgers, and pulled oyster mushrooms in a lime and peanut sauce on rice noodles and “facon” crackling, whatever that might be.
These experiences are truly just a small taste of what Muizenberg has to offer, and there’s even a Spur on the way, which has its time and place. But before I go there, I’m keen to see what other gems there are to uncover. DM/TGIFood
Follow Bianca on Instagram @biancaleecoleman
Ladles of Love has launched its annual Nourish Our Children campaign where it will be visiting Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres across the Cape Peninsula distributing cuddly Love Bears to little children in need and nutritious food to fill their tummies. If you would like to help Ladles of Love reach its goal of distributing 7,500 bears, visit www.ladlesoflove.org.za and donate R150.
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved