Perron: Mexican Appreciation Society
30 years ago if you asked people about Italian food they’d tell you it was ‘pizza and pasta’, but today we understand that real Italian food is much more; fresh fish and meat, delicate flavours, risotto, saltimbocca, cotoletta…The same can be said of Mexican food – most of us have a preconditioned idea based on American ‘TexMex’ institutions; nacho-based, deep-fried, cheese-laden and sourcream-encrusted... but, a few restaurants in Cape Town have fought to re-educate, and now it’s Joburg’s turn.
I went to Perron, a new Mexican restaurant in Illovo to see just how they were getting it so right - they’ve only been open a month and have been fully booked every night since. I met with Christa, one of the four owners and had a good chat about their story and their style, because both are very cool.
Christa tells me that Perron literally means "big dog" or "cool" in Mexican slang, “which is what we want to be without trying too hard”, she laughs and adds “although I guess to call yourself ‘cool’ is in itself trying too hard.” – I like this woman already! They also liked the sound of ‘Mexican Appreciation Society’ in that it doesn't simply refer to food, or tequila, or fiestas, but is rather all-encompassing. It's about a culture, a food and a people.
If she sounds smart that’s because she is; Christa and her husband Grant are both chartered accountants by trade, but have an absolute passion for food, tequila and the good life. The other two owners are Martin and Thom from The Griffin (which is upstairs), “Grant's my man, Marti's my brother and Thom's Marti's best friend from when we were five.” They all grew up with an appreciation of good food.
“I think for us food is about sharing and enjoying. It's about family and fun. So I've pretty much been cooking since I can remember. It's how I show my love.”
I ask about how the idea for a Mexican restaurant came about and she explains that whilst in New York she was exposed to a more authentic Mexican cuisine and when her and Grant moved to London they were introduced to beautiful fresh Mexican flavours that had nothing to do with copious amounts of cheese
“I adore cheese, but not when it is glutinous and stodgy and masking cheap ingredients. Over the five years we lived there, burrito bars were popping up left, right and centre with a vibe that is difficult to put into words.
People ask whether we want to be a bar OR a restaurant OR a fiesta? And the truth is we want to be all three. That’s what Mexican is about for us, and it's what we appreciate. Grant and I threw many a Mexican themed bash whilst living there, with bowls of chilli and water pistols filled with tequila and piñatas hanging from the rafters. And we never had a guest go home without a smile on their face.”
I bring up the notion of TexMex and Christa agrees that South Africans have an Americanised view of Mexican food, but doesn’t see it as a bad thing “Tex Mex is there for a reason - Americans loved some of the flavours in Mexican food but wanted to alter the style to suit their palates. And it's very popular. It's just not what we wanted when we opened Perron. We wanted loads of fresh flavours and spices as well as a refreshing take on something that people think they know.”
I ask her whether the success of El Burro in Cape Town had anything to do with their decision to start Perron and she smiles. “No, it actually almost stopped the idea in its tracks. Grant and I had had this idea whilst driving down through Africa. I've got a thing for donkeys having spent a large amount of time in South America and Spain and had even thought to call our place ‘Burro’. So I was pretty heartbroken when we arrived back in South Africa and heard all about this awesome Mexican spot called El Burro in Cape Town. I went there and it was awesome…kinda thought that it didn't really leave space for our new venture…” I look over at the tables heaving with happy clientele and it’s clear that there’s more than enough space for a place like this.
I finish by asking Christa about their flavour “I had a vision of tables burgeoning with a variety of dishes - mezze, antipasti, tapas…So we've created a Mexican menu that does just that: little plates, each offering something different. A crispy black bean tostada, some beautiful tacos, some really interesting quesadillas… I'm not too sure if Joburg has seen that yet. We’ve also created a beautiful, vibrant space that doesn't take itself too seriously, that is owner-run and owner-loved.”
My partner and I sit at a table framed by a wonderfully loud, pink wall - the whole place is dappled in kitsch pink, turquoise and floral décor. The waiting staff are friendly and efficient, they don’t quite know the menu in as much detail as I would like, but they are all very new and their enthusiasm makes up for any lack in knowledge. The wine list is short and sweet with decent, rather than ridiculous, markups and some lovely options by the glass – I opted for a glass of Linton Chardonnay which was light and buttery and worked really well with the spicy food. My partner chose a jalepeno and coriander margarita, which was a superb example of the perfect balance of good tequila, jalapeno heat and subtle sweetness…He had 2 more.
We ordered a variety of dishes: the pork scratchings and jalapeno poppers from the ‘nibbles’, the popeye espanadas, sweet potato taco and kingklip ceviche from the ‘little ones’ and the chancho muncho from the ‘classics’. The pork scratchings are all kinds of awesome; ultra crisp and not in the least bit greasy, the poppers are also great, the jalapenos are pickled which adds a slight kick and they’re packed full of flavour. The sweet potato tacos are really delicate; sweetcorn fritters topped with honeyed sweet potato, guacamole and tomato salsa (I love that they offer a variety of vegetarian dishes that cleverly harness Mexican ingredients and flavours without being too predictable).
The popeye espanadas too are delicate and beautifully put together and, although deep fried, are light and fluffy with no excess oil to speak of. The ceviche is a gorgeously tangy combination of olives, lime juice, kingklip and fresh tomato – a really fresh and vibrant dish – the fish itself was slightly over-cured rendering it a little dry but I brought it to their attention and they’ve been working on a way to try and cure it closer to serving.
People have complained about the portion size versus price at Perron, but I didn’t find it a problem – the dishes are delicate and multifaceted requiring a lot of prep and many hands in the kitchen to get them just right – I would suggest that people who are price-sensitive order from all of the categories and share the dishes as the ‘salads’, ‘burritos’ and ‘classics’ are much heartier in size than the ‘little ones’.
This leads me on to the ‘classics’ dish we ordered: the chancho muncho, a wholesome bowl brimming with melt in your mouth, slow-cooked pork, fluffy rice, loads of spicy, creamy sauce and topped with pickled onions – the one bowl happily fed the two of us and was just such a wonderfully refreshing example of spicy Mexican fair without the frippery – it was R100. The rest of the ‘classics’ are around the same price and if you’re in the mood for something robust I would order one of these or actually order a few and share them between your fellow diners.
We were too full to indulge in the churros or dulce de leche ice cream for dessert but saw them being devoured at other tables by very happy looking customers – we did, of course, make room for some real Mexican tequilas which were a delight – nothing like the South African stuff you’re used to that tastes mildly of cleaning agent, these are smooth and silky and, served with spiced tomato juice that really hit the spot.
It’s trendy, it’s fun, the service is efficient and the food comes out quickly and neatly even when the place is packed (which is all the time). It’s Illovo’s new hot spot and I will be back for more.