Zapata is not a run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant. It’s that one’s older, more sophisticated sister. It’s quirky too, with great décor. Depending on where you sit, you may be watched over by a corseted and mono-browed Frida Khalo, or Zapata himself – a key figure in the Mexican Revolution, who famously declared “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”
Situated on Harfield Village’s vibrant restaurant strip in Second Avenue, Zapata has rapidly become a neighbourhood favourite. Not only that, it’s now attracting people from all over Cape Town and drawing them into the Southern Suburbs – lured by the delicious smells of enchiladas, burritos and the promise of a really good margarita.
The restaurant seats about 90, with an outdoor courtyard for hot summer nights and a couple of tables on the front patio from where you can watch the goings-on of Second Avenue. If you know what you’re looking at, it could be confused with an episode of Sewende Laan, but with more hipsters.
It’s noisy and busy and it’s the kind of place you should go to if you want a loud, delicious, laid-back Mexican experience. Nothing is rushed here, despite it getting very full and occasionally quite raucous.
The menu has everything that you would expect from a Mexican restaurant, from starters of chilli poppers, corn fritters, nachos and spicy tomato soup with meatballs (R 40 to R 60) to mains covering the spectrum of burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, fajitas or tacos (if you want to make your own) and chimichingas (a deep-fried filled tortilla). Filling choices are steak, spicy chicken, chilli con carne or seasonal Mexican vegetables.
For those wanting something a little less ‘exotic’, there is also the option of calamari, steak, burgers and salads. Served in tin plates, with a side plate of small tin mugs containing combinations (depending on what you order) of tomato salsa, guacamole, sour cream, refried beans and grated cheese, it’s best to come hungry. Zapata is not shy with its portions, despite mains prices being under R 100 per head.
On the drinks side, Zapata has the expected frozen margaritas – by the glass or jug – in strawberry, lime, or a mix. It’s the perfect icy summer’s drink. There are also shaken margaritas, if slushy is not your style, and the cocktail menu is the kind that would make other cocktail menus seek therapy. Gems such as a Chocolate Chilli & Hibiscus Margarita hang out with Orange & Vanilla Tequila Tonics. Need I say more?
Yes, I need. Because we haven’t yet touched on the tequila range. It’s the good stuff – el Jimador – and beside the usual gold (Repasado) and silver (Blanco), there’s chilli chocolate, caramel and – I had to read this one twice – chocolate cookie tequila.
I opted to start with a portion of Zapata chilli poppers, a tongue-warming chilli pepper oozing with cottage cheese, all snuggled in a bacon blanket and served with a sweet chilli mayonnaise. If it were legal, I’d marry one of them. My friend ordered the chicken wings – sticky and sweet with a good chilli bite to them. The frozen lime margarita, with a sour worm on the top, provided us with the required mouth-cooling.
Chicken nachos for mains proved to be a mountain of crispy corn nachos topped with an avalanche of chicken, creamy guacamole, tomato and onion salsa, sour cream and cheese, baked to perfection. So often nachos can be a bit soggy. Not at Zapata.
My friend ordered a beef burger (they do chicken too) which was served with half an avo and a ginormous crispy onion ring on top, and a side order of potato fries with a creamy, spicy jalapeno mushroom sauce. The fries are the kind mom used to make before you could buy frozen chips in a bag – round, thinly sliced and crisp as crisp can be.
While I can normally always find space for pudding, there was no way after this feast. Instead I made do with a chocolate tequila to satisfy my sweet tooth. This may be unrevolutionary of me, but I’d be happy to live on my knees for more of those.
Zapata [http://zapata.co.za/] is open Mondays to Saturdays from 5.30pm to late (kitchen closes at 10pm). Tuesdays are comedy nights which, for a R10 cover charge, includes an hour-long stand-up comedy show at 8pm. Contact Zapata to hear which comedian is on, when.