Restaurants and good food. Without a doubt, my greatest weakness. The one thing I can’t get enough of and fortunately (or unfortunately) have a stomach large enough to chow by the multiple pounds in a sitting. The one thing I can pretend to be a connoisseur of and have some evidence to back me up. Don’t believe it? Just take a look at the list of restaurants I went to while in NYC. Ya, now you know. I can’t say Joburg can match NYC on any level of culinary prowess, especially since you can get any culinary flavor in the world in NYC but there is more in this city than meets the eye.
The restaurant scene in Johannesburg is strong and there is an abundance of top notch restaurants serving amazing food at cheap prices (for NYC standards). Being the Anthony Bourdain wannabe that I am, I’ve already managed to visit most of the big name restaurants that are popular with the tourists but also many other places less known. For this post, it’ll mainly focus on the different types of cuisines available in Joburg, with some of the restaurants I’ve visited and some commentary!
Uniquely South African
My goodness. What a treat for an expat. I first discovered Nandos while in London for work and thought this was the greatest idea ever invented. Grilled chicken with extremely flavorful yet spicy peri peri sauce served for a cheap price. When I learned Nandos was a South African company and that there were restaurants all over SA, I thought surely God did exist. Living here, I frequent Nandos at least once a week. It’s a healthy, tasty, high in protein meal that’s priced right. It’s also somewhat healthy for you for you. What more can a man ask for?
Biltong is absolutely uniquely South African. Most of the South Africans I’ve met have told me that Biltong is the first thing they crave from home when they live abroad. With good reason! Biltong is most easily described as the South African version of beef jerky. Being a big fan of jerky in the states, biltong was the natural transition for me to South African culture. Because of the cheap prices of meat, Biltong is much cheaper than jerky. Biltong is essentially raw meat dried for a week or two, and marinated in vineger and other spices, and sliced in either thick or thin slices. Jerky is not marinated with vineger. The dutch settlers from old learned how to dry meat this way as to preserve their food otherwise it would go bad quickly in the hot environment.
Beef is the preferred flavor of biltong as it is fattier and hence more tender. However, biltong is just a term for dried meat so one can make biltong from any animal so there are a variety of different game biltong available for purchase. It’s the perfect finger food snack as it’s low in fat and high in protein. It’s a shame it’s impossible to watch football games here, I’d replace wings with biltong in a second. If you do visit SA, make sure to absolutely chow on some proper biltong. A kg of biltong will usually run you 250-300R and if it’s good, likely won’t last you that long because it is delicious, tender, and easy to eat. Also, do yourself a favor and get biltong from a quality butchery and stay away from the pre-packaged stuff at the gas station or grocery store.
While not usually an issue in most parts of America, this was one of my main gripes with food in New York City, the portion sizes. Too often would I pay 50$+ for a meal, albeit good tasting, that would leave me hungry and running to get a slice of pizza afterwards. Likely my biggest pet-peeve, to pay the big $ for food and still be hungry. Enter South Africa. Not only is the food cheap (by NYC standards), but the portions are always right and I can’t say I’ve ever left a meal still hungry.
Chilis (not the shitty American chain)
I absolutely love spicy food. I’ve eaten it all growing up and didn’t really develop a love spicy food until I moved to NYC and was able to experiment with so many types of foods that I just decided food with a kick to it always tastes better. Nevertheless, you’d always have to seek out the spicy food. Certain restaurants/cuisines are known not to have spicy food (Italian, French, American etc.) and if you asked for something spicy at a steakhouse for example, they’d look at you like you were worshiping the devil. Sometimes I would be craving spicy food that I would venture across town to the Sri Lankan restaurant, Sigiri for my spice kick. No longer is that a problem in South Africa. Every restaurant, no matter what cuisines, has homemade chilis! I’m not talking about red pepper flakes, Sriracha sauce, or Tabasco either. These are sauces made freshly cut birds eye chilis, jalapenos, or Serrano peppers marinated frequently in olive oil. Any restaurant that I’ve been to will serve a side of this for free. Heaven on earth.
This place was at the top of my to do list coming into Joburg. It is actually a Kenyan restaurant I believe but there are two restaurants, one in Nairobi and one in Joburg. I was first turned onto this place when my boy Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre foods did a South Africa episode and visited this place. This restaurant is exactly like a Brazilian Churrascaria where they walk around with swords of meat waiting at your beckon and call to slice for you as much delicious beef as you can handle. At the Carnivore, the beef is replaced with game meats of all sorts. We’re talking about Kudu, Zebra, Eland, Ostrich, Crocodile, Impala etc. The usual suspects like chicken/beef/lamb are on the menu as well but you’re coming here for the game meats you’ll never be able to have back home. It’s an experience for sure. All these meats taste a little different, some a little too tough to eat, some absolutely divine. Located in Muldersdrift, about 30 minutes from Sandton, this place is out in the middle of nowhere but very much worth a visit if you’re into meat.
I’m bunching Thai food as its own category because it is without a doubt, one of my favorite cuisines. Give me a Pad Kee Mao with chicken, extra spicy, and I’m set for life. NYC and most other major urban centers around America have an abundance of Thai food but not so much in Joburg. There are “Thai” restaurants, but so far, it is not real Thai food, and it is not very good. I’ve only been here a few months but I pray I find some quality Thai food soon.
Kai Thai: About as close as I can find for Thai food for now.
Thai Su: Another “Thai” place that isn’t really Thai, decent food however.
Chinese & Japanese Food
To my non South African friends (and SA friends that have been abroad), you’re likely wondering why the hell I’m grouping Chinese and Japanese food together? They are two completely different cultures and couldn’t be further apart when it comes to cuisine. Surprisingly, there is a large Chinese population here due to their vast investment in the continent. The majority of these people come from the mainland usually working as expats seeking a better life. Some however, have been here for many years and have opened restaurants and small family style shops (there are actually quite a few large Chinese shopping centers selling Chinese groceries). When in South Africa, almost the entire populace associate any Asian with Chinese. Not entirely their fault either as there really aren’t that many non-Chinese that visit. I’ve seen a few groups of Japanese and Koreans here and there but it’s not significant.
Likewise, everyone here thinks that Chinese and Japanese food are one in the same. You’ll find “Chinese” restaurants serving sushi and sashimi and you likely won’t find any purely Japanese restaurants as most South Africans would just think it was Chinese anyway. A Chinese restaurant serving sushi would be blasphemy in any other part of the world as the Chinese generally hate sushi. I certainly would not touch sushi made at a Chinese restaurant. Chinese food is better than the Thai food, but it is still quite mediocre and akin to the hole in the wall joints in America serving the greasiest of the Chinese cuisine.
Imperial Palace: Legitimately Chinese, no sushi here. The one time I came here, I felt like I was in China as it was literally entirely Chinese people that were dining here. Good if you want the real deal
Koi: Asian Fusion with emphasis on seafood and sushi
Gwefey: Asian fusion. Food is good but expensive. However, I suppose food like this is considered a delicacy in this part of the world so it warrants the premium.
Mexican / Any Latin cuisine
Well, to put it straight, there is not even a racial classification for Hispanics so one could imagine the cuisine that is available as far as Mexican and other Latin cuisine’s go. I’ve seen a few burrito places slowly crop up around town and well . . . they are not very impressive, especially having frequented Southern California in my life. I know Chipotle isn’t Mexican by any means, but I would absolutely kill for one of these in Joburg. Sadly, there isn’t anything comparable.
Given the fact that Indians have been in South Africa for multiple generations, and the city of Durban boasts the largest population of Indians in any city outside of India, Indian food has had plenty of time to thrive and develop in this country. There are many Indian restaurants in Joburg, and most are very good. Because Indians have been in this country for multiple generations, the cuisine has had plenty of time to evolve with the local African flavors. One of these unique dishes is the Bunny Chow, where they cut out a loaf of bread, and fill it with Indian food.
Raj in Sandton City
I’m not familiar with any mass Italian immigration to this country in South Africa’s history but there are some damn good Italian places here. Similar to how the American dollar is currently the most widely acknowledged global currency, I feel that Italian food is the most global of cuisines. Everywhere I’ve visited, no matter what culture or country, Italian food seems to always have a presence. Joburg is no different as there are many delicious Italian restaurants.
Amancord – Great Italian food, try the Oso Buco.
Cafe Del Sol
Alright, since I am American, let’s be completely real here. I don’t believe American food to be the burgers, kfc, and fast food garbage that we’ve all guiltily eaten from time to time, but rather the very unique flavors of the deep south. Southern BBQ and cajun food are what I see as uniquely American and an extreme demonstration of our culinary prowess. It doesn’t take much to make a good burger, but damn well believe it takes some skill to smoke some brisket and have it taste good. There are no BBQ places that I’ve found here. However, there are plenty of gourmet burger joints and of course, the American influences of fast food have made a full stop in South Africa. McDonalds and KFC can be found all over.
Steak and Meats
South Africa is known for its steak and is well deserving. There are many steakhouses around Joburg and steak is served in some fashion at almost any non steakhouse restaurant. Sirloin, Rump, and Fillet are the most popular cuts and chefs here believe in saucing up or spicing up the steaks. South African’s love their red meat and so do I. It just happens that steak here is incredibly affordable (at least from a New Yorker’s perspective). No longer does one have to pay 50$ to eat steak with no sides or drinks. A 1lb sirloin at a high end steakhouse here will run you 150R, or about 15$ AND it comes with sides. If you feel like channeling your inner Man vs. Food, you can make the steak bigger to your desire and pay more accordingly. I got a 1kg steak at one point just because I could and the mammoth piece of meat ran me about 30$. Steak only gets cheaper from a high end steakhouse as well as I’ve had a half kg tbone for 60R (6$) at a lower end restaurant but still tasty. Which warm blooded meat eating man wouldn’t be in heaven here? Hallelujah, gonna be a good 2 years here.
The Grillhouse: Top notch steak, you can’t really go wrong with any of the places on this list
The Butcher Shop
Turn n Tender
Once you’ve eaten steak for a week straight and need a detox, be sure to try the other great South African specialty, seafood. Being surrounded by the Indian and Atlantic Ocean, South African gets to enjoy an abundance of delicious calimari, fish, and prawns. Seafood is generally about the same price as steak but king prawns can get a little pricey (yet still not as pricey as anything I’m used to). Portions are always big and the food is fresh. Kingklip, a uniquely South African fish that I’ve never heard of before moving here is some of the best white fish I’ve ever had. It’s somewhere between a cod and a halibut, but delicious all around. Be sure to try some when in SA. Calimari is almost always grilled here which I find much tastier than the fried crap in the US. Prawns are prawns and there are some giant sized prawns here (usually from Mozambique) that taste divine. Ocean basket might be one of my new favorite places ever as they serve quality, and tasty seafood for a bargain.
Recommended Restaurants (almost all steakhouses serve seafood as well)
Ocean Basket: Multiple locations around Joburg
Fishmonger: One of the best seafood restaurants I’ve been to.
I’m not sure if Fine Dining really has its own meaning but I just associate this genre of food as the “pricier, fancier, delicious, and a mix of all different types of cuisines that you really can’t call it one cuisine type” of cuisine. NYC is flooded with these places all charging a hefty price tag. There are more of these places in Joburg than I thought and that’s all good with me.
One restaurant in particular worth noting is Cube Kitchen. Voted the #1 place on tripadvisor for Joburg, this restaurant features a 10+ course tasting menu that features all different types of cuisine. It is byob which is strange considering there is substantial amounts of money to be made on alcohol but nevertheless, even without buying alcohol, it is still likely the most expensive restaurant in Joburg at 550R per person.
Well, if you think this is the end of my culinary explorations, then clearly you need to see the list of restaurants I went to in NYC. I went to some 300 restaurants in NYC during my 4 years there. I don’t think I’ll come anywhere close to that number here but nonetheless, good food needs to be eaten and I’m always on the prowl for a good meal. If anyone has any suggestions for restaurants in South Africa, please leave a comment!