Posh Pretoria is in the east of the city. The west is poor. This is nothing new. The Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question in South Africa (which began its work in 1928 and published its findings in 1932) goes into chapter and verse about the “economically depressed and poverty stricken” nature of the west of the city. In the intervening eight decades Apartheid affirmative action caused many of the descendants of those described in 1932 to move up and on but some have not. In 2015 the South Africans of all hues who reside in Pretoria West are visibly struggling to make ends meet.
Pretoria specialises in long, long streets. WF Nkomo Street (previously Church) is reputed to be the longest urban street in South Africa. Some say in the world. Charlotte Maxeke Street (previously Mitchell Street) is not quite as lengthy but is does run parallel and track the better known thoroughfare for at least half its route. The commercial focus of Mitchel Street is automotive. Block upon block of panel beaters and spare part shops are interspersed with occasional evangelical faith-healing churches and the sort of dodgy doctors, with store-front practices, who issue sick notes without examining patients. The whine of welding machines competes with the constant beep-beep of passing taxis – almost all of which have malfunctioning, fume-spewing exhaust pipes. Corner cafés sell illegal cigarettes and Sphatlo (Pretoria’s version of the Kota which is Soweto’s version of a Bunny Chow). The area is absolutely not known for its fine food – which is why Portuguese Kitchen is such a delightful surprise.
Chef-patronne Carla Chryssanthou explains that her main business is the adjoining automobile spares shop. The restaurant (which opened in September 2014) grew out of her desire to have something decent to eat during working hours. She rightly suspected that other business owners in the area felt the same. Its raison d’être explains why the restaurant is only open for breakfast and lunch. At night the spares shop closes and Carla takes her considerable cooking skills home.
Many South African chefs who self-identify as Portuguese cook and eat the colonial/creole cuisine which is representative of an Afro-Lusitanian Diaspora epicurean experience. It is not better or worse than the food of the motherland but it is different. Despite Chryssanthou’s Greek (married) surname, she hails from Porto and her food is proper Portuguese from Portugal.
The eatery’s décor and menu have the feel of a Portuguese Tasca (bistro). The décor is simple but care has been taken in every detail. There are pretty, flowery light fittings, freshly laundered, ironed table cloths, a clean tiled floor and a small blackboard for the daily specials. The space is small and would be packed at 45 pax. Prices are reasonable (average R45 for starters and R80 for main courses) and portions are generous. All the usual suspects are in evidence and at their best. Magnificent Rissois de Camarão (shrimp dumplings) are moon shaped and gloriously golden brown. The crunchy outer pastry encloses a creamy, slightly nutmeg-tinted cheese and prawn filling. Bolinhos de Bacalhau (salt cod fishcakes) have the perfect potato:salt cod ratio – often those sold in restaurants have too much potato and not enough fish which alters the taste and texture. In both cases, a small squeeze of lemon is all that is required to achieve superb simple abundance. Gloriously garlicy Bifanana (thinly sliced super-tender pork), grilled and simmered in a rich, paprika-flavoured stock are tucked inside flour dusted bread rolls. Bifanana tastes best before or during a football game with a beer in hand but, even as a weekday business lunch, mine was great. Carla says that Saturday sees posh people driving in from the east to eat honeycomb Tripas à moda do Porto (slow cooked tripe with white beans).
The liquor list has a focus on hard tack but there is a small South African and Portuguese beer and wine selection. My Vinho Verde Santola was a deliciously young, perfectly pétillant, go-back-to-work-in the afternoon beverage. Into every sunny day some rain must fall. At Portuguese Kitchen there is an out of place page of pizza and pasta dishes and a disappointing dessert menu. Bought in Italian Kisses don’t hit the spot for those of us lusting after Pasteis de Nata (custard tarts).
Despite the lack of Portuguese puddings, the fantastic food more than makes up for the frenetic exterior ambiance. Go for car parts. Stay for lunch.
Portuguese Kitchen 071 9292211; 289 Charlotte Maxeke Street, Pretoria West.