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Carla’s: Best prawns south of the Zambezi

There are restaurants that are worth a special journey to experience the cuisine they offer. This is in fact the basis of the Michelin start rating system. Carla’s in Muizenberg is one such restaurant.

Tucked away on vibey York Road, Carla’s has been around for about 20 years, opening its doors when Muizenberg was a seaside slum, the now thronging beach front dominated by the eerily derelict Empire cinema. There were far fewer surfers then, having to weigh the quality of the waves against the risk of a car break in. Not long after the neighbourhood cleaned up, Covid and lock downs came along. Carla’s is still there, lights once again shining onto the now gentrified pavement just across the railway crossing from surfer’s corner.

Carla, the restaurant’s eponymous owner, didn’t survive as a refugee from Mozambique’s decade-long war for independence and build herself up from a take away on lower Buitenkant Street to be put out of business by the vagaries of urban development, nor a global pandemic. Her secret? Prawns, and a sauce recipe handed down from her mother shared only with her chef, Alvinia Brown.

Prawns, authentic Mozambican prawns to be precise, is why you go to Carla’s. They are exceptional. The mussel starters are delicious but cannot give an opinion on the salad or chicken peri-peri. In the three or four times we’ve eaten there, we’ve never tried them. We suspect they’re on offer in case some poor, unsuspecting member of a party is allergic to shellfish. Given Carla’s standards, they’re probably a delectable option.

And that’s it. That’s the menu: Mozambique salad, mussel starter, prawn salad, piri-piri chicken, and a plate of eight or 12 LM prawns. (LM for Lourenço Marques, now Maputo, of course). It’s all that’s needed.

The size of the menu is consistent with the size of the restaurant. 30 would be a crowd. Yet rather than cramped, it feels warm and intimate amidst bold colours and personal touches. If you’re sociable you’re likely to end up making friends with someone at an adjacent table, but there are also nooks where couples can lick their fingers in gastronomic ecstasy against a pleasing background of conviviality. Conviviality is assured: fools are not suffered. It’s that Latin temperament. Carla is proprietor, hostess, and one and only waitress. You feel as if you’ve stepped through a time warp and landed up in a seaside cafe circa 1950 way off the tourist map and frequented by someone like Ernst Hemingway, yet without a hint of nostalgia, colonial or otherwise. It’s a glorious far cry from the soulless, manufactured décor and service of franchises like Tiger’s Milk, et al.

The most delicious food, no anxiety over menu choices, timeless charm. Well worth the trip.

Mussel starter to share and two plates of eight prawns cost R637, excluding tip. Mother City News paid it’s own bill.