It was a small, raw, white-tiled Mexican cantina squeezed at the end of a triangular T-junction in New York’s Lower East Side; a scruffy flat-ironed cantina that would easily have been missed if Christa Ansell, a traveling chartered accountant, hadn’t walked past it.
“I love going to places that are little holes in the wall. I am not good with food chains and I don’t like to go to places that are really hyped up about. In New York it’s easy to do that because there are a lot of blogs, there are a lot of magazines. There are so many hidden places you can find walking along,” says Ansell.
It took a snack from this cantina in 2006 to give Ansell the idea to change her life and open her own Mexican restaurant, Perron, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“It left a little something that said ‘gee I wish we had something like that in South Africa’…It wasn’t the Mexican like I have had [in South Africa], which is nachos with ridiculous amounts of cheese on it or things that are over fried, a generally tasty but incredibly unhealthy meal. There it was with incredible flavors with beautiful fresh coriander and nice margaritas [she is a big fan of tequila as well],” she says.
Ansell’s Perron is a far cry from the street diner in the heart of New York. It is in Illovo, in the well-groomed suburbs of Sandton in Johannesburg; a hip and trendy explosion of pink and green walls, paintings of Frida Kahlo [Mexican artist], and a bar ringed by feathered lampshades with more brands of tequila than are good for you in one night.
“A lot of Joburg is really monochrome and neutral and swish and easy on the eye. I wanted to make this the ‘wake up you’re in a different place and get some life into you’. Mexico has such a rich history and we turn [their restaurants] into swinging bar doors and tumble weeds and sombreros,” she says.
“Mexican food is amazing because it has that whole street-vendor vibe. I love having a lot of tastes of things and having a lot of different flavors. It’s versatile. I have been a vegetarian for several years and it was frustrating to go to a restaurant and have only one option to eat – a mushroom risotto. Because that’s what I had and it killed me. When people get it right it’s amazing but if not it’s just stodgy rice. I wanted to do something that had more than just wild mushroom risotto on the menu.”
Ansell wears a bright red dress, a world away from the grey suits of the boardrooms of New York and London. It’s a dress that hints at her character. Apart from spending time eating out, the rebel at heart has danced at the bottom of the Guggenheim gallery in New York beneath paintings and hummed to classical music at the Museum of Modern Art across town.
Ansell has also backpacked across South America and Spain.
This restaurant was a baptism of fire that could make jalapenos cool. Ansell, who pulled into Africa after driving eight months down from London to Johannesburg with her husband, bought the lease in February 2014. The opening night, in May, was chaotic.
“Five minutes before everyone was coming, we were still drilling holes into the wall and putting up cacti and trying to get the staff all fully-trained. We painted everything ourselves. It was a hands-on thing. It was chaos,” she says.
“Being chartered accountants, we are controlled and orientated. I used to be very client-based in my former jobs meeting CEOs. I am used to long hours. I thought I was going to be fine and there can’t be challenges to working a restaurant. But you are dealing with a broader spectrum of people. Here you are dealing with waiters and waitresses who are younger, who have a different generational way of talking, and who you have to treat differently. You’ve got different cultural expectations. It’s a crazy melting pot of so many different walks of life and ways of looking at life.”
There was also the last-minute name change. They wanted to name it CabrÓn which means friends, but had to change it when they found out a diner in Cape Town had their original name.
“We thought lets register the website and then we found there was another site which had the same domain. So we went to the drawing board. Perron means cool in Mexican slang, or the man. This dude is one of the lucha libre fighters. I just loved him. And because a lot of the décor images are quite feminine I kind of thought it would be nice to have that yin and yang. That’s why we use the Perron man.”
Ansell’s restaurant uses 180 bottles of tequila a month, and 500 Jalapeno chillies a day.
What’s the hardest part of her day? “I think the nature of reviews is quite difficult. I am the kind of person that wants everyone to like me so when I read that someone doesn’t like the food I get quite upset. But it’s a challenge you have to overcome. Not everyone is going to like the kind of food that you are making. I have had a few Mexicans come in and say ‘oh but you are supposed to be authentic’ but we’re not trying to be authentic. We’re just bringing the Mexican stuff we like into Johannesburg.
“As children, my brother had this Mexican alter ego Veektor. We would pretend to have Spanish conversations. It came about that I was called ‘senorita’ by my colleagues. I had a car that had a number plate that was MXE so it was called the Mexican. I suppose you could say it has always been there in the background,” says Ansell.
A year and scores of food reviews later, Perron is flinging out burritos and chilli poppers.
“We opened on a Wednesday and from that Friday we have been basically fully booked. It’s been crazy. It started with two days in advance. Now, on weekends, you have to book a month in advance.”
A far cry from stodgy mushroom risotto.