A Parow Icon: Bar-B-Que Restaurant

Man was not created to eat small portions, said the late, great American writer and gourmand Jim Harrison. He would also have liked Voortrekker Road in Parow, a garishly seedy part of this thoroughfare winding its way from Cape Town to the north-east, groaning and heaving under the slow pulse of urban decay, South African style. It’s liquor shops and funeral-parlours, crumby all-night cafés, second-hand car dealers and shady bars and gambling-dens.

This area is also home to the steak-house named Bar-B-Que, a joint that has achieved cult-status – perhaps not so much for the location as it has for its offering of meals that are the very antithesis of what, according to the gospel of Jim, humankind is not meant to eat. Namely gargantuan slices and chunks and rib-cages of meat that Bar-B-Que has been dishing up for 55 years straight. Now that the Harlequin Restaurant down the Parow road has closed, BBQ must surely be the oldest sit-down eatery in Cape Town, still attracting an eager throng of carnivores who fill the simply furnished hub night-after-night.

I go there for the first time, a few months back, with Thys Louw, owner-winemaker of Diemersdal Estate, who cut his meat-eating teeth at BBQ after just beginning to walk. We are in celebratory mood after another string of awards for Diemersdal’s wines, and the visit is more about an occasion than scrutinising the eating options. Owner-chef Marius Strauss, a wiry man from Namaqualand with a curio-shop full of bracelets, copper hoops and bangles on his arms, joins us at the table. He regales us on Afrikaans humour, Namaqualand-style, and buckets of Diemersdal Private Collection are consumed between the off-kilter jokes, the belts of laughter and platters of beef and pork.

The night ends in a blur, with Marius standing outside his restaurant under the dark Parow sky cracking a bull-whip, the sharp-snaps making guns-hot booms that drift into the warm, moonless night.

Last week, I head back BBQ-way to check-out the food in a more sober, less distracted frame of mind. Thys is once again present, as are journalist Suzaan Potgieter and fiancé JD Esterhuizen – Suzaan’s, not mine. And by arrival at 19:00, the place is heaving, patrons seated at plain wooded booths and creating a din that implies pleasure, joy and gaiety through a mutual bloodlust for the cooked flesh of animals, mostly four-legged.

The focus is on pork schnitzels, steaks and spare-ribs, with a sole, lonely chicken schnitzel thrown-in. Pescatarians will have to fill-up on the mussel-starter, the only marine creature found on the menu.

Thys, Suzaan and I start-out on the ubiquitous steak-house classic of snails in garlic-butter, while JD heads straight into carnivore mode by ordering some biltong to kick things off. We are seated in a front-booth, allowing a view of Marius preparing all the meals himself, only a few assistants clearing plates away and delivering raw produce to Chef from somewhere that has a cooling unit.

Suzaan’s classic Copacabana with some classy Bordeaux.

The snails are hot and slimy, as they should be, drifting in a butter-and-parsley sauce with enough garlic to turn a vampire into a life-long vegan. Slices of white bread are used to mop-up the liquid, the buttery-ness of which throws a suitable, comforting lining for the stomach. There is a lot of Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc going down, and this is only the start.

Thys has brought along a bottle of Chateau Canon 2017, a top-class St Emilion, so the main-courses are selected with attention and respect for the wine.

Suzaan, Thys and JD opt for the BBQ schnitzels, the establishment’s piece de resistance, while I – wishing to witness Marius’s prowess before the grill and his selection of beef – decide on a rump-steak, medium-rare.

The pork-schnitzels opted by Suzaan and Thys are the glorious house speciality, namely Schnitzel Copacabana. These are thin(ish) slices of pig-meat covered with a delicate, nuance-embodying sauce of banana, ham and cheddar cheese. JD requests the pepper version which is, as can be detected, peppery and cheesy. Seeking generosity of flavour, I ask for my steak to be accompanied by a Monkey Gland sauce, the mark of any steakhouse that has its heart in the right place and a skilled saucier in the kitchen.

Ever the proponent of healthy eating, Thys requests that a Greek salad be brought to freshen the palate during partaking of the main-courses.

Ribs, anyone?

By now the aroma of the Chateau Canon has worked its way between the savoury, fiery wafts emanating from Marius’s grill. The wine is juicy, brightly fruited with an immense gravitas sending telegram-notes that, tonight, something cultured is happening in Parow.

The meals arrive, and if one eats with your eyes, you will be sated by the visual offering alone, a BBQ signature. The schnitzels are the size of tennis-rackets, a seemingly endless ocean of melted cheese the colour of a Van Gogh sun-flower lying atop expansive decks of pork. Piles of hand-cut, perfectly cooked French fries fight for space on the plate, although for Thys this is not an issue as he has a fluffy baked potato with his food.

My steak is, fortunately, not as commandingly massive as the schnitzels but is going to take some work getting through, something I have prepared myself for with a green-tea enema the previous day, and a 24hr diet of sprouts and lemon-juice.

With a call to arms, everyone digs in without interrupting the lively, amicable conversation that eating at a place like BBQ encourages. My rump is grilled to perfection, top-quality beef cooked red-pink – yet warm – in the middle, with that all-important steakhouse char ensuring an exterior of crunch and flavour to off-set the tender, primal flavour of a good steak. The Monkey Gland is sweetishly sour, umami to the max, crafted with enough restraint so as not to override the flavour of the beef.

Pepper Schnitzel, expertly snapped by Suzaan Potgieter.

The fellow-diners are making good work with their vast schnitzels, but I manage to procure a shimmering slice of Thys’s Copacabana. First there is the taste of breaded, fried pork, the slight neutrality of which provides sustenance and a feeling of well-being that allows the innovatively and skilfully crafted Copacabana sauce to show its gourmet-minded class. Warm, fragrant slices of banana add a wholesome Gauguin-esque tropical note to the silky melted Cheddar, with the slivers of smoky ham elevating, lifting, the dish to another dimension. If this were a wine, the complexity, the grace and the pure sensorial opulence would be a Montrachet.

JD digs into his pepper-cheesy spread giving gentle sighs of satisfaction, and apart from Thys we all are so engaged in this meal of heartfelt, homely generosity that we forget about the Greek salad before us, mountainous and fresh with marble-white wedges of feta cheese.

Patrons begin to leave, but we stay. Everyone greets and thanks Marius, and he offers murmurs of appreciation. JD and Suzaan have an Irish Coffee and Dom Pedro, while Thys and I engage in earnest, evocative conversation with Marius, who – like Bar-B-Que – can only be described as a force of nature.

And here in downtown Parow, it reminds one that humankind was made for visiting places like this.

JD Esterhuizen, Marius Strauss, Thys Louw and Suzaan Potgieter.

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