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Mzoli's: Cape Town's church of meat

Published August 28th, 2015

Vegans and vegetarians, look away now.

Alright, now that I have a captive, carnivorous audience, it's time to talk meat. In fact, let's talk all the meats. If your idea of a great Sunday session doesn't involve a butcher, then quite frankly, you're doing it wrong. Or maybe you've just never been to Cape Town.

With an urban sprawl that meets the sea and chiselled face of Table Mountain, The Rainbow City is a true treasure. But what you may not know is that one of its most prized gems is 20 minutes beyond the city limits.

Head east and hipster bars and glitzy shopping areas are replaced with dirt roads and ramshackle residences in the township of Gugulethu. 'Gugs' as it's affectionately known, is a stark reminder of what life in South Africa can be like outside Cape Town's glittering V&A Waterfront.

It's Mzoli's Place that attracts visitors, once an unassuming butcher that has evolved into a pilgrimage destination for meat lovers and partygoers alike. Think one part barbecue, one part dance party.

Us Aussies may think we've got the party thing down pat, but Capetonians are on a whole new level. And it all starts at the meat counter.

Step inside the white-tiled space and a crimson glow of glistening red meat behind a glass counter lights up an otherwise nondescript butcher. But it's not the first thing I notice. Hundreds of magazine clippings and yellowed photos line the walls, all of the owner and main man himself, Mzoli Ngcawuzele, with local and international celebs.

If Jamie Oliver is impressed enough to dedicate an article to Mzoli's in his magazine, you know you're in the right place.

Shisha nyama is the name of the game, an Afrikaans term used to describe grilled meat cooked over a braai (barbecue).

The method is simple: line up, choose your cuts (with a dash of special sauce, no less) and the butchers pile it all up on a silver platter. You then deliver it to the expert 'braaimasters' who are tasked with the laborious process of grilling the meat to perfection in what feels, and looks like, a furnace.

It's insanely hot and looks like back-breaking work, but these guys have nothing but a smile on their face.

Follow the dulcet doof doof of house music out to the 'dining area', a space that could be likened to someone's carport-slash-backyard, complete with rickety metal tables covered in sticky synthetic tablecloths (if you're lucky) and plastic chairs.

South Africans are an entrepreneurial lot, and the neighbouring residences take advantage of Mzoli's crowds. Buy your drinks – tallies and Savannahs (South African cider) – from one house, then head next door for your ice and ice bucket.

Also on the street, vendors set up markets stalls selling everything from artworks and sunnies to drinking goblets fashioned out of old spirits bottles. Yes, you have to buy your own glasses. As for cutlery, well, you can BYO if you really need the silverware.

Depending on the time of day, it won't take long til that glorious platter is ready. And what a beauty it is. Mzoli's is where you can channel all your animalistic urges so get right in there and rip apart and devour that succulent, perfectly cooked meat with your bare hands. Needless to say, wet wipes don't go astray.

Embrace the meat sweets, though you can (and should) freshen things up with a side of pap, a traditional African staple made from maize (similar to polenta), as well as chakalaka, a spicy onion and capsicum salsa mix. Fun to say and even more fun to eat.

Don't get too caught up in your lamb chop that you miss what's happening around you. An afternoon at Mzoli's can only be summed up as one of the best bashes of your life. People from all walks of life gather to eat, drink and enjoy the good vibes.

It's a lively, jovial (read: loose) crowd, and we saw everyone from family groups with full picnic spreads to young, hip cool kids dancing the afternoon away. With way more rhythm than the six of us had combined, I should add.

You'll also meet Joe, a local bongo player, who hovers from table to table promoting his band, Joe and the Ganga Muffins, seeking tips and/or a beer or two. (If you see that cheeky devil, tell him he owes us a beer.)

There's nothing glamorous whatsoever about the place, but that's the best part. Unlike theme restaurants where the decor screams 'Africa' back in Cape Town , Mzoli's is the real deal and a must-do for anyone seeking a true taste of local culture.

It's gritty, it's grimy but it's 100% authentic. It has the kind of electric atmosphere that you wish you could bottle up and take home.

Top tips

- Arrive early – around 11am – to avoid most of the queues.

- If you're with a group, reserve a table to ensure you get the full experience.

- Book a driver who will drop you off and pick you up at a designated time.

- Though no one likes FOMO, make sure you leave well before 4pm. Even locals don't stay out past sun down. Thems the rules.

- Don't forget toilet paper and hand sanitiser or wet wipes.

Anna Howard

I thrive on discovering hidden gems and local haunts wherever I travel, from hole-in-the-wall cafes and dive bars, to antique stores and eclectic markets. I feel just as content in a cosy cabin in the wilderness as I do lost in the crowd of a buzzing city.