The self-proclaimed queen of prawns reigns over her domain in a whirl of perfume and enthusiastic chatter. Her lipstick is as red as her clothing is jet-black, and bangles clatter in greeting as the iron gate clangs shut behind me.
Out in the street is the sometimes-scruffy sometimes-trendy suburb of Muizenberg, where antique boutiques, surf stores and hipster coffee shops line the beachfront. But inside, in the queendom of Carla’s, it’s all Mozambique. Maputo, I’d say. Perhaps somewhere out on the Avenida Marginal where salt air washes in the front door to mix with the sizzle of prawns in a skillet.
Prawns, butter and garlic are what made Maputo famous back when it was Lourenço Marques, and it’s a combinations that draws hungry diners to Carla’s six nights a week.
“When we opened here my mom, who is Mozambican, said ‘Just do prawns’, and that’s what we do. Prawns, with our own secret sauce. And I’m telling you, it’s a hit,” says the eponymous Carla Anderson. “Almost everybody who comes here orders the prawns, and they are never disappointed. We tried offering specials, but they didn’t work because people just come for the prawns.”
Who could blame them either? Over 100 kilograms of Mozambican prawns are flown in each month to be flash-fried in butter – “for no more than five minutes,” admonishes the queen – and then doused in Carla’s secret sauce. She won’t share the recipe, but there’s plenty of lemon juice, coriander, olive oil and chilli in there. The prawns are served simply with rice and a crusty Portuguese roll, and are utterly delicious. Ordering is equally simple: eight for R112, or a dozen for R150.
Simple, simple, simple: it’s a mantra Carla uses with pride.
“We’re not some big swishy place; I think simpler is always better. When I look at restaurant menus that are as thick as a book I wonder how they can keep it all fresh?”
That’s never a problem at Carla’s, where a small chalkboard menu lists a handful of options for those inexplicably not ordering the prawns.
Traditional Portuguese caldo verde is a popular starter, although Carla admits “we use spinach, because we can’t find the traditional Portuguese cabbage here.” There’s evident care taken with ingredients, with a starter of mussels perfectly cooked and served in a broth of lemon, chilli and garlic. A rump steak arrives with egg and chips, and peri-peri chicken is grilled and doused liberally with more secret sauce.
If that seems like a cornucopia of choices, the wine list will make it easier for you: red or white; Cabernet or Sauvignon Blanc. For anything fancier, Carla’s happy for you to bring your own. Sadly, the stash of 2M beers on the shelf is just for show. Choosing dessert is even easier: there’s only one, a rich chocolate mousse cake.
From the restaurant to the staff – it’s Carla out front and chef Alvina in the back – smaller is better in the kingdom of the prawn queen, and despite hosting just a handful of diners each night there are no plans to expand.
“If the restaurant gets any bigger we’ll lose the flavour of the place and the food, and we won’t let that happen. People come here for the great food and cosy atmosphere… we don’t want to change that.”
Carla’s, 7 York Road, Muizenberg
021 788 6860
Mon-Sat from 4.30pm-late
Starters R45-R50; Mains R85-R150