The thing with South African food is that it only sounds exotic. It's not all Cape Buffalo steak and leopard loin—in fact, it's never those things. Instead, South African cuisine is actually quite recognizable (even if the names of the dishes themselves aren't) owing to the mix of colonial cultures that left their mark on the country over the years. You'll find signatures of Dutch, English, Indian, French, Portuguese, and even Malaysian influences and ingredients in a broad range of South African dishes. It's a shame, in fact, that Houston—possessing a diverse palate of its own—doesn't have more South African restaurants.
711 Main St.
Springbok is aiming to change that. The new South African pub opened in the heart of downtown in late July, posting up next to The Flying Saucer on Main Street and across the street from the almost-nearly-finished JW Marriott that's set to debut its luxe new rooms and restaurant soon. Along with Peli Peli in Champions, it's one of the city's only South African restaurants—though Springbok is billing itself as much as a pub as anything.
This aesthetic suits Springbok and its patrons well, many of whom come to watch rugby matches on the dozens of flat-screen TVs that line the walls, both downstairs in the main pub area and upstairs in a comfortable lounge area that offers cozy couches and a picturesque view of Main Street below. The upscale sports bar vibe extends to the large portions of pub grub and comfort food such as hanger steaks and cheeseburgers, though the menu also includes more elegant choices like an asparagus salad with soft egg and farmers cheese and traditional South African dishes like a daily curry with mango chutney and mieliepap.
When I visited this Saturday, I eschewed the sports bar interior, however, in favor of the sidewalk patio and surpringly fall-like evening weather. It seemed the perfect weather, in fact, for a cast-iron dish of oxtail in a red curry sauce with Yorkshire pudding and braised vegetables. I split it with a friend, along with a plate of "slap chips" (French fries doused in vinegar) and a boerewors roll (a housemade brat in a bun).
We quickly washed the wonderfully salty, tangy chips down with a couple of IPAs—Springbok has plenty of local brews on draft—so quickly, in fact, our waiter was shocked to return only a few minutes after delivering the fries to find them gone. There was no fault to be found with the oxtail either, lovely and tender, the red curry extremely subtle yet still fragrant with ginger and garlic. The braised carrots on the side were nice and sweet, though a tad overdone; the tough little Yorkshire pudding had also suffered the same fate.
The boerewors roll dish had the same issues: the sausage itself was fantastic, the coarsely ground beef flavored with spices like cloves and coriander. The bolillo bread it was served on, however, was entirely wrong for the brat and was impossible to eat as presented—a shame, as the housemade whole grain mustard spread on one side was amazing. I found myself taking the sausage out and carving it up with a knife and fork, then tearing hunks of the mustard-smeared bolillo off to accompany each bite. I appreciate the attempt at pairing a South African sausage with a Mexican bread product, and the dish was certainly delicious, but ultimately unwieldy.
Dessert more than made up for these minor issues, though. Butterscotch bread pudding sounds a bit "eh" on the menu, and I'm afraid this might deter people from ordering it. Don't make that mistake; this was one of my favorite desserts of the year. Bread pudding can easily be one-note, both in flavor and texture. Springbok gets it right by cutting the pudding into squares and searing them off on the sides for a crisp, almost crunchy, caramelized effect that highlights the beautiful balance of sweetness and saltiness in the butterscotch. A few spoonfuls of clotted cream on top underscored that dance between sweet and savory, and as soon as it was all gone I wished instantly that we'd ordered another.
Despite its sports bar flair, our meal that Saturday night went far beyond simple pub grub; Springbok can easily hold its own as a restaurant as much as a "rugby pub." Thank chef Seth Greenburg for that, who moved here from Los Angeles to open Springbok with owner and South African ex-pat Peter Walker, who chose to open the second location of his LA-based restaurant here in Houston. Greenburg's pedigree extends beyond burgers and slap chips: the chef has worked with two-star Michelin chef Gilles Epié at restaurants like L'Orangerie in Los Angeles and Cuisine Français in Chicago, and these influences show in his smartly updated South African fare. Between the fun food at Springbok and news that Peli Peli is set to open a second location in the Galleria, it may not be long before Houston finally embraces South African cuisine as the next big thing.