George Mandalios is a man you’d like to have as your friend. I know I’m going to like him when we sit down at Kalky’s, the legendary fish and chips place on Kalk Bay Harbour, and he’s drinking an espresso and eating brown bread with smoked salmon for breakfast. He’s warm and charming and within minutes, I can tell, a no bullshit guy. A kind of South African/Mediterranean Robert de Niro. I’d assumed he was Portuguese because…naturally, all fish and chips shops in South Africa are run by Portuguese, right? But as my dad always used to say, when you assume, you make an ass of you and me.
The thing is, I’d always thought this man I’d seen so many times behind the counter was the owner of Kalky’s, my favourite fish and chips spot. Racial profiling? No, it’s just that the Rosslinds, the Coloured (official term for people of mixed ethnic origin in South Africa) family who have owned Kalky’s since its inception 25 years ago, prefer to be working behind the scenes. And George, who is not Portuguese but is an Egyptian-born Greek who came here via Sudan and Johannesburg, is the public face of Kalky’s – the manager as well as co-owner with Allison Rosslind of the two fishing boats which supply it. Fifteen years ago, when Kalky’s needed an extra hand to cope with its popularity, he was asked to help out. He’s never left.
This is a locus for fish and chips in Cape Town, which has its own local stamp on what visitors probably assume is solely an English tradition. But fish and chips and South Africa go way back. Here in Cape Town, the Coloured community and fishing are intertwined and vis n skyfies (aka vis n tjips) is a staple.
When my husband grew up in Johannesburg, all fish and chips shops were owned by Portuguese immigrants; Portugal being a nation that also knows its way around a fish. That’s no longer the case, at least in Cape Town, where there are fewer independent fish and chips shops than a couple of decades ago (and many more franchised operations). Kalky’s is special, not just because its fish is fresh-out-of-the-sea fresh or that it’s on most tourist to-do lists, but because it’s a lasting independent on a working harbour, still full of locals who line up to eat here. Who don’t mind that it’s cash only and that you need to pay a deposit to get the key to the bathroom, which is around the corner, outside, in the back. In this small seaside suburb of Cape Town where old school fishing and bearded food artisans co-exist, Kalky’s is an anchor.
Along with the cheeky banter of Gadija, Kalky’s infamous waitress with attitude, it’s the fish and chips that keeps people coming here (hake is the number #1 seller, followed by snoek — a long slender local fish that is a member of the mackerel family — and calamari). Enormous crispy golden fillets of hake are the size of a beefy 13-year-old’s forearm. The fish comes with a family-size portion of perfectly cooked chips, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside) that become slap (droopy and soft) when you sprinkle on brown vinegar. Whether you sit inside at tables covered with red plastic or outside, you are part of the working harbour. A few steps away is an open air market where women sell freshly caught fish. Butterflied snoek are hung up like bunting to dry in the stiff False Bay breeze and harbour seals lounge alongside all the action.
While Kalky’s is, by numbers, a big operation, it still operates like a corner family-owned fish and chips shop. This in spite of the fact that it has 22 employees and in one week, churns through 2 tons of potatoes, 1 ton of hake and half a ton of snoek. All the fish is fresh, either caught by line on George and Allison’s boats (snoek, yellowtail, hottentot, red roman), or bought from nearby Hout Bay (hake). The only frozen items are prawns; even the calamari is fresh, coming from either Cape Point or Port Elizabeth.
Seven days a week, weather permitting, the two boats, Kalky’s Five and Starlife, go out into False Bay, where George says it is getting more difficult for hand-line fisherman. “It would take us a year to catch what the big trawlers catch in one trip.” The boats’ 18 fishermen leave at 3:00 am and return at 3:00 pm; a lifestyle that hasn’t changed much in decades, but is now threatened by large-scale commercial fishing.
“Our success is about quality,” George says. It’s little things, like changing the oil every day, using first grade large potatoes cut on site, washing the potatoes until all the starch is gone. Twice a week, George, who is 70, takes Kalky’s truck to the market to buy potatoes and vegetables and to Viking Fishing Company in Hout Bay, for hake and a top-up of other fish.
I ask him about the batter for the fish and chips, expecting he’ll never tell me what’s in it. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you it’s just flour and water.” There are touches of George’s Mediterranean roots, like the pickled octopus, which swims in a lemony vinaigrette and the garlic dip (skordalia) his daughter makes from garlic, bread and vinegar and Greek salad (although this is a ubiquitous South African restaurant staple). He’s even put deep-fried and grilled snoek heads on the menu, which he says has become very popular.
While George is the face of Kalky’s, Gadija is the voice. She swots seagulls away from plates of fish and chips with a rolled up newspaper and squalls and whistles her way through the joint, as she delivers food to customers. Her tactics are equal parts shock factor and seduction: five seconds after she asks a customer when he’s going to marry her, she’s whistling shrilly behind another’s ear. It’s hard to imagine this place without her.
Go to Kalky’s if you want to see an authentic slice of coastal Cape life. And for the fish and chips.
Kalky’s is open 7 days a week, from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm.