The empanadas at Miss Marley's dining and tequila bar in Manly.
The empanadas at Miss Marley's dining and tequila bar in Manly. Photo: Steven Siewert

Carla Grossetti

Over the past decade or so, cantinas, bars and restaurants with South American flavours have popped up like mushrooms around Sydney. What's not to like? There are the grilled meats, devilishly fierce flavours, seafood that hits the plate sizzling and spaces that ricochet with the sound of people having fun.

As well as lavish options cooked with clout over a parrilla (charcoal oven), the emphasis is on punchy drinks that just might prompt patrons to dance on the tables.

In the 2006 census,  69,157 Australians stated they were born in South or Central America – mainly from Chile, with El Salvador, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Colombia also well represented.

Warm and welcoming: Upstairs at Porteno in Surry Hills.
Warm and welcoming: Upstairs at Porteno in Surry Hills. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

Senior lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Sydney, Dr Fernanda Penaloza, says there has been a rise of 6 to 7 per cent of South Americans living in Sydney  since the last census, which perhaps explains the growing interest in the Latin American way of life.

"The patterns of migration are very different from those in the '70s and '80s,'' says Argentina-born Penaloza, who arrived  from Britain five years ago and settled in Helensburgh, south of Sydney.

''Back then, people were fleeing Latin America for their life and freedom because of the political turmoil. Now it's more about studying English or experiencing an adventure.

Vibrant: La Cocina Peruana in Randwick.
Vibrant: La Cocina Peruana in Randwick. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

"My impression is that while the bakeries, restaurants, bars and cafes were once located in the areas that South American migrants congregated – such as Fairfield – there are more and more places catering to a broader group of people who want to try different things.

''That's a global trend. It's not exclusive to Sydney," says Penaloza.

While some of Sydney's more modest South American eateries might dip their sombrero toward nostalgia, it's clear that foodies from far-flung corners of the globe are also enjoying how far the cuisine has come.

Stylish: Cooking food Argentine-style at Gardel?s bar.
Stylish: Cooking food Argentine-style at Gardel's bar. Photo: Andrew Quilty

Paula Empanadas

This Chilean bakery and cafe is a colourful little cubbyhole festooned with flags,  rosettes and red, white and blue bunting. It's all about epic empanadas and  dulce de leche, which are "muy auténtico [very authentic]'', says Daniella Casanova, whose parents, Victor and Aglae, opened the doors on the first family store in Fairfield 30 years ago before opening a second in Kensington. "I was born in Chile and we arrived here in 1984. We were the first Chilean business to open in Sydney," she says.

The Casanova family also seduces customers with lomito completo (a $9.90 sandwich piled high with pork, lettuce and avocado) and pupusas (Salvadoran filled tortillas with cabbage salad, $3). Sweet-toothed customers will  fall into a swoon over caramel-filled alfajor (stuffed biscuits) and sugar-coated churros.

Chilean charm: Empanadas from La Paula in Kingsford.
Chilean charm: Empanadas from La Paula in Kingsford. Photo: Jennifer Soo

1/214 Anzac Parade, Kensington,  96631041; 9 Barbara Street, Fairfield, Sydney  97262379; paulaempanadas.com

Chimmi's Rum Cantina

Although Bondi ''the junga'' Junction is a long way from Brazil, Chimmi's Rum Cantina is a new and noteworthy place with a let-loose feel that will teleport the boho brigade into a state of bliss. As well as the lovely low-lit atmosphere, there are retro couches and seats at the bar where you can watch Todd Millar ply his bartending skills with precision. Millar will happily shine a spotlight on Chimmi's rum collection, which contains more than 100 top drops, and serves sensational bar snacks such as empanadas stuffed with slow-cooked beef shin, bean and chilli ($5). The only
house rule is for guests to enjoy great food, a few snifters of rum and a bugalú. The conquistador julep cocktail with Club Cuban rum ($18) is compulsory, cigars optional. Wednesdays offer wallet-friendly $1 tacos.

Level 2, The Eastern Hotel, 500 Oxford Street, 93877828, theeastern.com.au/chimmis

Boca

Argentines share Australia's obsession with barbecuing meat  and love a good social celebration that revolves around the asado. Boca, a charming corner restaurant housed in a handsome two-storey terrace, is a shrine to all things Argentine and even includes a portrait of the country's beloved soccer god, Diego Maradona. While Brazilian-born chef Lucas Saraiva looks like he could burst into capoeira at any moment, he's actually too busy tending to the parrilla. Meat anchors the menu: enjoy flaky empanada criolla ($4.50 for two) or a parrillada pampa, a mixed grill for two with salads ($63). Viva Argentina!

310 Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, 93323373, boca.com.au

La Cocina Peruana (Randwick)

This low-key Eastern suburb nook offers homespun Latino cuisine with a Peruvian spin. Locals pop in to escape over a plate of citrus-splashed ceviche ($16) and a Pisco sour ($14) or two. Order from Spanish-speaking waiters  in the snug dining room and courtyard, which are decked out with Peruvian paraphernalia. Prepare to be serenaded by South American ballads as you peruse a menu that features staples such as fluffy tamales (steamed corn parcels stuffed with meat, $12) or arroz con mariscos ($27), a Machu Picchu-high mound of rice and seafood. Peruvian owner Pedro Otiniano recently returned from two months in Peru where he mastered a new dish: anticuchos (smoky barbecued ox heart meat marinated in ''magic'' Peruvian spices, $15).

142 Avoca Street, Randwick, 93264344, lacocinaperu.com.au

Porteno and upstairs Gardel's Bar

This place is always heaving with everyone from spiffy city types in well-pressed suits to tattooed regulars with untamed hair. Let's start with the food, which is impeccably done, and the sultry waiters who deliver it with a minimum of fuss. The menu, devised by chefs and owners Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz, speaks Spanglish and is the sort of food that both Argentines and Australians adore. Seafood tragics should sample the pulpo asado, grilled octopus and potato pilpil served in a pool of garlic, lemon and mojo verde ($30), while carnivores will clash forks over the decadent pickled veal tongue ($10) and blood sausage enlivened with red peppers in garlic ($12).  Finish with something sweet (South American-style pavlova, $16) and slurpable, such as the 2011 Amalaya Torrontes riesling ($13.50 a glass).

358 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills,  83991440, porteno.com.au

Other South American-inspired hot spots worth tangoing to and from around Sydney include:
Cafecito (shop 25, Town Hall Square, 473 Kent Street, Sydney, 9267 5575)
Pachamama House (200 Goulburn Street, Surry Hills, 9261 8799)
La Torre Cake Shop (9 Nelson Street, Fairfield, 9724 4565)
Tierra's Latinas, which sources products from all over South America (1/57 Smart Street, Fairfield, 97234446).