6 210 Albion St Brunswick, VIC 3056
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri 6.30am-4.30pm, Sat-Sun 8.30am-5.30pm|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 7001 8344|
What if I told you there's a portal in Brunswick that takes you directly to South America? From the outside, it's a glass-fronted Besser-brick shop. But inside tiny, congenial Neruda's, you're instantly elsewhere.
Colourful murals, paper sculptures and straw hats suggest long sunny days. Bookshelves cluttered with Pablo Neruda's poetry, Lonely Planet guides to Chile and Brazil, and tempting hand drums all suggest you should put your phone away and revel in being on a no-airfare trip to South America in stay-at-home 2021 Australia.
Since Chilean musician Gus Vargas opened his cafe in 2016, Neruda's has been a cultural bridge. People with tickets to Peru practise Spanish. Colombian students stop by for a taste of home. Travellers with Brazil tans bring Melbourne mates to explain why they loved their trip. The cafe is so small – 20 seats, elbow to elbow – that conversations spill and friendships are formed.
Vargas has always wanted Neruda's to draw together different South American countries and cuisines. He even remarks that fierce national rivalries are smoothed over here: isn't that one beautiful strand of the Australian dream?
Neruda's has a large menu, running from all-day egg scrambles to spiced steak sandwiches, skinless frankfurters and South American-style loaded fries.
There are half a dozen types of empanadas; the De Pino is a Chilean iteration, filled with minced beef, onion, olives and boiled egg, then baked rather than fried. It's a hearty stew in a pie.
For humitas, maize is made into a paste with onion, basil and soy milk (it's vegan-friendly), wrapped in corn husk and boiled. When opened to eat, it envelops the diner in a sweet, corny cloud that only gets more comforting as food hits mouth.
Ceviche (acid-cured fish) is often attributed to Peru but different iterations pop up from Cape Horn to the Caribbean. Neruda's version tumbles fish, squid and prawns with lemon and lime juice, avocado, capsicum and red onion. Prepared to order, large seafood pieces retain their bite so it's vivacious to the last mouthful.
Where ceviche is a bright, lively dance, pastel de choclo is a slow, sweet embrace. This Chilean dish layers chicken, beef and corn in a clay pot where it's baked into glorious coalescence, like a Latino shepherd's pie.
Desserts are made here. The milhojas ("thousand sheets") is a compressed dream of puff pastry interspersed with dulce de leche (milk caramel). It's outstanding.
The coffee is great, cocktails are possible, but you can also drink mate, a bitter herbal infusion sipped through a special tapered straw.
Whether you're homesick for Sudamerica or in need of a proxy international jaunt, Neruda's delivers with warmth and enthusiasm.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)