A stone’s throw away from Anstey Station, a massive photorealist mural of an Inca boy is splashed across the wall of a building. Drawn by street artist Julian Clavijo, it was designed to bring a touch of colour and tranquillity to an area prone to lots of traffic and activity.
Inside, colour and calm are delivered to you on a plate at Gus Vargas' quaint café. Its menu – like its owner, who hails from Santiago, and its name honouring the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda – spotlights classic Chilean dishes.
Locals and members of the South American community settle in on the few tables set up amidst shelves jammed with an impressive collection of South American records, books, flags and hand-painted maté (a caffeine-rich herbal drink) cups. Seventies salsa plays just audibly, as Gus chats to his customers in Spanish or English in between making coffees and bagging oven-baked empanadas – crispy, dense pastry encasing a comforting mixture of slow-cooked beef, onions, Spanish black olives and hardboiled egg.
Breakfast dishes are combos of yolk-heavy scrambled eggs with ham (chancho), chorizo (choro), or steak, grilled tomatoes and caramelised onion (pobre). The term ‘a lo pobre’ denotes simple, traditional food, along the lines of Italy’s cucina povera – meals Chilean families eat daily. The breakfasts come either with pan amasado – homemade Chilean country bread traditionally baked in a wood-clay oven – or the Colombian staple of white or yellow corn arepas. The arepas are a good call, filled with a super melty South American cheese that adds richness to the creamy eggs.
Neruda’s is one of the only places in Melbourne you can try an authentic Chilean sandwich like the chacarero: the still warm, soft, doughy pan amasado provides the perfect home for pan-fried steak, cooling tomato slices, crunchy steamed green beans, house-made mayo and masses of mashed avocado. Take off the top, pour in the zingy tomato, onion and coriander salsa, and prepare for the contents to dribble down your chin.
There are bigger plates too, like the Milanesa al plato, an Argentinian riff on an Italian dish of breaded meat fillets, here veal, served with carrot-studded rice and a Russian potato salad. Or try the shepherds pie’s Latin cousin, pastel de choclo: a rich spiced beef mince and chicken casserole topped with a mashed corn crust served piping hot from the oven. The charquicán, another example of 'a lo pobre' cuisine, is a stew of mashed potatoes, pumpkin, minced beef and green beans – it’s all homey, tasty stuff perfect now that it’s getting cooler.
They say you have a separate stomach for dessert, but after these generous servings it might be a struggle to fit any of the sweets beckoning from the display cabinet. There are crumbly alfajores (delicate discs of buttery shortbread encasing oodles of caramel), and torta tres leche (sponge cake soaked with three types of milk – evaporated, condensed and plain – layered with dulce de leche and blanketed in fluffy meringue). It’s super sweet, velvety and muy delicioso. Follow Pablo Neruda’s advice – “For now I ask no more than the justice of eating” – and take a few treats home.