What South American cuisine doesn't know about grilling beef isn't worth knowing, and when it comes to street food, it's hard to best an arepa stuffed with pulled pork, salsa and avo. Melbourne has a slew of restaurants devoted to the food cultures of South America, be it the steak-loving palates of Argentina, Colombia's hot corn pockets, or the simple, everyday dining of Chilean family meals. We've rounded up the city's best for when you want to go on a dining chair tour of the continent.
Melbourne's best South American food
San Telmo doesn’t muck around. This gaucho steakhouse run by a bunch of Melbourne hospo gringos lays its carnivorous scene at the entrance, where some impressive bits of cow sit dry ageing behind glass. The people have spoken, and the people want meat. They want meat in a lair that’s just like being transported to Buenos Aires, where cowhide in its various forms covers the menus and every other available surface.
The menu at Gus Vargas' quaint café, like its owner, hails from Santiago, and its name honours the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Locals and members of the South American community come here for ‘a lo pobre’ cuisine, meaning 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.
Palermo the restaurant is named after the barrio in Buenos Aires, not the city in Sicily. In the kitchen a whole pig is tangled in a wire frame over a red-brick fire pit (the asador) and the contraption known as a parilla, where shelves of chorizo, morcilla and other meaty bits are raised and lowered over glowing coals with a NASA engineer’s precision. It’s a scene not dissimilar to Palermo’s older sibling San Telmo.
Club Colombia is a traditional Colombian eatery open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but it’s the traditional morning dish of calentado that brings in the crowds. A rice dish prepared using reheated leftovers – ‘calentado’ literally translates to mean ‘heated’ – it's more a household staple than a mainstay of commercial kitchens. But at Club Colombia, the humble mishmash of ingredients is elevated into an inspiring, rib-sticking breakfast with a growing cult following.
This 'hood better known for fish and chip shops and an art deco McDonald’s has put out the bunting for a Chilean-Peruvian-Argentinian joint jumping with pisco sours and ceviche. It's a place to forget peak hour traffic woes and the office psychopath with the help of a pisco Maria and easy-cheesy quinoa and manchego croquettes with chilli-spiked mayo. Citrico was initially going to be a ceviche bar (Citrico means citrus, after all) but Kroll and Forteza, perhaps wisely, decided to give their new baby broader parameters.
Couple Stephen and Niharika Hogan scoured South America top to tip and brought their love for the continent’s cuisines back home to an intimate venue on Bridge Road in Richmond. Onda’s compact menu (which is about half vegetarian) pays homage to Latin flavours but isn’t wedded to tradition. The ambitious dishes get full points for creativity. In the beautiful ceviche, kingfish is evenly sliced, opaque and firm from the finger lime. The flavours are spanking fresh, with the purple yam crisps providing the perfect crunchy foil.
Windsor’s La Tienda, opened by Colombian-born John Gomez in early 2018, bears no obvious Melbournian touches: this place serves Colombian street food in undiluted Colombian décor – soccer jerseys jostle for attention amongst murals of famous sights, festivals and Shakira. Murmurs of Spanish can be heard over the euphony of reggaeton and the whirring of the juicer pumping out thick and creamy concoctions of passionfruit, soursop or lulo (a fruit indigenous to South America that tastes somewhere between rhubarb and lime) with milk or water.
It’s the sheer user-friendliness and atmosphere that makes this Peruvian-flavoured venue shine like a well-buffed dollar. Head left as you enter for pisco central – the glowing bronze bar where Peruvian brandy, lime and egg whites are being frothed into a million Pisco Sours. It’s here you might order up a plate of croquettes filled with shredded, cumin-y beef, raisins and olives. That’s a 30-minute business meeting, first date, or pre-gig snack all sewn up.