When you think about a post-swim snack at the local pool, you’d be forgiven for thinking ham and cheese toasties, finger buns and red frogs before cassava fries, arepas and Latin tunes. So when someone tells you about a cafe serving up Colombian food inside an aquatic centre, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
Buried deep in Melbourne’s inner-western suburb of Maribyrnong, El Toucan Cafe is a surprise hit for Colombian-born chef and restaurateur, Frank Torres. “[The pool is] a council-managed site, and I never thought they’d be into the idea of us offering Colombian food in a swimming pool cafe, but they really surprised us,” says Torres.
12 months after setting up shop in the foyer of the Maribyrnong Aquatic Centre (aka the "MAC"), Torres is overwhelmed by the reception he's received for the food he grew up with.
“I moved to Australia at 16 with my mother, Fanny. She’s a great cook. On Sundays, we’d sit around the table and make empanadas, and there’d always be a pot of beans bubbling on the stove. The menu at El Toucan is basically the food we eat as a family.”
When he was growing up, Torres accompanied his older sister around Colombia while she worked in the hotel industry. Even from childhood, his naturally affinity for hospitality was evident. “I would volunteer to deliver room service, or help in the kitchen, just for something to do!”
Keen to share his passion for Colombian culture and cuisine with Australia, Torres’ menu at El Toucan isn’t tweaked for the Aussie palate. Dishes are true to Colombian flavours and exceedingly generous, with irreplaceable ingredients like tiny Colombian new potatoes (papa criolla), lulo and maracuyá fruit, flown in especially for the menu.
"I never thought they’d be into the idea of us offering Colombian food in a swimming pool cafe, but they really surprised us.”
Colombian empanadas, $9 for three, are distinct from their Argentinian cousins, with their golden-fried cornmeal shells, instead of the wheat-based pastie-like pastries Australians are more familiar with. Torres’ flank steak, $22, is still marinated the same way his mother learned it from her parents: with beer, garlic, capsicum, coriander, cumin, spring onions, and no doubt, a good seasoning of family secrets.
South American food fiends may recognise arepas: those pale gold cornmeal discs, topped with aromatic pulled meats, $16, or stuffed with oozy cheese, $5, and bandeja paisa, $22, a hearty worker’s brunch of chicharrón, rice, arepas, plantains, pulled beef, beans, avocado, chorizo – all topped off with a fried egg.
But El Toucan’s menu delves a bit deeper than just the hits: with offally goodness in the form of lengua en salsa (slow-cooked ox tongue), $18; higado encebollado (pan-fried livers in guiso, a rich, tomato-based braise), $18; and mondongo, a minestrone-esque soup of tender, earthy braised tripe, $16.
“Maribyrnong has a big Asian population, and it makes me so happy to see so many non-Colombians embracing these humble dishes,” says Torres, with a smile. “What we have found is that we have created a bit of an opportunity for parents to take their kids to experience a new culture, and the kids are loving it!”
Whether you’re looking for a hearty post-swim meal, or prefer to get that cardio workout on land, El Toucan’s poolside eats are far from a novelty.
“I feel there is real value to what I do in the sense that we come from a country that has a stereotype of being the drug capital of the world. As a Colombian living in Australia, I want to portray a different view of my country through food, music and culture. I want people to experience the fact that Colombians are fun people and hard workers who love great food, music and living life well!”
1 Aquatic Dr, Maribyrnong, Vic
Mon - Fri 9 am - 8.30 pm
Sat 8.30 am - 6 pm
Sun 9 am - 6 pm
This is Colombia’s version of a rich fruit cake. Dense with prunes, raisins and figs, generously spiked with both rum and port, and cleverly flavoured with aromatic spices, it is hard to stop at one piece. Traditionally dulce quemado (sweet burnt brown sugar), either homemade or bought, is used to sweeten this cake, but molasses makes a perfectly acceptable substitute as I've done in this recipe.
There is an astounding array of arepas (corn cakes) available across South America, from the Colombian versions, which are thinner and wider, cooked on a griddle and topped with a range of ingredients, to this Venezuelan version. It consists of thicker arepas, which are halved and then layered with fillings, in a similar way to a sandwich.
Despite the tropical weather, in many parts of Colombia soups remain a popular part of the food culture. This recipe for richly flavoured vegetarian soup is quick to prepare and freezes well. Feel free to omit the pureeing stage if you prefer a chunkier soup.
A Colombian treat that sits on the fence as both a savoury and sweet snack, aborrajados are a serious snack for those with a bent for the best of deep-fried food. The combination of plantain, cheese and jam is one of South America’s best.