A few years ago, Gus Vargas noticed a customer crying at his cafe, Neruda’s Brunswick. He went to check if the diner was okay and the young man explained that these were tears of joy. He had been in Australia for 18 months and it was the first time he’d felt at home. Vargas asked him where he was from, and he said Malaysia.
That’s how welcoming Neruda’s Brunswick is. You can’t get more South American than this cafe, but the vibe makes everybody feel at home, no matter where they’re from.
Owner Gus Vargas was born in San Bernardo, just outside the Chilean capital of Santiago. He came to Australia in 1975 with his family when he was still a teenager. “My parents were very determined to keep our traditions. We had to keep speaking Spanish; my accent is still very much South American,” he says.
Vargas opened Neruda’s Brunswick in 2016, inspired by the influx of South American students into Australia over the last decade. “They needed somewhere to be a part of. You come in here and feel like you’re back in Chile or in Buenos Aires or La Paz,” he says.
Look around the cafe and you’ll find tons of objects like maté cups, musical instruments and flags that Vargas collected during his travels or that friends and customers brought over from South America. “The idea was that when people come here, they’re not interested in their phone. We try to give them something to talk to each other about,” he says.
This is also in part why the cafe is named after the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who was an avid collector. “It’s called Neruda’s Brunswick, meaning that if he would have lived in Brunswick, this would be his place,” explains Vargas.
The warm welcome you get from Vargas as you pass the door is what makes his cafe undeniably South American. “If you’ve been to South America, come from South America, or want to go one day, you should come here,” says Vargas. He loves helping people practice Spanish, “cheaper than going to school”, he says. And much more fun.
The menu includes dishes from Chile, of course, but also Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia.
Among the best-sellers are Chilean sopaipillas, small pumpkin fried bread served with pebre. In Chile, it’s popular street food, especially on rainy days. “You can eat them all year but when it rains, you can smell sopaipillas everywhere. It’s more of a winter thing. Whenever it’s raining, I put a photo of sopaipillas and Chileans come,” says Vargas.
Instead of including butter in the dough, the cafe uses coconut oil, to make sopaipillas accessible to everybody. The kitchen also makes vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free versions of several other dishes.
You can order a traditional chacarero, a sandwich made with steak, mashed avocado, mayo, sliced tomatoes and steamed green beans served on pan amasado. Or you could ask for the version with vegan mayo and a homemade vegie patty. And if you want to keep things gluten-free, you can replace the country bread with Colombian arepas.
“You can eat them all year but when it rains, you can smell sopaipillas everywhere."
“People struggle to finish their plate, that’s the way we do it. We keep it honest to traditions and the people we got the recipes from. Sometimes, you have to make changes, but we’re never too far away from the original recipe,” Vargas says. He guarantees you won’t find anything like Vegemite, sliced bread or Nutella on his menu. Everything, from the food to the coffee, is 100 per cent South American.
“I don’t care if people only have a glass of water, I want people to share our culture,” says Vargas.
6/210 Albion Street, Brunswick
Mon – Fri 6:30 am – 4:30 pm
Sat – Sun 8:30 am – 5:30 pm
“This fresh, beautifully balanced salsa is one of those all-purpose additions to a barbecue that you’ll make again and again. I love that you use the stalks as well as the leaves of coriander, but it still feels strange adding boiling water to a salad mix. But you know what? It works! Serve with Chilean marinated pork belly.” Maeve O'Meara, Food Safari Fire
When I was young, I loved to watch my grandmother cook cazuela. She’d use the bones of the meat for extra flavour and leave the vegetables whole with the skins on to prevent them from falling apart as they stewed. Because of the nearby Andes, winter in Chile can get quite cold and cazuela is a nourishing, comforting and inexpensive dish to warm up with. But it’s still popular in the summertime as Chileans believe eating hot food in hot weather balances the body temperature. Traditionally, you eat the soup first and then the stewed vegetables and meat afterward, but these days, eating cazuela is an individual thing. My daughter likes to cut up the ingredients on a separate plate and then mix it back into the soup, while some people eat it all directly from the bowl. My grandmother made the best cazuela but now when I cook it, I add my own ingredients and just cook with love. When you cook with love, the food always tastes better.
This festive drink is laced with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The alcohol component is pisco, a grape brandy, or aguardiente, a clear spirit that means “fire water”.
Chileans have a soft spot for sandwiches and on top of their list, is the lomito, dubbed the unofficial national dish. Each of these mighty sandwiches can be 10 cm tall, filled with about 250 g of hand-shaved pork loin, half an avocado, a layer of sauerkraut, and plenty of mayonnaise (globally, Chile is the third largest capita consumer of mayonnaise). Other additions include cheese and tomatoes. Start this recipe a day ahead to brine the pork.