Where: Neruda’s Brunswick, 6/210 Albion Street Brunswick
What: My new favourite local
Who: Sashimi Slanderer, Bivalve Vego, Personal Cait-erer, Op Shop Fashionista
Bloat score: 2 – The belt had to be completely removed
It didn’t matter who I told – everyone would speak highly of Chilean cafe Neruda’s upon hearing that I now lived in Brunswick. Residents of yesteryears reminisced fondly about the empanadas. Current residents gave me the inside scoop on the Chilean sushi that is only available on weekends. People who have never lived in the inner north but have travelled to South America waxed lyrical about how Neruda’s offers up dishes that taste exactly like what they had there. And as luck has it, it is a two-minute walk from my house.
I’ve been so enthused to be within a stone’s throw of Neruda’s that I visited twice in the last week alone, with future trips already in the works. The first time, I visited with Sashimi Slanderer, who last appeared in this review of Pelicana. As her name suggests, she abhors raw fish, but tolerates a heavily seared aburi salmon and much to my surprise, a ceviche – which just so happens to be on Neruda’s menu. Sashimi Slanderer was also, however, with child, so we stuck to fully cooked things on this occasion.
Neruda’s menu is very heavy on beef, so if you’re Hindu or a climatarian, this cutesy cafe may not be for you. It does have several non-beef dishes though – namely several arepas with scrambled eggs and vegetarian accompaniments; tostadas with quince paste or caramel; empanadas with variations of cheese, spinach, mushrooms and prawns; frankfurt sausage hot dogs; and a few seafood and chicken mains.
Sashimi Slanderer and I dipped our toes in the pancito (sandwiches) department and ordered the chemilico ($13) – pan-fried steak seasoned with spices served with caramelised onions, a fried egg and pan amasado (a type of round and small Chilean flatbread traditionally baked in a wood-clay oven and which translates to mean ‘kneaded bread’). This was delicious in a very home-style way – despite resembling a burger, the bread was far more doughy and soft, with none of the overly indulgent richness of a brioche bun. The caramelised onions added a strong touch of sweetness to the beef, with the fried egg (cooked until not runny – just the way I like it, sorry haters!!) adding some heft.
While researching the chemilico, I learned that the chacareco, which Neruda’s also has on its menu, is Chile’s most famous sandwich. It has pan-fried steak too, with the addition of green beans, housemade mayonnaise, avocado and fresh tomatoes. I’ll be sure to try it the next time I visit (which will be, let’s face it, in the next week or two).
Next up was more beef, but this time in the form of the colombiana empanadas ($7.50) filled with slow-cooked pulled beef, tomatoes and potatoes. The housemade pastry on this had bubbly exteriors from being fried consistently in hot oil and was oh so crunchy – there was a generous inch of pastry sandwiching the piping hot concoction of beef, with the acidity of the accompanying ensalada chilena cutting through the richness of it. Ensalada a la chilena is a tomato, onion, coriander and olive oil salad where the onion is soaked in either boiling salted water or cold water to soften it and reduce its sharpness.
Empanadas themselves were thought to originate in Galicia, a region in northwest Spain, where the Galician word ‘empanar’ translates to enbreaded (what a word!), which in turn means wrapped or coated in bread. Empanadas have different fillings in different regions. In Chile, the most popular version uses ground beef sauteed with onions, hard-boiled egg, olives and raisins. Cape Verde fills their empanadas with spicy tuna, while Ecuador’s are often stuffed with stringy cheese and onion. Argentina has several different types, with fillings ranging from carrots and potatoes to river fish.
We finally moved away from beef with our third order of the day, pescado frito al plato ($19) – pan-fried fish of the day served with rice and a chopped tomato and onion salad. On the day we visited, Neruda’s had run out of rice and so we could pick between salad, mash or chips. We chose chips of course.
I am ashamed to say I couldn’t discern what the fish of the day was, but I remember heartily enjoying it. Encased by a thin batter, the fish was fresh and flaky, and the well-salted chips were fried to perfection. If you were after something with punchier flavours, the simplicity of this may not be for you, but it was a welcome reprieve from the bloat-inducing properties of the pancito and empanadas.
I spent the rest of that day in a happy food-induced stupor, but I wouldn’t have said the aftereffects were more than two bloats. Less than a week later, I decided to visit for breakfast and test said bloat effects again – all in the name of research, of course.
I visited with dear old friends, but newcomers to the blog nonetheless. Bivalve Vego is exactly what her name suggests, a plant eater who eats oysters and mussels for the same reasons outlined by this writer: “bivalves are the functional equivalent of plants, without the capacity for pain”. Personal Cait-erer has had me over for more dinners than I can count throughout the years, which is probably why we don’t eat out together all that often, and I’ve never seen Op Shop Fashionista in an outfit that I don’t want for myself.
Op Shop Fashionista was the only omnivore in the group apart from me, so we decided to go vegetarian. Scared off by the mention of three scrambled eggs in all the breakfast descriptions and preemptively expecting a gargantuan serve, I shared the wéon llorón (arepa with thinly sliced caramelised onion mixed with scrambled eggs) ($13) with Bivalve Vego, while Personal Cait-erer and Op Shop Fashionista shared the wéon sano (arepa with fresh mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, spinach and scrambled eggs) ($16).
We both chose the yellow corn arepa, but you can get your eggs with a white corn arepa or, even better, a cheese-filled arepa ($2), which Personal Cait-erer and Op Shop Fashionista ordered on the side. Arepas are most popular in Colombia and Venezuela, where they’re a staple of the Indigenous people in those countries, but they’re consumed in other South American countries too.
Imagine our surprise when the eggs arrived and they weren’t that big! Maybe three scrambled eggs isn’t that much? I ruefully shared my plate with Bivalve Vego, but enjoyed it so much. The eggs were lightly scrambled in a way that I much prefer to the heavily creamy scrambled eggs you get served at your average cafe – the whites and yolks in these scrambled eggs were still discernible. The yellow corn arepa was light and a touch sweet, while the cheese-filled arepa – which I availed myself a tiny bit of – was out of this world. It had strong cheese pull, was incredibly fluffy, and reminded me strongly of a Brazilian pão de queijo (cheese bread).
It turned out to be a good thing we shared the scrambled eggs because we also ordered empanadas and I was defeated by the end of it. The ricotta and spinach ones ($7.50) tasted like Chile’s answer to a spanakopita, and the mushroom and cheese ones ($7.50) were unexpectedly creamy, but all the better for it. The bubbly pastry was as good as when I visited with Sashimi Slanderer.
Not that I did, but it’s a good idea to save room for dessert at Neruda’s because their display cabinet is full of South American sweets. There’s alfajores, dulce de leche sandwich cookies found in countries like Chile, Argentina, the Philippines and Spain. There’s also torta tres leche, a sponge cake soaked in three different kinds of milk – condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream – popular in Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala. I would’ve 100% not escaped with the relatively low-bloat score that I did if I had ingested even one of these, but I’ll be back for them.
This time, I only escaped with one bloat – due to the reduced amount of pastry I ingested, perhaps, and because arepas are naturally wheat-free. If I were to average my bloat score over the two visits, it’d be one and a half bloats, which I’ve rounded up to two bloats.
The staff at Neruda’s were effortlessly delightful each time, always enquiring how our experience was and splitting the bill with nary a complaint, even on the weekend. Neruda’s is a small, cosy and vibrant cafe pumping out traditional South American brunches for when you don’t feel like paying 20 big ones for poached eggs and muesli (so, always for me).
Neruda’s Brunswick is open Monday to Friday from 6.30am to 4.30pm and Saturday to Sunday from 8.30am to 5.30pm.