THE world’s largest rodent, the Capybara, is a traditional and very popular dish during Lent in Venezuela.
For bizarre historical reasons, the Vatican declard the rodent a “fish” so it could be eaten during the holy period.
If Julian Assange had been granted asylum in Venezuela, he might have lived in some tropical bolthole, eating Capybara and watching Pamela Anderson in old episodes of Baywatch.
I didn’t see Capybara on the menu at Pantano Bar in Willagee – which specialises in Venezuelan arepa and burgers with a South American twist – but I wouldn’t be averse to trying the jumbo rodent.
After all, I grew up in Scotland eating haggis and deep-fried pizza, so I have the stomach of a billy goat.
Part of a row of shops and cafes on Archibald Street, Pantano Bar is a sign of how far Willagee has come in recent years, shedding “it’s a bit sketchy” image to play host to a trendy South American-style bar.
I really liked the fit-out and decor in Pantano – leather couches and benches mingle with tropical palms, a funky bar and stylish furniture, and there’s a jungle mural and beer garden out the back.
The huge windows conjure up great views of the surrounding area and it has a nice vibe, reminiscent of some Cuban-style bars I have visited.
On a Saturday night when the lights are dimmed and the sultry music is playing, it would be very atmospheric and a little slice of Latino razzmatazz in Willagee (there’s definitely a Kath and Kim sketch in there).
The menu was centered around burgers with a South American twist and arepas – a traditional sandwich from Venezuela with the bread made from ground maize or “corn dough”.
It’s a popular treat in the northern region of South America and Pantano’s corn bread is 100 per cent gluten free.
The burgers and arepas were available with beef, pork, chicken and vegan fillings.
There was also tacos, loaded fries, platters and a range of sides including tajadas (deep fried plantain with feta cheese), deep fried yuca (cassava), tostones and tequenos. The menu was stylish and well laid-out with explanations of the the different dishes.
I like how Pantano is open seven days a week and serves breakfast as well. Run by a family orignally from South America, they are really making a go of it since opening in 2020.
After ordering at the counter, it wasn’t long before the friendly lady behind the till was back with our pepito arepa ($21) and pollos hermanos arepa ($20).
My arepa was overloaded with strips of marinated beef, grilled onions and shredded cheese. Crowning the mouth-watering mound was a generous zig zag of guasa and salsa de la casa.
It was a messy, tactile affair and came in a convenient wrapper so everything didn’t jettison onto your lap. I had never tried an arepa before, but the bread was tasty and very filling – almost like an exotic potato cake with a crisp exterior and fluffy inside.
I was given four bottles of different coloured, unlabelled sauces to add to the mayhem. I was expecting more of a flavour punch, but all the ingredients were there – lots of tender beef – and it felt like authentic, rustic street food.
I got some deep fried yuca (cassava – 10 pieces for $12) and they were good value and great for dipping in the mystery sauces.
The cassava tasted like the fat, lazy brother of the sweet potato with plenty of girth and starchiness.
Kids meals were available, but across the table my young daughter was hoeing into her adult-sized pollos hermanos arepa, which was crammed with chicken, bacon, pickles, tomato, lettuce, mayo, tomato relish and mustard.
She thoroughly enjoyed the arepa, and the pollos was a good mild option for kids. A huge sandwich cut in two, we took the other half home for my wife “Special K”.
Pantano Bar is a fun and lively addition to the Willagee dining scene. It’s a bit pricey but there are meal deals available on certain nights and the arepa are deceptively filling and will suffice as a main.
4/60 Archibald St, Willagee
by STEPHEN POLLOCK