Armstrong Street North continues to cement its position as the hottest place to eat in Ballarat's CBD with the opening of a new restaurant focussing on authentic Latin American food.
Pancho opened at the end of July. Owners Jose Fernandez and Simone Baur-Schmid, who have the successful Spanish eatery Meigas across the street from the new restaurant as well, say Pancho builds on Fernandez's background growing up in Venezuela.
A Galician by birth, Fernandez is well-known in Ballarat. Tall and forthright in his views, fiercely independent and iconoclastic about business, he spent his youth in the northern nation of Venezuela, which has a tremendous array of different cuisines across its almost one million square kilometres.
"I feel like it might be hard to explain what the food is here, because it is more of a (palette of) traditional American food," Fernandez offers. He gestures toward the kitchen of Pancho, with its crew of multicultural chefs drawn from Mexico, Peru, the UK (via several South American countries), Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina and Chile.
"Sometimes this is a hard thing, because a dish will be called 10 different things across those countries," he laughs.
"In Venezuela, it was a tradition from my point of view: when you walk in the street - it's the same in China or Vietnam - you see more of the food culture. That's what we're trying to do here. I loved the food so much growing up.
"For example, in Venezuela, every morning we would have maracuya, or parchita, juice; or a lulo juice - sweet tropical juices. Or we'd have chicha - the memory of that drink for me is finishing school, before my parents would pick me up, there would be a man with a little trolley selling this rice drink with a little bit of milk and cinnamon. We'd drink that in the hot weather."
You can go up a little side-street in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, there'll be a little shack and you'll get some of the best food.Simone Baur-Schmid
Maracuya is the juice of the passionfruit, while lulo is a fruit known as a naranjillo, which has a slightly sour citrus flavour and is often mixed with sugar syrup.
"Just tasting them here gives me a memory of living there, so I hope to bring that authentic flavour to people here. It's the same with the decoration in here. It's very simple: it's designed to be bright."
Fernandez and Baur-Schmid have filled Pancho, once a nondescript and rundown 1970s commercial premises, with the iconography and artwork of Latin America. There are crucifixes and altars, ceramics and painted masks spread over the wall, and tropical plants are scattered throughout.
That rejuvenation of a shabby building into a brightly-coloured food venue continues the planned transformation of the precinct, aided by changes in zoning and the removal of centre-parkings.
But Armstrong Street has been shifting for some time. Starting with Campana Cellars in 1976, there has been a relatively visible food element alongside the retailers for many years, with stalwarts like the vegetarian Chat for Tea being joined by newcomers like Griffin Burger and Saigon Alley.
Of course there have been several restaurants fall along the way, and the ill-fated 21 Arms nightclub was a planning mistake of the worst kind.
Now the GovHub development is underway, framing the northern edge of the city's CBD alongside the restored Civic Hall. The challenge is to enliven Ballarat again, to get people walking the streets in safety, rather than relying on cars to get everywhere. And even perhaps taking on its inherent conservatism and promoting street food even more widely - when the weather permits.
Fernandez says street culture was a defining feature of life in Venezuela, as it is in many countries with Romantic influences.
"So much food we would have in the street. We'd have empanadas, hot dogs but made in the Latin American way, fried chicken done very simply. Nothing is complicated."
The continent of South America is ethnically diverse, with a long history of native culture and colonial impact.
The Indigenous people and civilisations of the region were and remain numerous and influential. Aside from the more widely-known empires such as the Inca and Mayan, there are hundreds of cultures which have existed in the region for thousands of years, each with an intensely strong food heritage..
During the periods of colonial expansion, Spanish, Portuguese, African and later German, Italian, Asian and Indian traditions merged with those of the Indigenous, creating a uniquely diverse and flavoursome palate with a strongly individual approach to spices and sauces.
Varied meats and fishes compete and complement native vegetables and fruits such as maize and plantains, while capsicum and tomato feature heavily in dishes. Names such as taco, tamale, tortilla, tamale, guacamole and salsa, now everyday words in our local food vocabulary, are born of the cuisine of the region.
Simone Baur-Schmid says the beauty of the food is its lack of embellishment.
"It's just how you find the food there in South America. You can go up a little side-street in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, there'll be a little shack and you'll get some of the best food. In Australia there are a lot of Mexican-fusion places now, but they stray a bit too far away from what you'd really find in Mexico or Colombia, Argentina or Venezuela," she says.
"We are trying to do the more traditional food here," says Fernandez.
"We've had good feedback. People who've been living in South America, they come here, see the decoration, listen to the music, smell the food, and they say, 'Oh this brings me back to Peru; this brings me back to Mexico.'
In the first week of trading, Baur-Schmid says they have sold 250 tacos on their own, and 150 chickens.
Fernandez says he found his kitchen crew through the Latin American community in Victoria, although their Mexican chef is also a doctor of biology who simply has a passion for food. He says as much as he loves feeding Australians his food, he's expecting a strong contingent of South American ex-pats to come to Pancho as well, in the same way that Spanish people travel from Melbourne and other areas to go to Meigas.
"Saturday was beautiful" Fernandez says.
"I was in the kitchen, everybody was very stressed of course, I stress like crazy; and then we had the restaurant full - full, packed. People were waiting; we don't want bookings, it's too small. People waiting in here, waiting outside, waiting in their cars listening to music. People were dancing in the street."
Will Fernandez and Baur-Schmid cope with running two successful restaurants?
"Well we don't have an option now, do we?" Baur Schmid says.
"We've got to. It is what it is, even if we are only sleeping two hours a day at the moment."
"It's beautiful," Fernandez says.
"People go to Meigas they sit in the bar for a couple of tapas and a drink; they come here for a meal. Or they come here then head across for a wine or a cognac, or churros and coffee, and then they come here for a cocktail."