When Tango Beef Café folded last spring it was surprising that the closure was even noticed. The parrillada had featured an unusually varied selection of grilled meats, but it's not as though North Beach doesn't have a glut of other good Argentine grills, especially when, about three months ago, Tango was replaced by Central ... an Argentine parrillada. The new joint, while christened a "resto-lounge" rather than a "café," barely bothered with basic décor changes; even the original ceiling (that says "Tango") still remains.
At Central, though, the parrillada isn't just used for Argentina's familiar carnivorous classics, but for something new and different -- to say the least. Totally weird might be more accurate. A specialty of the house is grilled pizza.
It's hard to visualize how barbecue pizza would work -- how cheese melts, for instance, without the hot air of an enclosed oven. Some recipes call for crisping both sides of the shell over the coals before topping one side, moving the pizza to indirect heat, and then covering the barbie. But others cook toppings by using hot coals, keeping the pizza moving to prevent burning. My waitress claimed that Central is of this more active coverless school, and the place's parrillada jocks do a skillful job of not burning the merchandise. In fact pizzaphiles who crave those yummy, probably carcinogenic, charcoal-burn bubbles will have to ask for their pizzas well-done. Because of its brief but close exposure to super-hot charcoal, though, Central's grilled pizza crust is crisp even when not slightly charred, unlike charcoal-oven pies.
Of the three pizzas I've tried, the basic $9.95 tomato sauce/mozzarella/basil Margherita is the one I'd guess would please most people. The sauce tasted tangy with just a hint of sugar, and very fresh; the basil was fresh, too. A better grade of mozzarella, however -- not necessarily buffala, just something as fresh as the two other ingredients -- would have vastly improved the pie; such simplicity, to be successful, requires top raw materials.
The fancier $12.95 Rucola pizza (described as topped with fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella, sliced Parmesan, imported prosciutto, and olive oil as well as arugula) was good but would've been better had the chef read the menu. My pie had no tomato sauce and the sparse Parmesan was grated, not sliced. However, the refreshingly crunchy oil-dressed arugula, tossed on after grilling, was a perfect counterpoint to the abundant ham's saltiness.
It took awhile to work up the courage to try the Palmitos pizza -- not because of the pickled hearts of palm, which seem an odd but not terminally odd pizza ingredient, but because of the "golf sauce." Pizza topped with cold Russian dressing, anyone? But oddly enough the sauce worked well not just with the palm wedges (which could be expected; normally golf sauce is a most popular dressing for the cold salad sides that accompany Argentine parrilladas) but with the hot tomato sauce and mozzarella.
A trivia note: While pizza remoulade is definitely different, the word barbecue comes from the ancient Inca word barbecoa, so Argentine grilled pizza might not be as new as it seems.
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