Now, though, with the opening of Primo’s Parrilla, Argentine asado has come to the neighborhood, as authentic as it can get some six thousand miles from the pampas.
Growing up in Argentina, Primo’s Parrilla owner and asador Javier Sandes learned early on that food was what brought the family together. His father grilled; his mother cooked, and everyone, friends and extended family alike, would gather around the table to talk and laugh and eat. Good meat, like good chimichurri sauce, was always there, rubbed simply with salt and cooked slowly over the coals so the fat melted into the meat, basting it from within.
When Sandes moved to the Bay Area, he brought with him his father’s grilling skills and his mother’s love of feeding a crowd. Soon he was making Argentine-style barbecue in the backyards of friends all around Oakland. One of those friends was Walker Bass, who told Sandes that he really should go into the barbecuing business full-time. Bass, along with Sere Peterson and Hammad Atassi, became an investor and part of the team, and soon Primo’s Parrilla was born: a truck-and-grill operation bringing lunchtime asado to the people of Emeryville five days a week. (The truck, the crew and the meat are also available for private parties and events.)
The first day, a guy who lived in the neighborhood showed up, having followed his nose–and the wafting allure of meat and smoke–from six blocks away. “The smoke is our best advertisement,” laughed Sandes as he spread glowing hardwood coals (a mixture of almond wood and mesquite) under a grill laden with butterflied chicken, whole tri-tips, and fat Italian sausages from Molinari’s. Grilled, split and grilled again, the sausage is tucked into a chimichurri-smeared roll to make choripan ($9)–a frequent daily special that always sells out.
Besides the choripan, there are hand-made, flaky-crusted empanadas ($3.50 each, 2 for $6), filled either with chopped chicken or a mixture of beef, onions, olives, and red peppers, redolent of cumin and similar to Cuban picadillo. Grilled chicken ($10), juicy and moist, is finished with splash of lemon juice, paired with a generous scoop of mashed sweet potatoes flecked with spinach, a lively green salad dotted with red pear tomatoes, bread and a plastic cup of vibrant chimichurri, without which no meat could be served in Argentina. Similar to Italian salsa verde, it’s a chunky slurry of minced parsley, garlic, olive oil, and hot pepper. “This batch has aged for about 3 weeks,” Sandes points out. “It just gets better the longer it ages.”
The real piece de resistance, though, is the tri-tip ($12), with a well-muscled chewiness and a deeply beefy flavor. It’s grass fed, pasture-raised meat from Tallgrass Beef, the closest Sandes can get to Argentine beef in this country. And for dessert? Alfajores ($2), flaky cookies oozing dulce de leche, made by local bakers Dolce Vita.