Let’s get one thing out of the way.

Given his homeland’s reputation for steak, what does Argentinian chef, Facundo Rodulfo, make of Irish beef?

“A-maz-ing,” he states, without hesitation; but that’s before we get to the butter.

“I love the dairy here,” he enthuses. “The quantity of fat … bravo!”

At the award-winning Tango Street Food that Facundo runs with his wife Pamela Neumann in Killarney, there’s a chance to taste such indigenous ingredients like never before; be it as part of their Argentinian-style parrillada BBQ menu, in a pocket-sized empanada or whipped into a sweet treat.

But how did this couple from South America come to blaze a food trail in south Kerry?

Bye Buenos Aires

Both Facundo and Pamela were born in Buenos Aires: a cultural and culinary melting pot, with a particularly strong Italian influence.

Indeed, Facundo’s uncle founded a chain of over 40 pizza shops, which influenced his nephew’s decision to train as a chef. Meanwhile, Pamela’s parents ran bakeries and later a hotel, though she initially took a different route by studying international relations.

Having met after college, the couple – whose first language is Spanish – moved to Majorca. Here, Facundo developed restaurants and Pamela worked for the travel technology company, HotelBeds.com, as a yield and contract manager.

It was in this role that she first fell head over heels for Kerry after she was assigned to cover the Irish and UK markets.

“Killarney reminded me of Argentine Patagonia,” she says, adding that with four young sons, she felt it would be a good place to raise a family.

So, when the opportunity came up to work remotely in 2018, she jumped at the chance to relocate. Facundo did not take much convincing. But?

“We had literally one month to do everything,” says Pamela. “So, we had to rent our house in Majorca because we were property owners there, we had to plan moving, schools, everything.”

For context, their youngest child Oliver was eight-months-old, twins Ciro and Luca were three and Nicolas was eight.

Such was the speed of the move that initially the couple ended up a long way from Killarney – in Cavan, to be precise – but in May 2019, they finally secured a house to rent in the Kingdom.

“And if you hear them now [the kids], they sound like they are from Kerry,” says Facundo, laughing.

Pamela Neumann and Facundo Rodulfo set up a pizzeria and Argentian-style restaurant in Killarney.

COVID start-up

While Pamela initially worked remotely, Facundo found a job with a local hotel group. However, he wanted to strike out on his own. Just how, was the question?

COVID, curiously, provided the answer. Having witnessed the explosion of food trucks during the pandemic, the couple felt this would be the lowest-risk entry point into the market. The sale of their house in Palma in 2021 provided some start-up capital to buy a second-hand truck (approximately €8,000) along with equipment like refrigerators. So, that July, Tango Street Food was launched – initially offering Neapolitan-style pizzas on the Muckross Road.

“When you don’t know the market, you need to start with something simple,” explains Facundo. “But, obviously, with the twist that you can give to that as a professional.”

In this case, you’re talking dough fermented for a minimum of 48 hours and high-end Irish and international ingredients, ranging from Italian fior di latte to Irish cashel blue cheese, with best-sellers such as n’duja and hot honey, Argentine-inspired jamon y marrones (ham and grilled peppers) and the aptly-named Maradona (tomato sauce, mozzarella, tomato slices and fresh garlic).

Demand, however, quickly outstripped the trailer’s capacity and after discussions with the owners of the property where they were parked, Facundo and Pamela took over a corner unit that had been a bike rental shop, and renovated it into a takeaway, including installing an Italian wood-fired brick oven.

They also rented a food-grade container to operate as a kitchen from home, and invested in specialised equipment to start producing traditional pastries such as alfajores (a cookie sandwich filled with dulce de leche) and medialunas (a crescent-style croissant), along with savoury empanadas, which are a staple in Argentina.

Facundo and Pamela estimate that this next development cost about €50,000, funded through a bank loan and personal savings, with their new premises opening in January 2022.

Struggle behind the scenes

The venture was a success, with highlights that year including a Blas na hÉireann silver medal for their Irish beef empanada. Behind the scenes, however, a different story was unfolding.

Just before Christmas 2021, their youngest son, Oliver, started complaining of headaches.

“I will never forget on 5 December 2021 was the first time that he complained and I thought: ‘Well, he was playing on the trampoline,’” Pamela recalls reasoning. “But it was coming more often and stronger, so I started keeping a journal because it was not normal.”

A doctor suggested that it might be a complication of an ear infection, while a trip to the hospital yielded no results either. As weeks went by without answers, Facundo and Pamela struggled to see their then four-year-old suffer.

“He was crying all night of pain,” recalls Pamela. “One day I told Facu: ‘I will take him to hospital and until they do something like screening, I won’t leave.’”

After putting her foot down, doctors finally agreed to a CT scan.

“And he had a brain tumour,” says Pamela. “The next day we took an ambulance to Temple Street.”

An MRI revealed that Oliver had a tumour measuring 5.5cm in the right cerebellum. While benign, the growth was causing a build-up of fluid in the brain (hydrocephaly), which can have devastating consequences if left untreated.

Surgery was scheduled for 10 March, with the entire family decamping to Dublin. Facundo recalls a particularly poignant moment the night before the operation, when doctors allowed Oliver out of hospital to have dinner with his brothers (as they were not allowed visit due to COVID-19).

“You know what that means. It’s like: ‘Just in case, it’s the last [meal together].’ So, you can imagine…” he trails off. “It was difficult.”

Thankfully, surgery was successful, with the family returning home to Killarney for St Patrick’s Day. That July, however, there was further bad news: the tumour was growing back and Oliver would need a second surgery that November.

“Everything is so shocking that you don’t want to accept going through the same again,” says Pamela, whose grief was compounded by the fact that her father was also sick.

“In October, we went to say goodbye to my dad,” she continues. “So, if you look from a business side, it was a successful year. But at the same time, we were struggling with so many things.”

Indeed, being self-employed applied even more pressure, as Facundo explains.

“If you have the business closed, there’s no cash flow,” he says simply. “I don’t know where the energy came for this. I have no idea.”

Fortunately, a swell of support from customers buoyed them during those difficult days.

“We felt part of a community; I think that it was the first time that we really felt that,” says Pamela, smiling. “That people actually care. It was so nice.”

Pamela Neumann and Facundo Rodulfo set up a pizzeria and Argentian-style restaurant in Killarney.

Flying the flag

Thankfully, the second surgery was successful and Oliver continues to be monitored by his medical team.

Glad to see the back of 2022, Facundo and Pamela went into 2023 with even more ambitious plans, developing a sit-down restaurant by extending into an adjoining café next door, adding another pizza oven and commissioning a BBQ grill from Irish manufacturers, Smokin’ Soul, to offer an Argentine-style parrillada menu including tira de asado (short ribs) and entrãna (skirt steak) using Irish beef sourced from The Village Butcher in Dublin.

They estimate that this entire development required over €120,000 to open in April 2023; but it seems it was money well spent, with glowing reviews from the likes of the McKenna Guide along with a loyal local following.

Longer-term, they would like to explore the possibility of franchising. However, a more immediate project is the World Pizza Championship, which they will be taking part in from 9-11 April in Parma, Italy.

“We are representing Ireland,” proclaims Pamela proudly – and we know that they will do the country proud.

After all, it takes two to tango. And thrive.

• visit tangostreetfood.com