Tempura-Fried Pizza at Sumo Grub, Berkeley, California
Here at Slice, we make a big deal about the types of ovens that get used to cook our pizzas. Is it wood, gas, or maybe electric? At Sumo Grub, the answer is none of the above. Pizza gets cooked in a fryer (as does just about everything else at Sumo Grub). The restaurant, which turns hot dogs, Twinkies, Oreos, and even hamburgers, into tempura, will also fry you up a slice of pizza should you desire. Whether the golden-fried final product is even remotely reminiscent of the pizza we know and love is another matter entirely.
The tempura cheese pizza ($3.75) served at Sumo Grub looks nothing like a slice. Rather, the deep-fried, panko-breaded triangles sport a squiggle of cheese sauce that gives them the appearance of orange toaster pastry. Still, few people would complain about this crunchy treat—the enjoyably crisp exterior isn't weighed down by grease the way some deep-fried products are.
The problem comes from the pizza perspective. Chef-0wner Jason Sum bakes his own pies in-house—so, yes, there is actually an oven involved in the cooking at Sumo Grub. He then chills the pizza before battering and frying skinny six-inch slices. You can taste the herby-sweet tomato sauce through the breading on the finished product, but the mozzarella cheese has disappeared, and the pizza crust could be any kind of bread. A few of the pizza signifiers have been lost along the way.
I would never think of putting a Thai basil-chili sauce on a traditional pizza, but Sum and his staff give you their Sumo Sauce alongside just about every savory dish they cook. And since you've already abandoned your notions of proper pizza to this degree, just say yes to this sweet and creamy addition to the fried smörgåsbord at Sumo Grub.
On some of Sumo Grub's dishes, the tempura-fried exterior actually elevates the final product. On others, such as the pizza, it feels more like a stunt. But if that stunt earns you a plate of fried goodies, it's not all bad.