What’s the inspiration behind the creative menu offerings — like persimmon habanero salsa or a vegan version of chicharrón made from yuba (tofu skin) — at Tacos Oscar? The former pop-up recently opened its brick-and-mortar location (more than a year after it originally had hoped to open), in a spot on 40th Street partially made from shipping containers, and owners Oscar Michel and Jake Weiss chalk up what they do to boredom.
“We get bored pretty easily,” said Weiss.
“If we’re going to be here all day, we need to keep it interesting,” said Michel. “The food I started with had things like my mom and grandma’s recipes for salsa, but it’s taken on a whole new thing. We’re constantly creating new things and incorporating them, so we’re kind of just making stuff up as we go. Some of it’s pretty weird and original, and other stuff is inspired by things we’ve seen or eaten.”
Both Michel and Weiss have similar backgrounds. They had both worked in kitchens and are musicians that play in bands. They met years ago cooking at an East Bay pizza restaurant that now, they’d rather not name.
In 2014, Michel was working an office job at Berkeley’s Urban Ore, and wanted to get back in the kitchen. He started making tacos for events. Since he worked a four-day week, he was able to cook on weekends, prepping on Fridays to do a Saturday or Sunday event.
Michel is of Mexican descent, from Southern California; while he spent time in the kitchen with his mother, he didn’t plan on a career in food. He made his way north to attend Cal, and worked for a time as a barback at Doña Tomas, which evolved slowly into being a line cook there.
That’s where he got hooked on freshly-made tortillas, the kind that balloon as they’re griddled a la plancha. “Not everyone does that,” he observed.
Tacos Oscar uses masa from La Finca. For those not used to eating freshly made tortillas, the taste and texture of them is immediately discernable in the best possible way. Unfortunately, one taste is enough so that you never want to go back to eating tortillas any other way.
“A good corn tortilla is a good vessel for anything as long as you take your time to make it nice,” said Weiss.
Weiss has a degree in fiction-writing, but he always took jobs in kitchens to support himself when his band wasn’t touring. He worked in a few high-end Mexican restaurants, “where I learned about the ingredients, flavors and ratios,” he said. He also has worked in French and Italian restaurants. “I don’t really know how to do anything else.”
By Michel’s second pop-up, he asked Weiss to join him. For the first few events, Michel did all the prepping; Weiss showed up to the actual event to help. Eventually, Weiss said, “I like what we’re doing here, and I think there’s something in this.” He offered to help prep too. And that’s when Tacos Oscar really got started.
“Once he came along, life got easier,” said Michel. “We split the load prepping, and could take on more events, and it became easier to produce food to sell.”
A friend started producing flyers for their pop-ups — just like concert flyers — and they started appearing throughout the East Bay, eventually finding a semi-temporary home at Starline Social Club. And their t-shirts have started appearing around the world.
Last June, Michel and Weiss signed the lease on the space on 40th Street, formerly occupied by Antidote Juicery, located in the narrow alley space between 1-2-3-4 Go Records and the building that houses the ever-popular mac n cheese restaurant, Homeroom. The kitchen and storage are in shipping containers, where orders are placed. Food is served on a back patio warmed by heat lamps. Sometimes there’s a wait to get a table (On opening weekend, Tacos Oscar was slammed between 5 and 7 p.m.), so we suggest showing up at 8 p.m. for fewer crowds. Take-out orders are also proving to be popular.
According to the duo, their set-up has been compared to places in both Mexico City and Los Angeles. One diner said, “’This is some real L.A. shit,’ and he meant that in the best way possible,” said Michel. “You don’t have that kind of vibe up here, with outdoor seating and beer, just a super simple concept. I’m glad we’ve gotten to this point, but also that it’s not this huge cavernous restaurant.”
Speaking of beer, local beer and wines are served.
Initially, Michel was inspired by the breakfast taco culture of Austin, Texas. Many early Tacos Oscar appearances offered tacos topped with fried eggs, while they didn’t have them on the menu opening weekend, they are re-introducing fried egg tacos as they get used to their new digs.
The menu at Tacos Oscar changes, but will always have three tacos to choose from, as well as a quesadilla, in which Michel uses a technique to caramelize the cheese by cooking it open face, cheese-side down, and sometimes, a torta. Beans and maybe a salad are forthcoming, as are expanded hours for brunch, which will start in the new year.
Inevitably, someone who hasn’t read the menu before ordering will ask for one chicken, one steak and one fish, only to be disappointed that the restaurant has only one or maybe none of the above. Although neither Michel nor Weiss eat a lot of meat, they always offer a meat option because people expect it.
They pride themselves on their vegan offerings, noting that since they never rely on fake meat products nor cheese substitutes, it forces them to be more creative when making veg-friendly fare. Michel recalled a charred broccoli taco that was one of the most popular Tacos Oscar menu items of all time; it had a peanut, chili and star anise salsa. Because the broccoli has to be charred to order, that one isn’t on the menu yet, but no doubt, they’ll revisit it again some day. And when Weiss came back from a trip to Lebanon, he brought home some za’atar, and made a vegan labne from cashews and that made it onto a taco. Last summer, they had a smoked corn puree taco with the aforementioned yuba chicharrónes.
On our visit, on opening weekend, the menu offered a braised mushroom and nopal taco with chili oil, cabbage and pepitas. We — three omnivores —agreed that the mushroom taco was in no way inferior to the one with pork chile verde on the menu (even though the latter had crumbled chicharrones on top). The third taco offered was a frittata of chorizo and potato, topped with lettuce, salsa, queso fresco and pickled onion. The quesadilla was stuffed with delicata squash and persimmon habanero salsa.
Some of the meat options are just as creative. Weiss’ recipe for beef brisket calls for braising the meat with Sichuan peppercorns, Chinese five-spice powder and finishing it with brown sugar and vinegar, making it a bit like barbacoa with a slightly Asian flavor profile. Pork, in the form of chile verde or carnitas, are prepared much more traditionally.
“Not everything we do is completely outside the realm of someone’s expectations,” said Weiss. “We’re no means traditional, but we’re not trying to be too esoteric.”
“We’re just doing what tastes good,” said Michel.
Tacos Oscar is open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Monday. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.