The pandemic has given us a flurry of home-based businesses, from an underground-restaurant-gone-brick-and-mortar (Hi Felicia) to a home-based bakery you can walk straight up to (Aunty Pooey’s), but picking up “Chino Latino” burritos by Tacos Sincero has been, so far, my favorite experience.
Imagine parking on an unassuming street in West Oakland, walking through the backyard of an old residential building into a bustling kitchen, filled with pans and containers, and walking away with compact, satisfying bundles containing incredible deliciousness. Think chewy, dense burritos filled with stewy, tender sriracha tinga chicken, beef shoulder flavored with black pepper and fish sauce caramel and Indian eggplant — braised in fenugreek-flavored tomato sauce — with herbs and pecorino.
The idea to marry a different type of carby vehicle — namely, tostadas and burritos — with Asian flavors, came predominantly from a trip its founder, Sincere Justice, took in 2017. Justice, whose parents are Vietnamese and whose ancestors date back to China, traveled across Tokyo, Guangzhou, Taipei and Hong Kong, for four months of intense eating and inspiration. Previously, he had visited Latin American countries. “If you travel to Colombia and Mexico,” he said, “you’ll find Asian food there too — and it will taste differently.”
While Tacos Sincero has gained visibility recently — Justice has been popping up at Tacos Oscar, and regularly selling out — the business has been around roughly, since 2017. Originally from Baldwin Park, an L.A. neighborhood with a predominantly Latino population, Justice moved to the Bay Area in 2008, with the intention of becoming a teacher — but, he said, that job’s bureaucracy wasn’t for him.
“I like a bit of a more informal atmosphere,” he said. He fell into cooking, first as a way to eat better, then as a career. Before Tacos Sincero, Justice cooked at The Garland hotel in L.A, he was a part of Crosta Panini Bar in Berkeley and he owned a short-lived, Asian-inspired sandwich shop named Mister Bolenka, which drew fans to Berkeley’s Highwire Coffee for a few good months. Then, Tacos Sincero started popping up first at vinyl DJ nights at the Legionnaire Saloon in Oakland.
More recently, Tacos Sincero became available for direct pick-up at the aforementioned Oakland house. Additionally, Justice has been accepting catering gigs, from a “tostada omakase” for a private party, to catered brunches for workplaces. Tacos Sincero’s Instagram page has been the most reliable way to find the goods.
“Cooking your best meal and living your best life is the same to me,” he said of his mission. “I started Tacos Sincero with $600 and no business license, and I knew I could make an impact.”
Inspiration for Tacos Sinceros’ unique dishes comes from travel and observation, but also memories and obsessions — a childhood favorite dish of braised pork with fish sauce caramel and coconut soda, a liberal application of chili oil, “from my adoration for Szechuan restaurants.” At a recent TACOmacase gig, Justice served burrata with carrot-cardamom labne, thai basil and pickled carrots, black pepper “beef fry” with mizuna and butter tortillas, and Chinese cauliflower tostadas with calamansi kosho and fried beans. The combinations are as daring as they are effortless.
As patrons can take it one week at a time – staying tuned for another Tacos Oscar appearance is always a good idea — Justice’s ultimate goal is to secure his own space and double up on catering, in addition to future in-person dining opportunities. He’s currently testing a commercial kitchen in Berkeley.
“There’s only so much money you can make from a pop-up,” he said. “You can survive, but you can’t thrive.” To secure thriving, he’s recently gotten closer to legitimacy, with a business license and insurance. Most importantly, he exhibits the necessary zeal and conviction to make a go of things in the Bay Area’s competitive restaurant landscape.
“Tradition is a backbone, but I want to innovate,” Sincero said. “You can’t always play cover songs. I know what I know, I’ve made a livelihood from it, and people seem to like it.”