By Kai Wada Roath | Photos by Austin Goldin
Pleasing aromas drift through the open air down a little alley between storefronts on 40th Street in Oakland, where brightly painted pink, yellow, and turquoise walls lure in hungry customers, much like a newly opened stargazer lily would entice a hummingbird.
It’s Tacos Oscar. Open for only a year at this location, this outdoor restaurant—with its kitchen set up in a shipping container—is always packed with customers within the first 30 minutes of its daily opening. Prior to rooting itself here, Tacos Oscar was a popup, offering tacos in Christmas tree lots, at music concerts, and even at Bigfoot conferences. Through those five itinerant years, there was always a line of customers. A Kiva fundraiser helped the dream of a permanent space come true.
Word of mouth brings most people to this almost secret outdoor eatery: Oscar Michel and his business partner/friend Jake Weiss humbly let the taste of their food do their promotion. Their main interests are using fresh ingredients, creating memorable tacos, and offering a fun and relaxing environment where customers can enjoy the fare. They get their produce from an organic farm that grows many vegetables from Oaxaca, Mexico. Their meat is organic and comes from a local butcher shop. They hand-press each tortilla to order using fresh masa. There’s no single-use plastic for service.
Oscar and Jake experiment with different recipes every week. They specialize in guisados—braises of meat and vegetables—offering at least five options in their rotating menu: two meat, two vegan, and one vegetarian. And they also grill toppings to go with the stews. You might find a braised romano bean taco with roasted tomato, puya chile salsa, fried shallots, and chioggia beets; a fried huevo (egg) taco with toasted chile oil, queso fresco, pickled onions, and cilantro; or a roasted eggplant tostada with mayocoba beans, toasted peanuts, arbol chile salsa, parsley, mint, chives, and capers. Their more traditional pork chile verde taco—tomatillo-braised pork shoulder, avocado, tomatillo salsa, cilantro, onion, and some chicharrón dust—is justifiably famous.
“This week we’re charring broccoli with peanuts and also making okra tacos because an employee has been asking me to make them forever and I just saw some beautiful green and purple okra, so we are just going to do it. They are not very traditional in the Mexican sense, but it’s still going to be a taco because it’s on a tortilla!” says Oscar.
At La Finca Tortilleria
Oscar’s tortillas are slightly thick, perfectly soft, and warm. They remind me of the tortillas at Las Cuatro Milpas in San Diego (my previous favorite). Oscar says the secret is the masa from La Finca Tortilleria, a family-run market in Fruitvale. “They are family to me,” says Oscar of La Finca’s staff. “I see them three times a week, and they call me if I forget to put in my order. We have our inside jokes.”
La Finca’s customers are mostly Latino, but also many Middle Eastern business owners from the neighborhood. Immigrant cooks go there to buy the ingredients to make the dishes they would make back home. The staff like to joke around with everyone, and Oscar says part of the fun is that everyone is using broken English.
Oscar invites me to tag along on his La Finca shopping trip, and right away, I find the can of soursop juice I’ve been searching for. Oscar selects some dried puya peppers, and he buys some freshly made chicharrónes he will grind to make the “dust” to top the pork chile verde tacos.
Washing the Dishes
Oscar explains that he is a neat freak, and every time I visit, I see Oscar working hard at both cooking and cleaning. He says he does not mind clean-up work, and would rather do it himself than watch employees do it. As I watch him washing the pots, I think about how few restaurant owners would want to be seen doing all that work alongside employees.
Oscar has lots of friends. They are customers, employees, everyone in his orbit. There seems not to be the slightest ounce of competitiveness in his heart, and he is supportive of everyone. Gina Marie Scardino, who has worked with Tacos Oscar since the pop-up years, says, “I love the food, I love the customers. It’s such a cool place to be a part of.” Faye Jaime says, “He really loves what he’s doing and it shows. I’m super proud of him and Jake.”
Of course, I’m here telling you all the reasons I love Tacos Oscar, but you’ll want to go find out for yourself. Take a friend, go very hungry, and try everything. ♦
Tacos Oscar is at 420 40th Street in Oakland. Find the daily menu on Instagram @tacososcar.
Kai Wada Roath is the Ambassador of Confusion Hill and the host of the monthly Super Shangri-La Show at the historic Balboa Theater in San Francisco. When he is not taking his two young daughters on adventures, he is planning his next travels to collect folklore and visit ancient ruins around the world.
Freelance photographer Austin Goldin kicks his boots off in Alameda. He has photographed for his friend Kai’s writing for over 20 years, covering such topics as hot dog cart rivalry at the beach and the Nitt Witt Ridge folk-art house in Cambria.
Oscar’s Abuela’s Beans
Oscar says he did not really start cooking until college. He grew up in a Mexican-American household where his mother prepared the food every day. In college he started making beans because he was homesick. His grandmother’s recipe, which is made with creamy mayocoba beans, is cooked up every day at Tacos Oscar. The only difference is Oscar omits the lard to keep the beans vegan. Originally from Peru, mayocoba beans are grown locally by Rancho Gordo.
Yield: 6 cups
2 pounds mayocoba beans
1 whole yellow onion
10 cloves garlic
2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded, and coarsely chopped
½ of a 7-ounce can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (La Morena brand recommended), minced
Sea salt to taste
Soak the beans overnight. Drain the next day and return beans to pot with water up to an inch above beans. Cover pot and bring to a boil. Skim off foam and add onion, garlic, chopped red pepper, and the chopped chipotles with their sauce. Cook until vegetables are soft, adding water if beans are getting too dry during cooking. Add sea salt to taste at the end of cooking. Blend with an immersion blender, if you like.