Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Don't Knock the Brocc

At Tacos Oscar, vegan and vegetarian tacos shine just as bright as their meaty counterparts.

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While I waited in line at Tacos Oscar, I heard a voice behind me uttering with disdain, "Charred broccoli tacos? No thanks."

Owner Oscar Michel has heard this a lot. His response to broccoli taco naysayers? "Yeah, they eat broccoli in Mexico. You should go down there sometime."

But there are plenty of believers in broccoli tacos, as well as the rest of Tacos Oscar's fan favorites like fried egg tacos and chicharron-dusted chile verde tacos. In fact, a loyal following, often donning "Tacos Oscar Taco Stalker" T-shirts, has supported Tacos Oscar ever since it started as a pop-up in 2014.

Growing up in a primarily Mexican-American neighborhood in Los Angeles, Michel learned to make basics like beans, rice, and salsa while watching his mother, who is originally from Jalisco, in the kitchen. He continued cooking his mother's recipes as a homesick college student at UC Berkeley. When he wasn't playing in his band, he worked in East Bay restaurants including Doña Tomás, where his knowledge of Mexican cuisine expanded to include regions like Oaxaca. While working in the restaurant industry, he met Jake Weiss. Weiss and Michel partnered up in Tacos Oscar's early pop-up days to split up the prep work. The pop-up proved so popular that both eventually quit their jobs to dedicate their time to Tacos Oscar.

Tacos Oscar eventually opened its first brick-and-mortar location in Temescal in November. It's a converted alleyway, with the kitchen housed in a shipping container and guests seated on a charming, thoughtfully designed outdoor patio, complete with heat lamps, a vibrant paint job, colorful candles, and decorative cacti.

Michel said the limited kitchen space puts some constraints on what they can do at Tacos Oscar. All the tortillas for the tacos are hand-pressed from fresh La Finca masa and grilled on the plancha, which means there's little room on the plancha for grilling other items. In other words, don't go to Tacos Oscar expecting to order the usual variety of tacos you'd find at a typical Oakland taco truck, like carnitas, carne asada, and al pastor.

Instead, the best way to approach Tacos Oscar is with an open mind. Since offerings rely heavily on fresh produce, the hand-written menu changes frequently. On most days, though, you'll find a variation of the fried huevo taco that Tacos Oscar has become known for, thanks to its logo, where fried eggs stand in for the letter "O" in Tacos Oscar. Inspired by the breakfast tacos of Austin, it's a simple fried egg with a slightly runny yolk and crisp, lacy edges, topped with queso fresco and served on a thick, chewy tortilla. When I visited, it came garnished with crunchy, tangy pickled red onions and herb salsa made with cilantro, parsley, mint, and shallots — both of which added welcome freshness.

Most days, you'll also find the chile verde taco, made with tomatillo-braised pork shoulder topped with onions, cilantro, and chicharrones pulverized into a porky dust. The chile verde is based on a recipe that Michel's mother made for him growing up. The tender, juicy pork fell apart with each bite, and the tomatillo salsa added acidity that complemented the richness of the meat. But the chicharron dust, which sounded great in theory, was so finely ground that it lacked the satisfying crunch I've come to expect from chicharrones.

Sometimes, the chile verde taco is the only meat option on the menu. But on one of my visits, I was lucky to snag a chicken mole taco: chicken thighs in a mole coloradito sauce topped with toasted pepitas, pickled white onions, and a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds. Michel said Weiss learned to make mole when he took a cooking class in Oaxaca. The recipe you'll find at Tacos Oscar is a variation on that recipe, which can change from day to day depending on what ingredients are available. "We've tweaked it so much now that we should call it 'Jake's mole,'" Michel said. Variation or not, the mole still retained the comforting, warm spices and subtle heat you'd expect from mole coloradito.

Even if you're a meat lover, don't miss the vegan and vegetarian offerings. In fact, out of everything I tried at Tacos Oscar, my favorite item was a vegan nopal salad tostada. A crisp tostada was assembled with a smear of Peruvian beans, topped with a salad of grilled cactus, purple cabbage, and mushrooms, then garnished with parsley, mint, and toasted chili oil. It's a dish inspired by the cactus-cabbage salad that Michel's mother often made for summertime barbecues to accompany carne asada, using the young cactus leaves that grew in their backyard. The Peruvian beans were delightfully rich and creamy in a way that pinto beans rarely are. The mushrooms and cactus were surprisingly juicy and savory, while the toasted chili oil added smoky heat.

As for the vegan charred broccoli taco? That, too, turned out to be one of the best items I tried. It's something that Michel invented one summer at his parents' house using whatever ingredients they had at home. The broccoli was charred just enough to give it a smoky flavor without sacrificing crunch. The peanut salsa, made with coarsely ground peanuts and chile de arbol, added notes of umami, while the habanero pickled onions added a surprising amount of heat. No matter what broccoli taco naysayers might think, it's easy to see why it's been one of Tacos Oscar's most popular offerings since its pop-up days.

Nevertheless, Michel recognizes that not everyone is sold on the idea of broccoli tacos. He's heard complaints that he's serving "overpriced hipster tacos."

"There's always gonna be weird haters," Michel said. "If you do things a little bit different or creatively, a lot of people think that you're bastardizing something, or gentrifying the food."

Michel points out that this kind of innovation isn't unique to Tacos Oscar — it's something that's happening in Mexico, too, particularly among younger generations. "There's people doing weirder, more creative shit than we are in Mexico City and Oaxaca," he said.

At its core, Tacos Oscar is really a creative outlet for Michel and Weiss. "I do my own thing creatively," Michel said. "I'm a musician. I'd like to think I'm an artist sometimes. I do what I do because it's interesting to me." The menu might seem eclectic, but there's clearly thought behind the sauces and garnishes that grace each taco. It's the kind of place where anything goes — as long as it tastes good.

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