When it comes to making brisket at Tacos Oscar — a business that just morphed from pop-up to restaurant in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood — the job falls to Jake Weiss.
He makes a rub for his brisket from Sichuan peppercorns and a house-made Chinese five-spice powder, and then he braises it with vinegar and brown sugar.
“It’s just like my bubbe used to make,” he likes to say, then adding, “But really, it’s nothing like what my bubbe used to make.”
Weiss, 36, who co-owns the business with Oscar Michel, is a native of Philadelphia. His family was not religious, and there wasn’t much cooking going on at home, either. “There really wasn’t any Jewish cooking wisdom or anything passed down; it was a profession I fell into,” he said.
He started working in a café at 16, and while he later studied music and writing and became a touring musician, kitchen jobs were what he always went back to.
It was while working at an upscale pizza restaurant that Weiss met Michel, a Southern Californian native of Mexican descent who immediately recognized that a taco served on a tortilla made on the spot is exponentially better than one on a packaged tortilla. Years later, when Michel was ready to turn the concept into a pop-up, he asked Weiss to help him. Weiss had worked in Mexican restaurants before and wanted in.
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“I like what we’re doing here, and I think there’s something in this,” he told Michel. “A good corn tortilla is a good vessel for anything, as long as you take your time to make it nice.”
Tacos Oscar made a name for itself doing pop-ups around the East Bay for a few years before launching the restaurant — constructed partially out of shipping containers — earlier this month. In addition to their freshly made tortillas, the two chefs have become known for their inventive fillings.
“The food I started with had things like my mom’s and grandma’s recipes for salsa, but it’s taken on a whole new thing,” said Michel. “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.”
As if to prove a point, Weiss said he once put latkes in a taco. Is there anything that wouldn’t be good in a taco?
“Probably not gefilte fish. That’s objectively disgusting,” he answered, while admitting that he’s probably only had the kind from a jar.
It’s just like my bubbe used to make. But really, it’s nothing like what my bubbe used to make.
There is no regular menu, but they always offer three types of tacos, as well as a quesadilla — Michel caramelizes the cheese by cooking it open-face, face down — and sometimes a torta (sandwich).
Neither Weiss nor Michel eats a lot of meat, but they always have it on offer because people expect it. They never use processed meat or cheese substitutes, Weiss said, which forces them to be more creative.
The opening menu included two tacos with pork; one was in a chile verde sauce and the other was in the form of chorizo (they do chicken and beef, too, but this day was all pork). They also pride themselves on their vegan offerings. The first menu featured a braised mushroom and nopal taco with chili oil, cabbage and pepitas. The quesadilla boasted delicata squash and persimmon habañero salsa. “We should open a vegan restaurant,” Weiss said.
Michel described a charred broccoli taco as one of their most popular; it had a peanut, chili and star anise salsa that he invented on the fly during the pop-ups. Because the broccoli has to be charred to order, that one hasn’t been on the restaurant menu yet, but no doubt they’ll present it again at some point.
Beans and possibly salad are forthcoming, as are expanded hours to offer brunch.
When Weiss came back from a recent trip to Lebanon, he brought home some za’atar and made a vegan labne from cashews — that made it onto a taco. Last summer, they had a smoked corn purée taco with crispy tofu skin.
Chalk it up to restlessness.
“We get bored pretty easily,” said Weiss.
Michel agreed. “If we’re going to be here all day,” he said, “we need to keep it interesting.” n