Oscar’s Mexican Food

Oscar’s Mexican Food, 3061 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95818-4347, (916) 443-8310. 2.5/5 stars. Some things done well, others, not so much.

Oscar’s Mexican Food is a little ten-seat border (i.e., specializing in the food of northern Mexico near the border, not the food of Mexico City or southern Mexico) restaurant in the Curtis Park neighborhood of Sacramento, CA. It is across the street from one of the region’s bigger high schools among the bungalows and small businesses of northern residential area, just six blocks from the downtown region’s southern line. It gets a healthy breakfast and lunch crowd, and seems to do a brisk dinner business too, probably because they are within walking distance of so many homes. It has not been here long enough to be an institution – I remember when it was a take-out Chinese place several years ago – but it does seem to have a loyal following and stable management (that is to say, the people are always the same every time I have gone in to get food). The building is not much to look at; a greasy spoon/hole in the wall, actually, but they do a few things well. Oscar’s is a step above the fair-to-middlin’ range of Sacramento Mexican food, but is certainly not one of the better joints. Every time I go in I see mostly Norte Americanos and African Americans, rarely Central or South American diners. Most of their clientele is young kids or blue collar, and I think their food serves that market well. Prices are a mixed bag, with tacos running $2.50 or more and burritos in the $3.50 to $4 range. The tiny place would be pushed to seat 12 inside, and there are six or so seats outside for al fresco dining just a few steps away from busy Freeport Blvd, which can be a great people watching area.

Sauces: The real measure of most boarder-style Mexican food shops is the quality of the sauces they give to garnish food with. This is because most places pre-cook the food, then package it into single serving sized packages for when customers order it. That way they only have to use the grill to warm up what is needed to fill each order. So while each dish can be prepared with care and attention, they are all warmed up on the same surface, and treated the same way before serving. While this is economical and allows us to have a variety of cheap Mexican foods in a large number of restaurants, in my opinion it takes away from the overall taste experience, and diminishes the emotional reaction that I have. Some restaurants have found ways to get around this problem (Lalo’s and Gina’s, I’m going to get to you guys soon enough, so just hold on), but not all. Oscar’s seem to be better than others, but they are not tops. However, the sauces they provide make a big difference, because they are high quality and full of flavor and depth. Unfortunately there are only two, salsa rojo and salsa verde. The red sauce is thick, not watery, and has a sweet zing to it that stays with you up until the point you wash it down. The green sauce is almost pre-pudding like in its consistency, so it stays where you put it (which is really nice), and has the deep flavor of carefully roasted tomatillos, with none of the stink or soapy qualities of cheaper herbs. Whatever qualities the food has lost from post-preparation handling, the sauces tend to make up for.

Tacos Carnitas: I got some heavily fried pork that was pulled, so than no grainy chucks were left. It was very crispy, with salsa fresca and a layer of homemade guacamole on the bottom to protect the two, six inch tortillas from leak-through. It was tasty on it’s own, but lacked depth. Carnitas can be heavy or light, depending on the extent to which it is fried and the amount of oil that is put on the grill to heat the meat up before it is put into a tortilla and plated. Oscar’s goes light on the oil during the heating process, but fries the heck out of it before it is stored for orders. Here in Northern California carnitas is practically a staple of the ordinary diet. Oscar’s is above average, but could benefit from lighter heat in the preparation, and perhaps finer slicing before being cooked.

Tacos Adobada: Currently a debate rages among gringos as to the difference between al pastor and adobada. I have heard that they are the same thing, with “al pastor” coming from southern Mexico, and “adobada” coming from northern. I have also heard that one is skewer roasted and the other pan. Whatever the difference, the consumer should be aware that on the tongue they are essentially the same. Adobada/al pastor is a preparation of red peppers, oil and seasonings rendered into a paste that is rubbed into port and roasted. To summarize, it is almost as good as the physical act of love with a stranger. Oscar’s calls theirs adobada, so I will too.

Properly prepared adobada is effervescent and fragrant, and can produce a strong physical reaction in the mouth. It is akin to nothing else I can think of, save maybe for that shiver after that first sip of scotch that makes your entire body quake in release. In Mexico and points south of Sacramento adobada is usually sliced off of a hunk into tortillas and garnished with a full-bodied brown sauce of roasted peppers, lots of fresh onions and cilantro. Oscar’s had no brown sauce and few onions. It was tasty, but again, lacked the full kick that adobada is supposed to deliver. I personally consider it a sin to garnish adobada with red or green sauce, so mine was a bit dry. There are much better places for adobada/al pastor in Sacramento, so I won’t be returning here for it.

Fish Tacos: Prior to my relocation to Northern California from the District of Colombia about 15 years ago I had never heard of fish tacos. It did not take me too long to become a devotee to this dish. They are usually prepared with a piece of fried fish surrounded by bitter salad greens and topped with a creamy, sweet sauce and garnished with lemons or limes. When I first got out there they were all the rage, and everyone who sold them was putting time and effort into making them great. Not so much any more. Now what you get most of the time out here is a Gorton’s fish filed that has been fried in the french fry oil, garnished with limp greens or (gasp!) coleslaw. There are a few places out here that still do them well – surprisingly one of them is a chain – but most places now take the easy way out. Oscar’s seems to be one of them. The fish I got in my taco took two bites to get past the breading to the meat, such as it was. The creamy sauce was creamy, but they must have ladled the sugar in, because it was way too sweet to eat. My teeth practically curled back. It smelled nice; garlicky, earthy and of fresh fish, but the taste did not bear much of that out. If you want good fish tacos go to a place that specializes in the boarder cuisine of Baja California Norte or Sur. And know that Oscar’s ain’t one of those.

Tacos Asada: It’s hard to screw up asada. It is basically seasoned beef, cut into small chunks (never ground) served with onions, cilantro and salsa fresca on a tortilla. Oscar’s is as good as most other place’s asada. This is one of the tastiest Mexican dishes, and its also one of the dishes that has practically made it to mainstream American diet. As accepted as carnitas is, carnitas wishes it were asada. Sometimes it is served with guacamole (as it was here). Personally I think that guacamole takes away from the heartiness of the mean, which I think is what the dish is going for.

California Burrito: This dish plays no role in traditional Mexican cuisine. It is basically a carne asada burrito with french fries, cheddar cheese, cilantro and salsa fresca. It is best garnished with red sauce, though green sauce will do in a pinch. Usually there are no rice and beans in this dish, but mine had some pinto beans. It’s basically a big, hot tube of meat, cheese and fries, so it sells like hotcakes around here. One thing about it, if it is on the menu, then that likely means that the restaurant probably caters to the white, non-Hispanic crowd. Oscar’s serves theirs in the traditional California burrito style, dry, wrapped into a foot-long tube, wrapped in paper and tin-foil, and given over with a tiny jar or two of the sauce of your choosing. If you are looking for the Mexican version of a cheese burger, this is your best bet. Oscar’s is delicious and greasy, and is likely to make your afternoon hours sedentary ones. It is as non-controversial as tacos asada, and is similarly hard to screw up.

Cheese Quesadilla: Why did I even bother? A large tortilla with cheddar cheese in it, melted, folded, wrapped, and placed in a bag. I could have had this at home, and for $3, I got screwed. Never again.

Machaca: Oscar’s “specialty” is a dish called machaca, which traditionally was prepared by drying meat that had been rubbed in spices for preservation, then cooking when it was needed in a stew pot. Oscar’s machaca is slightly dry meat that is served in a burrito wrap with too much water. The burrito that I got was runny and fell apart quickly, and the meat was not too tasty.

Breakfast: I’ve only had one breakfast item there, a burrito, but it was tasty. In it were spiced, scrambled eggs, salsa, potato chunks and large chunks of choritzo sausage (which were probably bought off the shelf and not prepared from scratch). Breakfast at Oscar’s seems to really pack them in; there is often not a seat to be found.

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