When writing in The New York Times on the subject of breakfast tacos, Southern food aficionado John T. Edge recently opined, "Austin trumps all other American cities." Had he thrown down a different gauntlet — had he claimed, say, that Austin has the best music scene or the most elegant state capitol building — Nashvillians surely would have revolted at the unfavorable rating against our Texas doppelganger. But on the matter of tortillas stuffed with eggs, sausage and potatoes ... OK, we'll give Austin that one.
While the handheld Tex-Mex morning meal is a staple of Austin's "early-morning commuters and third-shift laborers, as well as rock 'n' roll club kids," as Edge explains, breakfast tacos are fewer and farther between on Music City menus. So when a friend who moved here from the Lone Star capital learned about Oscar's Taco Shop, she called me, giddy with the thought of scrambled eggs and home fries swaddled in corn tortillas. She said the very thought of the rustic delicacy made her long for lingering brunches against the hot backdrop of Texas Hill Country. I think she just longed to be in her 20s again. In any case, we loaded up the minivan with a bunch of kids and headed out to relive my friend's gastronomic glory days.
In fact, Oscar's Taco Shop is not an ode to Austin, but to San Diego, the hometown of founders Oscar and Rocio Ruiz. The second-generation restaurateurs migrated from Southern California to Middle Tennessee in 2007 and launched the first Oscar's Taco Shop in Franklin that year. With help from Oscar's eight siblings, they began expanding, opening in Cool Springs in late 2009, and in Nolensville this spring. Stores are also planned for Murfreesboro and the Westhaven development in Franklin.
Oscar's Taco Shops are uniformly low-key, adorned with little more than booths and beverage machines. In our experiences at the Mallory Lane location, the simple space had an unexpected warmth, especially around lunchtime, when the eclectic line of men in business suits and moms with kids snaked through the crowded room, and diners good-naturedly cleared their tables to prepare for the next round of patrons.
At breakfast time, traffic was significantly slower, underscoring the fact that breakfast tacos have not caught on in these parts. To be precise, Oscar's serves breakfast burritos — with combinations of eggs, cheese, potatoes, steak, ham, bacon and chorizo — wrapped in large flour tortillas. But if you ask, they'll make yours in the smaller corn discs more popular in Austin.
We all have our nostalgic foods. Proust had his Madeleines in Remembrance of Things Past, while food critic Anton Ego had his rustic stewed vegetables in Ratatouille. My relocated Austinian friend has her breakfast tacos, and she said Oscar's were as good as she has found around here. I, however, have never lived the SXSW dream; consequently, I don't have a disproportional soft spot for eggs, spuds and pork products blanketed in a tortilla and soaked with salsa. I do, however, have an affection for fresh food, and that's where Oscar's won me over.
While the menu doesn't stray from the predictable Tex-Mex roster of tacos, burritos, fajitas, enchiladas and quesadillas, Oscar's straightforward execution surpasses many restaurants with similar offerings. Everything on our trays — from cilantro-flecked guacamole and bountiful lime wedges to warm chips and three styles of salsa — looked and tasted fresh, and everything is reportedly made in house. Even the kids' quesadillas, pennant-sized bronzed and buttery grilled tortillas filled with molten cheese, enticed the moms to eat the leftovers. (Compare that to the flaccid, pale and rubbery cheese fold-over that passes for a kids' quesadilla in so many eateries.)
As the name implies, tacos are the standouts at Oscar's, and our tray of assorted corn, flour and fried wraps was a sight to behold, with tidy folded pockets of carne asada, fried flounder, shredded pork and grilled chicken tucked into plastic baskets and strewn with crisp cabbage, vibrant pico de gallo and cool sour cream-based Baja sauce. The two favorites at our table were the pulled beef taco — served in a crisp and flaky deep-fried shell, based on Ruiz family tradition — and the shrimp taco — bulging with at least six plump grilled shrimp and accented with fresh tomatoes, diced onions and cilantro. For that matter, Oscar's scored high on our nonscientific and unofficial ranking of the city's best fish tacos. The hand-breaded fillet of flounder came adorned with crisp shreds of cabbage, cool pico de gallo and bright lime wedges, but we would have preferred less of the thick Baja sauce drizzled across the top.
In the sparsely adorned room, one design element stands out: a placard that reads "Please help us keep our prices low by paying cash." Who knows whether the sign will work, but for now Oscar's prices are refreshingly restrained. With tacos starting at $1.95 and combination plates topping out at $7.25, Oscar's offers a lot of bang for your buck — no matter whether you're looking for cheap eats or a trip down memory lane.
Oscar's Taco Shop is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Takeout is available.
This place has closed
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