For Oscar Villarreal, a great taco is all about what’s on the outside.
“My biggest thing was the tortilla had to be good,” said Villarreal, the chef/owner of Migrants, a new taco spot just off the Beltline.
While many restaurants use tortillas made in Chicago, Villarreal opted to make his own. It took him a while to perfect the recipes, adjusting temperatures, switching flours and experimenting with new fats.
“I think we’ve got the tortilla down,” he said of the corn version, though he’s still tweaking the recipe for the flour tortillas. His latest change: Instead of vegetable shortening or lard, he’s using avocado puree, a trick he borrowed from his mom.
Migrants is just four months old, but Villarreal is no stranger to Madison’s restaurant scene. He was the chef at Fuegos on Williamson Street until the restaurant closed in December.
Tacos run in his family. Until Villarreal was 7, his family worked as migrant farmworkers, traveling from Texas to Wisconsin — where they’d work in potatoes (Delavan), beets (Racine), cherries (Sturgeon Bay) — to Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and North Dakota, before returning to Texas to harvest watermelon, oranges, grapefruit, spinach and onions.
Tacos were a flexible food his mom could always make, ranging from eggs and beans with onions to chicken with potato. It was “never the same,” Villarreal said, recalling “all these combinations she came up with so I wouldn’t get bored.”
Later, when his uncles bought a farm in Turtle Valley (about an hour southeast of Madison), tacos were a way of looking out for the migrants who traveled to their farm. His mom would send him into the fields with about a dozen tacos he could share with others.
“She wanted to make sure that I could feed the people that weren't taking something, some people that were just getting there,” he said, noting that migrant workers often need to work for a while before they have any money to spend.
“A lot of families came up here and they were dirt poor,” Villarreal said. “I remember this one kid. He wanted to swap tacos with me and I did. But, man, that's the first time I ever heard a train,” he said, referring to the sound cartoon characters hear when they eat very spicy food.
The boy’s taco was all jalapeños and onions. For some, Villarreal said, meat, beans and even vegetables were luxuries.
‘You can make tacos out of anything’
At Migrants, Villarreal serves tacos 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday in the former home of Silver Mine Subs, near Todd Drive. The space is cozy and colorful, with 10 green booths and four two-person tables. Like at Chipotle or Qdoba, customers order at the counter and customize their tacos — corn or flour tortilla, meat of choice and toppings — but the menu at Migrants is all its own.
Villarreal knew from the beginning he wanted the menu to go beyond the usual choices.
“You can make tacos out of anything,” Villarreal said. As a kid, he ate goat, lamb and duck tacos, which are “very typical in Latino families.”
Migrants’ menu includes tacos with borrega (lamb, $3.25 each), pato (adobo-seasoned duck, $3.25 each) and tinga (shredded chicken breast seasoned with chipotle, $3 each). There's also the more familiar barbacoa (slow roasted shredded beef, $3 each), and chorizo (Mexican sausage made from beef and pork, $3 each).
Tacos can be ordered individually or on a three-taco plate, served with a choice of rice and beans, salad or chips and guacamole.
Villarreal takes pride in Migrants’ vegetarian options. His mom was a “stickler” for not eating meat during Lent, he said, and since she didn’t like fish, Lent was a time for veggie experimentation.
In that spirit, Migrants offers just as many veggie fillings as meats, including coliflor (roasted cauliflower, $2.75 each), brocoli adobo (broccoli, carrots and onions seasoned with adobo, $2.75 each), and papas y rajas (cumin-roasted potatoes with bell peppers, $2.50 each).
He’s even created a fully vegetarian “quinoa chorizo,” cooking the protein-rich grain with farro, chickpeas, black and pinto beans, chia seeds and vinegar in the style traditionally used to flavor Mexican sausage.
“You get a good amount of protein in one shot,” Villarreal said. And it’s unique in that it’s a meat alternative without soy, which is true for the vegan sour cream and vegan cheese too.
Even the egg-centered breakfast burritos can be made vegan, using JUST Egg, a plant-based scramble-friendly product made with mung beans.
“Somebody fooled me at the food show with it,” he said. “I tasted it and I thought it was eggs and it wasn't.”
The rest of the menu includes nachos, burritos and burrito bowls. There are also daily specials: Taco Tuesday (tacos $2 each), Enchilada Wednesday ($9.99, kids eat free), Tamale Thursday and Fish Taco Friday.
At breakfast, served until 11 a.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on Saturdays, offerings include a breakfast burrito ($9), which comes smothered in a spicy “reaper” cheese sauce that renders spicy salsa unnecessary for all but the most intense spice-lovers. It’s especially good with the chorizo.
Even the least spice-tolerant will find a winner among Migrants' 10 salsas. The mild black bean and corn salsa and the mango salsa are colorful additions to any plate. The bar also includes homemade pickled vegetables, a mix of jalapenos, carrots and cauliflower.
Drinks include house-brewed iced tea ($2.50), horchata (a sweetened rice milk, $2.50), and an agua fresca (a thinned drink made by blending fruit, water and sweetener, $2.50) “flavor of the day” including pineapple, lime and muskmelon.
Roots on display
Villarreal lets his roots show at Migrants. A painted sign leaning against the counter features a smiling portrait and the words, “Juanita’s Organic Tortilla Co.,” an homage to the mom who still helps him troubleshoot his tortilla recipes. (You can sample them in-house or buy them to go in orders of 15 — a “Mexican dozen” — for $3.50.)
Villarreal's daughter Cassandra, 27, serves as Migrants’ co-owner and front-of-house manager. Oscar Villarreal hopes to eventually re-open Fuegos in the Janesville space where he ran another restaurant for years before moving to Madison. When he does, he wants Cassandra to take the lead at Migrants.
For now, in the lull before the lunch crowd arrives, he’s at home at Migrants. On a recent morning he crouched over a wide pot against one wall, scooping soil to transplant a lanky plant and teasing Cassandra and an employee — a cousin of his — that he can’t trust them to keep his plants alive.
It’s an avocado tree, one that he grew from a seed, he explained. His mom, who “can grow anything” had been wanting to do that for years.
Now, he’s looking forward to showing her what he’s grown.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to email@example.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.
Stay up-to-date on what's happening
Receive the latest in local entertainment news in your inbox weekly!