OSCAR'S MEXICAN SEAFOOD
703 Turquoise Street, Pacific Beach
746 Emerald Street, Pacific Beach
5060 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
Torta de Oscar
Surf & Turf taco
Watermelon agua fresca
Remember when fish tacos sounded icky? That was when all you knew about Mexican food was Taco Bell, whose tacos are filled, of course, with a soft, liquidy mass of meat-like pebbles that looks like pill bugs decomposed in a river somewhere.
But at least it looks somewhere in the realm of beef. Seafood in a tortilla? Jesus, man. Psychologically jarring. Protein treason. Palate subterfuge. Then Ralph Rubio changed that by branding the hell out of the Ensenada specialty. Fish tacos became the official food of San Diego. The debate on the best fish taco in town is a rager, right up there with whether or not the panda’s sporting a baby bump.
This is not about the city’s best fish taco. It is about a very good one. It’s also about how to create demand at a restaurant. To do that, follow the lead of Oscar’s Mexican Seafood. Set up a restaurant on a busy street. Make sure the interior is so small (about 500 square feet, 489 of which seems taken up by the kitchen) that people are forced to line up outside. Nothing makes humans want to wait for stuff like the sight of other humans waiting for stuff.
Yet demand for Oscar’s fish tacos is real. The owner just opened the third location (two in P.B., one in O.B.). The line is ever-present at the original spot on Turquoise Street (next to Pernicano’s and that bar where you can start drinking at 6 a.m. if you’re angry at your internal organs). They seem to be San Diego’s new Roberto’s, only with fresh seafood instead of rolled tacos.
The day I pull up, a very attractive young couple is waiting outside, darn near fornicating in public. But not all clientèle look like summer flings pausing to refuel. A Mexican father and his six-year-old daughter pick up a to-go order; a coed brings her mom; a 30-something worker from the local hospital is obviously a regular.
Atop Oscar’s are huge, carnival-like letters: "SMOKE SHOP." Oscar’s shares a wall with a bong retailer. Another savvy move.
I’m getting an awful feeling. Is Oscar’s—of which I’ve heard nothing but good things—simply a cheap, trendy option for The Young and Dehydrated?
It is not. Owner Juan Bernardo Montes de Oca makes some tasty street tacos. He grew up in Tijuana, a street-cart aficionado. His tacos don’t use his great-grandmother’s recipe, full of love and lard. In fact, de Oca says he uses no butter (only olive oil) and less than five ingredients in most everything: garlic, pepper, crushed red peppers, oregano, and salt.
He learned his secrets from a guy in a parking lot in Otay Mesa. In the mid-2000s, Montes de Oca owned a semi-truck business. At lunch, Oscar Valenzuela would pull into the lot and sell damn good street tacos. Montes de Oca was such a big fan that he sold his semis, bought Oscar a new lunch truck, and went to work for him. He learned how to prep, cook, buy food in bulk, track inventory, etc.
Although they were planning to open a business together, Oscar was denied a visa. He now has his own taco spot in Tijuana. Montes de Oca, however, went ahead with the plan in 2011 and opened the first Oscar’s in P.B.
It’s a bone-simple menu. Seven types of street tacos (steak-shrimp, spicy shrimp, battered fish, smoked fish, etc.). Two tortas (Mexican sandwich). A bucket of deep-fried shrimp. Ceviche. Fish stew. And a quesadilla in case you brought your friend from Omaha. There are no burritos—carne asada or otherwise—which causes one trio of potential customers to harrumph on out of the O.B. location.
The folks at Oscar’s don’t make their own tortillas (they buy top-quality corn rounds from Selecta Panaderia-Tortilleria in Chula Vista). They don’t use Sushi Ota’s fish supplier. They didn’t put an organic produce spin on street tacos, like Haggo’s in Leucadia. Most of their greens come from Baja.
So why is there always a line? Four reasons: Their smoked fish is especially good. Their produce is vibrant. They put melted Monterrey jack and fresh avocado on everything, at no additional cost. And their tiny square footage keeps the cost down (which allows them to sell huge street tacos for $3–$4).
Their cucarachas is a hard appetizer to swallow. In Spanish, it translates into "the cockroaches," which doesn’t turn most people’s taste buds into Super Soakers. The Nayarit specialty consists of shrimp (deep-fried with shell on) dunked in an oily hot-chile sauce. Served in a Styrofoam bucket at Oscar’s, they’re eaten whole (which is a mental challenge for people familiar with shrimp’s "de-veining" process). Anyone who’s been to a Louisiana-style crawfish boil will appreciate their messy, unrefined charms. You can also remove the shell if it squeams you.
Oscar’s tacos come dry (cheese, cabbage, chopped onions, cilantro), so it’s essential the diner douse them in sauce. Grab all three bottles (habanero aioli, chipotle aioli, and Japanese pepper hot sauce) and be liberal. Oscar’s adds garlic, baking soda, and mustard to its batter, so the battered fish tacos have both tang and a deep garlic note. Excellent.
It’s the smoked fish options, however, that really stand out. Open them up and it just looks like a dull-grey seafood mash. But the smoke adds a spin to fish tacos that most San Diegans haven’t known (unless they’ve ventured to Bonita for TJ Oyster Bar’s great smoked tuna). The campfire musk is a great anchor among the onions, cilantro, and white sauce. For the Torta de Oscar, they use an excellent, light bread, slightly charred, with skirt steak, shrimp, cheese, and smoked albacore tuna inside. It’ll end up all over you, and it’s fantastic.
You can stay away from the ceviche, which has enough lime to cook a bluefin. But, honestly, that’s the only bad bite I have after eating my way through their entire menu.
At all three locations, I found the customer service at the level of "Okay here’s your taco." Not unfriendly, not chummy. At one I see the cashier, fresh off collecting a wad of bills, go back to the kitchen and grab handfuls of produce to finish tacos. He didn’t pause to wash. This is a local street taco joint, not a chain restaurant with a 200-page food-safety booklet. And I’m no germophobe. Still, some basic standards should be attended to.
All in all, it’s a very good fish taco and a hard place not to like. The fact that it’s so hole-in-the-wallish helps the street-food allure. It also cuts Montes de Oca’s cost, which he passes on to the line waiting outside his place of booming business.
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