The Magic of Masa, at Tacos Oscar and El Pípila

Together, Temescal's new taqueria and SoMa’s Guanajuatense restaurant demonstrate the breadth of contemporary Mexican cuisine in the Bay Area.

Have you ever had a taco that sent electrical impulses running down both of your arms? Have you ever moaned, “Oh my fucking God” mid-bite with your mouth full of taco and your head cocked 90 degrees to one side? Have you ever felt like you had a fucking taco chakra and it was sitting on top of an acupuncture meridian and it was just qi, qi, qi through all eight of your extraordinary vessels?

That might be the feeling you get upon biting into a mushroom mole taco at Tacos Oscar, a compound of brightly painted shipping containers in Temescal that grew in popularity owing to word-of-mouth adoration and a strong Instagram following. (So many redecorated cacti!) The mole coloradito, found on one of the four rotating $4 tacos that pretty much comprise the entire menu, is umami-earthy in that bottomless-chasm way that mole has, and with just enough pepitas and pickled onions to give it some snap. Plus it’s vegan, possibly the tastiest single vegan item around short of a good old juicy peach.

A close second, the fried huevo taco is even more comically overstuffed, not merely with the yolky egg but with crumbles of queso fresco and an alluringly sweet tomato-puya chile salsa. The third-place finisher, and only because it’s the least original, is the tomatillo-braised pork chili verde. It’s not technically carnitas because it’s made with a shoulder not a butt, although it’s in the general family, and it’s pretty great even if the chicharrones were few and far between. Bringing up the rear — and this, too, is pretty much by default — is another vegan offering, a charred-broccoli taco with a smoky peanut sauce and a faint trace of cilantro.

Beyond the fillings, what makes these tacos so good are the handmade tortillas. Neither pillowy nor tough, they’re good, but what makes them enjoyable is the lack of standardization. Some are a little thicker, others have been left on the flame a little longer. You never know until you take that first bite.

Oscar Michel and his partner Jake Weiss toiled for five years around Oakland before opening this compact taco yard, which lacks true indoor seating but comes with heat lamps and a general sense of shelter. For the design scheme, they credit Luis Barragán, the Mexican modernist architect whose cremains have been turned into a diamond, although the amazingly eggs-on-legs restroom art is more like a trippy pre-K than the Casa Gilardi. Just mind that you don’t head there on a Wednesday, when Tacos Oscar is closed.

Meanwhile, in SoMa, Guanajuato native Guadalupe Guerrero has opened El Pípila in a handsomer-than-average new building around the block from Zynga. That area is a full-on hotspot these days, with pizza and coffee and the ever-growing Omakase Group’s latest fast-casual spot Udon Time close by.

A La Cocina alumna whose food has popped up at Off the Grid Fort Mason and Picnic at the Presidio, Guerrero named her eatery for a civic hero. El Pípila, born Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro, is sort of a Paul Revere figure from the Mexican War of Independence, lovingly nicknamed after the sound a turkey makes because it approximated his laugh. As Guanajuato is a mining state in central Mexico, El Pípila’s signature dish is a traditional miners’ lunch — enchiladas mineras — stuffed with vegetables like carrots and zucchini with a tomato-onion sauce that’s as addicting as what comes on Tacos Oscar’s fried huevo tacos.

Better still is the sope salad, an orgy of picadillo or vegetables over plenty of pinto beans, crema, and queso fresco atop an extra-thick layer of masa that absorbs all of its essence. A note about that picadillo, which is often such a humdrum meat that you may want to skip it. Don’t. At El Pípila, the ground beef is prepared in a traditional manner with potatoes, onion, and tomatoes, so that it’s practically a chili.

What set Guerrero on the path to this brick-and-mortar is her $15 pozole verde, an ultra-heartening hominy broth with a ton of lime and slices of watermelon radish that have been quartered so that they look like pink Japanese fans. It’s peppery, with plenty of chicken for heft — plus a sneaky bit of bacon, too. Get it with an agua fresca, and be prepared for the one with kale to taste even better than the one containing mango.

The worst things that can be said about El Pípila are that the tortilla chips are in strips that break when you try to scoop up some salsa, and it can be an uncomfortable counter to sit at, although maybe only if you’re longer-legged. (The knees press hard against the wall, and the stools aren’t made for shifting diagonally.) But like Oscar’s mushroom mole taco, the pozole is incredibly good — and the two together demonstrate the breadth of what contemporary Mexican cooking is up to right now.

Tacos Oscar, 420 40th St., Oakland, no phone or website, @tacososcar.

El Pípila, 879 Brannan St., 510-684-9456 or

Tags: ,

Related Stories