Ann About Town: El Oasis Serves Birria Tacos, the Comfort Food You Need

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Photo courtesy of El Oasis.

Birria tacos fresh from El Oasis

There have been many food fads during the pandemic, some good and some regrettable. Good: baking bread, growing a sourdough starter, and that pasta dish with a block of feta that went viral and led to every local grocery store running out of feta. Bad: Dalgona coffee, made by whipping equal parts instant coffee, sugar, and hot water until it becomes creamy and then adding it to cold or hot milk.

The pandemic is unfortunately still with us, but the good news? The freshest foodie trend (actually based on a very old recipe from the Jalisco region of Mexico) is delicious. And you can get it right down Michigan Avenue, at El Oasis, aka “The Taco Truck.”

Ann Nichols for ELi

El Oasis is located at 2501 Michigan Avenue, in Lansing.

Birria (pronounced “burr-ya) tacos are the delightful evolution of a traditional Mexican stew, usually called “consome,” made of beef or lamb, cooked over low heat with peppers, spices, tomatoes, onions, vinegar, and water until the meat falls off the bone and is easy to shred. The result is soup-like: rich, a little spicy and a little sweet, owing to the inclusion of cinnamon. On its own, it is quite wonderful and likely has magical curative powers.

To make the tacos, the shredded meat is removed from the stew, and small corn tortillas are dipped in the soup broth, folded in half, and fried until warm and pliable. The meat is put into the fried taco shell and served with onion and cilantro, with a side of broth for dipping.

Word on the street (by which I mean the internet) was that the best and most authentic source for Birria tacos was El Oasis. I’ve written about them before and have continued to be a fan in the intervening five years, but things have changed. There are now two El Oasis trucks at the Michigan Avenue location: one serving their traditional menu and beloved dishes from their now-shuttered sister restaurant, El Amanecer Mexicano. These include Enchiladas Amanecer, Crazy Potatoes, Migadas, and Birria served in tacos, nachos, burritos, and even a “Pizza Birria.”

I sent Captain Carnivore out the other night to get us some dinner, and he reported that the process was to order the traditional items from the old truck, the El Amanacer dishes from the new truck, and then pay at the old truck. He got his traditional Steak Burrito. I got Birria tacos, and we shared chips, guacamole, salsa, and an order of rice and beans.

Photo courtesy of El Oasis.

El Oasis offers delicious staples of Mexican cuisine.

My introduction to the world of Birria was foodie heaven. They didn’t look like much; they pretty much look like beef tacos, but the combination of the meltingly-tender beef, the bite of the cilantro and onions, the slight sweetness of the tortillas, and the final dip into the broth before taking a bite was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten. They are, if such a thing is possible, an exciting comfort food. I may never be able to bear to eat Birria in any other form, but if my relationship with the tacos ever seems to be less intense, I’ll definitely check out the other variations El Oasis offers.

Let me not get so carried away with rapture over my tacos that I forget the rest of the meal. It was as good as it always is with the freshest of ingredients, and the feeling that someone’s mom cooked for you. (When El Oasis started out, that’s exactly what was happening.)

There is no standard Mexican restaurant frippery going on at El Oasis. Nothing is buried in melted cheese. The flavors don’t come from salt-heavy “Mexican Spice Blends.” And the flavors you get are those that come from the best ingredients and loving preparation. The Captain’s Asada Burrito was a large flour tortilla stuffed with beans, rice, tomato, onion, lettuce, sour cream, cheese, and grilled steak. It’s definitely a meal on its own, and he said the steak was as tender and flavorful as always. I suspect it’s marinated before cooking, but I can’t be sure because the Captain would not give me a bite for journalistic purposes.

The guacamole was traditional, unsullied by mayonnaise or sour cream, and spoke mostly of the glory that is avocados. The chips were handmade, just salty enough, and lacking the dense rigidity of some restaurant tortilla chips. The salsa…I could write volumes on the salsa, which is refreshingly sweet-tart and astringent. The Captain likes to put a little on every bite of his burrito, and although I haven’t tried it myself, I can vouch for his general aura of contentment throughout the process.

Oh, and beans and rice – the workhorses of Mexican cuisine! The rice is cooked perfectly: no crunch, no mush, and (I think) enhanced by very gentle flavoring. The beans have a deep mellowness that is unlike anything you can get out of a can, or at a restaurant that uses refried beans that came out of a can. That flavor often comes from making them the traditional way with bacon fat or lard, so if you’re a vegetarian, I’d check before ordering.

Photo courtesy of El Oasis.

A veggie burrito from El Oasis.

And about that: El Oasis is not by any stretch a vegetarian restaurant, but what they have is superb. My standard order (before the siren song of the Birria) is the Veggie Oasis Burrito, which is a big flour tortilla stuffed with beans, rice, sour cream, avocado, lettuce, cheese, a stuffed poblano (the pearl in the oyster) and tomato sauce. As I said, I can’t swear the beans are vegetarian, but I am able to confirm that (A) it is a splendid meal, and (B) they’re really nice people. If you found out the beans contained meat fat, they would leave them out.  The Breakfast Burritos are also great any time of day, and the potato & egg version is meatless.

I went for the trendy taco, but what I got was the culinary equivalent of a long, warm hug. Don’t we all need a hug right about now?

El Oasis is located at 2501 Michigan Avenue, in Lansing.

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