Fuegos Uniting Carnivores, Vegans, and Vegetarians

Chile Relleno
Photo by Eric Tadsen

The creative concept behind Fuegos is separate menus and plentiful selections for carnivores, vegans, and vegetarians, so those with disparate dietary preferences can enjoy eating together at one venue. An upscale, Spanish-style steakhouse restaurant with a Latin flair, Fuegos serves steak that is a cut above the ordinary, tapas for both menus, and vegan menus for brunch, lunch, and dinner. When diners are seated at Fuegos, they’re offered a vegan or carnivore menu, and they can choose to order off one or both of the menus. Fuegos is known for its artistic food presentation, which makes the food effectively taste better too.

Chef Oscar Villarreal grew up on a farm, and his heritage is Tejano, Aztec, and Mayan; his great-grandfather was from Spain. As a result, the restaurant’s eclectic menu draws from the cuisines of South America, Central America, Spain, and Mexico. To provide diners with an authentic dining experience, Fuegos hires staff with this heritage and includes those who are vegan and vegetarian.

Steak restaurants typically are the worst of the worst for what they have to offer vegans and vegetarians. In most cases, the list of vegan food is mixed in with the rest of the menu with a code indicating if the item is vegetarian or vegan. At Fuegos, vegans immediately recognize that things are different. The vegan menu is brimming with a large selection and is strictly filled with good plant-based food. Fuegos doesn’t include protein substitutes, such as tofu, or false protein, like soy. The vegetable is the star of every vegan brunch, lunch, and dinner served. The restaurant’s desserts are made in house and are about 80 percent vegan.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

From Spanish, fuegos can be translated to mean fire or flames. To be selected as the name of the restaurant conveys the role and significance of the wood-fire grill in the preparation of Fuegos’ signature cuts of meat. The open view of the grill from the dining room and the chef’s table means you can watch your steak being cooked right before your eyes. The wood-fire grill is the finishing touch in the farm-to-plate approach that produces a truly world-class steak reminiscent of those served in Spain.

Buying directly from local farmers and vendors allows Chef Oscar to customize the order to meet his specifications. He has a direct relationship with a farmer in Stoughton, so he can see firsthand that the animal has been raised without the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, or feed additives that affect the meat’s flavor. To adhere to Fuegos’ standards, the pasture-raised, grass-fed beef is finished with organic barley to give marbling to the meat, which provides great flavor.

Chef Oscar purchases the entire animal, from tongue to tail, to eliminate waste and maintain the restaurant’s reputation for good quality meat. “I seldom find a restaurant that uses tongue in the menu according to my heritage. I see it as a sign of quality that is important at Fuegos.” The beef is processed in Cottage Grove according to his specifications. Then the steak loin cuts and strip loins are taken to the restaurant to be aged in house. Cutting the meat himself allows for nontraditional sizes, such as his signature 28- and 50-ounce bone-in ribeye steaks.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

The Mexican cheeses are custom made by a cheesemaker in Sheboygan, which allows Chef Oscar to choose the flavorings and buy an entire wheel. Fresh vegetables are sourced from local farmers, but in season, tomatoes and herbs are grown on the restaurant’s outdoor patio. Fresh seafood is a big part of the menu, and his award-winning salmon is not to be missed.

A full-service bar complements the restaurant’s Latin cuisine. The specialty cocktails are made in house, and the margaritas, aguas, mojitos, orange juice, and lemonade are freshly juiced. The Vegan Bar features made-to-order vegetable juice. There are two Fiesta Hours offered Tuesday through Friday, with special prices on specialty drinks for patrons seated at the bar. The afternoon Fiesta Hour is held from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and the late night Fiesta Hour is from 9:00 p.m. to closing.

Fuegos location, 904 Williamson Street, is appealing for several reasons: it’s a short walk from Madison’s downtown, the neighborhood embraces veganism, and it’s near other locally owned Williamson Street establishments.

The 4,400-square-foot restaurant opened in 2017, and is configured to provide seating in either an intimate setting in the main dining area or in separate rooms available for large groups to reserve. The El Sol room is bright and sunny due to the window-lined walls and accommodates 60 guests. The La Luna room is more shaded and accommodates 16 people. The main restaurant seating area holds 120. And the Fiesta Garden outdoor patio seats 16. Emilio’s Lounge is perfect for a couple to enjoy romantic, intimate dining for a date, anniversary, or birthday. For special events, the entire restaurant can be reserved for 170-plus guests.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Fuegos is a family venture that is owned by Chef Oscar’s daughter, Cassandra Villarreal, and his partner, Jordan Wegner. Cassandra is also the restaurant manager and Jordan is the IT marketing manager. Jordan’s mother, Sandra Wegner, handles the vegan side of the endeavor.

Opening the restaurant has been a labor of love for this extended family. Operating the restaurant together is helping them heal from the tragic loss of Oscar’s 18-year-old son, Emilio, in 2013, and his 24-year-old son, Pablo, in 2014. Two areas of the restaurant are dedicated to their memory and will provide financially for the young men’s five children.

A restaurant that unites mixed-diet couples and groups in one venue fills a niche in Madison. The Latin menus for vegetarians, vegans, and carnivores are not only a way for each person to enjoy their favorite food, it’s also an opportunity to try something new.

Lauri Lee is a culinary herb guru and food writer living in Madison.