It’s hard to think of a food that has celebrated and betrayed a culture more than the hype and expectations surrounding tacos and burritos. To some, knowledge of Mesoamerica doesn’t extend beyond fast-food tacos—a go-to for myself after hotboxing in college. But then there’s a deeper appreciation for the food found in rolled out blue corn tortillas filled with ripe ingredients from a backyard garden. Though I’ve no problem with the Americanized take on Mexican food, I think what’s lost in translation deserves to be discovered through authentic indulgence, and the best place to experience it just might be Migrants in Madison.
Owner Oscar Villarreal learned early on about his passion for food. “Everything I loved to do was to cook. I always cooked when I got home from school. I always fed my cousins.” Natural as the road seemed, it was paved with hard work and deep loss. But he’d learned at a young age the importance of establishing a goal and working harder than expected to achieve its end, aptly summed up in a lesson his uncle taught him.
At Rodriguez Brothers Farm, just north of Delevan in Turtle Valley, a nine-year-old Oscar was tasked with using the new lawnmower to mow the different grasses surrounding and intersecting the 2,300-acre farm. In one of the fields sat a large rock. Upon encountering the rock, Oscar maneuvered around it then continued mowing his rows. When he was done, his uncle checked his work.
“What happened there?” asked his uncle, noting the rock.
“I had to go around the rock,” said Oscar.
“Oh, so you were too lazy to get off the tractor to move the rock?”
It turns out Oscar’s uncle had put the rock there to see what he would do. He told Oscar to go to the front office and get the hedge trimmer. For the next four hours, Oscar cut the rest of the grass by hand. If we’re going to Aesop this: always do the thing doing with what you’re doing.
Oscar worked at the farm until he was 20, when he became a dishwasher at the Red Geranium in Lake Geneva. Roughly six months after starting, “the salad lady didn’t show up one day, so I jumped on the salad station. The chef came back there and was like, ‘What’s happening here? Where’s…’ I don’t remember her name.
“I go, ‘I don’t know. She’s not here. But I got everything set up, chef.’
“He’s like, ‘Well, who taught you?’
“And I was like, ‘I taught myself. I was watching. This is the next step, right? Going from here to there?’”
What people might’ve second-guessed came second-nature to Oscar. His attitude landed him a scholarship through Red Geranium to attend WCTC in Waukesha, where he took cooking classes. Thanks to his continued work with the chefs at the restaurant, he always felt more than prepared for his lessons.
He also learned that no matter what you’re doing in life, there are always rocks in the way, and there were more occasions he didn’t get off the tractor to move them. At 15, he came to understand that he was a young gay man growing up in a Catholic household. He turned to alcohol and considered himself a full-blown alcoholic at the age of 20.
Over time, Oscar successfully quieted the alcoholism demon only to find another one that sticks with him to this day. The deaths of his sons. There’s a lot more to the story than what I have room for, but the short version Oscar shared with me is his son Emilio, 18, and nephew were pulled over in Walworth County one night in January 2013. The police claimed they were looking for someone with the tools to break into a house, and Emilio and his cousin were driving their grandfather’s work truck. They let the nephew go but kept Emilio because he was on probation. Emilio was taken into custody.
The next day, police took Emilio to the hospital, where he would be shot five times. “They said they shot him because he was trying to escape.” Oscar was confused as to why his son was in the hospital in the first place. “When I finally saw my son, he had been in a battle. He had defense wounds all over his body. Broken nose. Broken collarbone. He had a huge laceration over his head deep enough to where I could stick my hand in. … Long story short, they killed my son.”
Only a year later, Oscar lost his 22-year-old son to a driving accident involving black ice and alcohol. He believes that his sons continue to look down on him and their sister and have given him direction in opening Migrants. In fact, confronting those losses and making the best move for his own health led Oscar to Madison, where he rekindled his love for those days on the farm.
“Migrants was always something we had done while eating at the farm. Start at 6:00 a.m. At 9:00 a.m., we’d get a break. We’d get our tacos out, eat our tacos. Our salsas. We’d share as a family. … The most memorable times are when we all sat around and shared tacos.” Oscar remembers his mom packing him extra food and telling him, “Make sure you always take care of the ones that don’t have anything. Make sure you feed them. That’s why you get extra.”
And the food is truly farm food. As great as the meats are, I fell in love with the vegetarian options. Where some restaurants rely on soy to simulate meat, Migrants acknowledges that there are ingredients out there that taste great on their own and don’t need the assistance of bland imitation.
“I saw that in this area there wasn’t a lot of vegetables being utilized as vegetables. There was a lot of soy products being turned into chorizo or hot dogs or burgers. Why are you trying to make something out of…when you could literally grab the vegetable, like my mom did; chop it up; and it would literally be the vegetarian version of meat.” We’re talking cauliflower steaks with malaise sauce and portabella torta.
The attention Oscar gives his tortillas—making all by hand except for the giant burrito—speaks to an artform that he has yet to see anyone else in his restaurant master. Some customers just come in to buy his tortillas, the blue corn being my favorite.
Tender meats, flavor-packed vegetables, and the mixing of hot and sweet balances out his build-your-own tacos with texture and flavor. The salsa bar, arranged with 10 different options from least to most spicy, gave me what I look for in salsas: flavor first, spice second. Spice is important, but I want to enjoy what I’m eating if I’m going to pay for it later.
And then there’s the tequila reaper queso sauce. Creamy, cheesy, and just the right amount of heat for someone who maxes out around habanero. This stuff tastes good on anything, but over a burrito—pause for effect—suffice to say you’ll be comparing subsequent burritos to this one.
From the good times to the bad, to growth, to discovery, Migrants is as much a celebration of Mesoamerican foods as it is of life itself. Patrons who’ve already fallen in love with Oscar’s food have found something far more valuable than the sum of its parts. What that is, I can’t exactly put to words, but I join them in contending that it’s worth it.
Kyle Jacobson is the lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.
2601 W. Beltline Highway
Madison, WI 53713