Oscar Villarreal’s restaurant was inspired by the experiences of his childhood

Working on a farm with family and sharing meals with others helped sparked the idea for Migrants.
multiple plates of food with cups of salsa
Oscar Villarreal balances the menu with meat and vegan offerings, including the smothered breakfast burrito (blue plate), vegan tacos with black beans and Mexican rice (red plate) and vegan huevos rancheros (green plate). (August 2021)
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Oscar Villarreal remembers “the good days” of his childhood — time spent working on a farm with family under the beautiful sun and enjoying meals with others.

Those good days inspired Migrants, Villarreal’s restaurant off the Beltline Highway specializing in tacos. The food at Migrants harkens back to what Villarreal ate as a migrant farmworker.

Every summer, Villarreal and his family traveled from Texas to either Wisconsin, Minnesota or Michigan to work. He recalls working in the fields and working up an appetite.

“I remember the joy we had when we were working hard and we would get these little breaks in between,” Villarreal says. “My mom would give me these tacos and they were amazing. We’d share with people that didn’t have much.” Eventually, Villarreal’s uncle purchased a farm near Delavan, where Villarreal then moved with his parents. In 2012, Villarreal came to Madison.

Migrants opened in January 2020, although Villarreal first imagined the concept for the restaurant while operating the now-closed Fuegos on Williamson Street. Fuegos closed in 2019 prior to COVID-19 due to an ongoing dispute with the landlord over a lack of parking. Villarreal says closing Fuegos was heartbreaking but a blessing in disguise. “This happened in 2019 just before COVID. I can’t imagine paying almost $12,000, owing that kind of rent in 2020,” he says.

Oscar Villarreal sitting at a booth

Oscar Villarreal (Photo by Sharon Vanorny)

The memories of his mom’s tacos and sharing with others is the kind of experience Villarreal wants to offer his customers. He says the motto at Migrants is “great food for hardworking people.”

“I just want to produce something quick, something fast, get in, get out, homemade, all locally sourced meats and as many vegetables that I can get from local farmers,” he says.

Tortillas are made to order and Villarreal offers specials throughout the week, including $2 tacos on Tuesdays, enchiladas on Wednesdays and fresh tamales on Thursdays. “Every Thursday you walk in and by 11 a.m. they’re ready to go and they’re fresh, falling off the husk,” Villarreal says. “It’s not like the ones you buy at the store.” They’re like the ones he and his family made as a Christmas Eve tradition, he says.

plate of vegan tacos with a drink

Vegan tacos with black beans and Mexican rice (Photo by Sharon Vanorny)

Migrants has a large vegan following, which carried over from Fuegos. Years ago, Villarreal’s partner was on the cusp of going vegan, but they found it difficult to find a meal they both could enjoy when dining out. The separate vegan-only menu at Migrants consists of tortillas, vegan sour cream and cheeses, the egg substitute Just Eggs and lots of vegetables. When it comes to tacos, there are an equal number of vegan and meat options. But the vegan varieties have the same heft — think chorizo-spiced quinoa, portobello mushrooms, roasted cauliflower, broccoli adobo and papas y rajas, which are cumin-roasted potatoes with bell peppers and onions.

Customer Ron Heinrich lives near Migrants and has been going there consistently since last year. Last September he started adhering to a vegan diet. “One of the things that I appreciate so much about Oscar’s restaurant is that vegan and standard fare have more or less equal footing,” says Heinrich. “There are lots of vegan options at Migrants, everything from breakfast items like pancakes and ‘huevos’ rancheros to lunch and dinner standards like tacos, and my go-to — the black bean and cauliflower burrito.”

plate of vegan huevos rancheros

Vegan huevos rancheros (Photo by Sharon Vanorny)

Villarreal is grateful for customers and grateful for his staff. Migrants didn’t shut down during the pandemic: instead, Villarreal adjusted his business and offered curbside pop-ups, deliveries and holiday meals.

If Migrants had shut down, Villareal says it would not have made it. While they still offer special meals, Migrants is open to indoor seating and his staff is fully vaccinated. “We try to take care of ourselves first so that we can take care of you.”

Hywania Thompson is a Madison-based freelance writer.

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