Parked in a non-descript lot on Michigan Avenue, kitty-corner from a Quality Dairy and down the street from the Barber Love Barber Shop, El Oasis is a happening place. Two trailers are parked at right angles, and inside the corner made by their respective rectangular bulk are several picnic tables protected from sun and rain by a makeshift canopy of what appear to be triangular sails.
On Monday night, one table was occupied by a couple eating and discussing the impressive laziness of one of the wife’s co-workers, another by a young man trying (apparently without success) to convince someone on the other end of the phone to meet him later for drinks. An immaculately groomed gentleman with a handlebar mustache approached the window, was greeted by name and was asked if he wanted “the usual.”
Often, we see people we know here; on this occasion, we chatted with a member of a metal band that counts Captain Carnivore, my regular dining companion, among its fans. Dressed in knee-length black cutoffs and black, steel-toed boots, and covered with tattoos, he agreed with us that El Oasis was “awesome” before walking over to QD while his order was prepared. On other occasions, we have seen friends from Okemos, Lansing, and East Lansing in ties and shirtsleeves on hot summer days after work, and on frigid gray winter’s evenings with a car full of down-jacketed kids jonesing for tacos.
The menu, posted on the side of the truck, is extensive and diverse. Tacos, burritos, nachos, gorditas, sopes, tostadas and quesadillas are all on offer, as well as tortas, which are sandwiches on a bun. Most of these may be ordered with any one of the available meats, which include steak, chicken, pork, ground beef, tongue, beef cheek, chorizo, tripe, and shredded beef. Breakfast burritos are available as well, and beans and rice are available either as part of a special combo or as an a la carte addition.
When you order at the window, your choices are scribbled on a pad and called to the cook, after which you are called up based on your order (we are often “Burritos!”) to pick up and pay.
The food is cheap, the servings are generous, and the quality is consistently high. The food at El Oasis is Mexican, not the Tex- Mex served at many other area restaurants. Dishes are not smothered under a blanket of cheese, there’s much less use of cumin, and there are no fajitas or enchiladas. It’s not better or worse; it’s just not Tex-Mex. It’s also apparently very authentic Mexican; a friend with a husband from Mexico says he craves the Tacos Lingua (made with tongue) when he’s homesick.
The Veggie Burrito with mild salsa with beans & rice in the background
I have, among other things, eaten the breakfast burrito with chorizo and eggs, tacos el pastor (flavorful marinated and grilled chunks of pork), ground beef tacos, and beans and rice. Corn tortillas for tacos are “soft” fried in double thickness, and sprinkled with fresh cilantro and crumbly, white Mexican cheese. Both the hot and mild salsas are made in-house (in-truck?). The slightly creamy, red variety strikes just the right balance of heat and flavor and the green is kind of Mexican salt - without calling too much attention to itself, it makes everything taste a little sharper and better.
On our last visit, Captain Carnivore ordered his standard steak burrito with a side of beans and rice, and I tried the “New Veggie Oasis Burrito” filled with beans, rice, sour cream, poblano pepper, avocado, lettuce, and tomato sauce. The burritos are gigantic (one could easily eat half for dinner and save the other half for lunch the next day) and there is no “empty end” phenomenon. These people know from burrito rolling.
The Captain was pleased with the hearty chunks of grilled steak in his dinner, and I really enjoyed the “Veggie,” particularly the way the tender, smoky poblano mingled with the other ingredients. As always, he offered me a taste of his rice and beans; as always, I was unable to imagine another forkful of anything. Possibly ever.
El Oasis is a good place to take kids, who can wait in the car or hang out in the parking lot while your meal is prepared. There are several good vegetarian options, including the newly-added burrito, and pretty much anything you want without meat or beans. (I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure the beans are made traditionally, with lard.) Mexican is just never an easy choice for those avoiding gluten, but the lactose-intolerant can just skip the cheese and sour cream.
El Oasis is very popular, and can get frustratingly busy, especially around the traditional lunch hour. As Aron Sousa, our Publisher’s partner, says: "No one goes there anymore because it's so busy." I suggest an earlier or later lunch, or dinner; the truck is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There’s also breakfast, of course – an El Oasis burrito and a cup of coffee could keep you going all day.
El Oasis is located at 2501 Michigan Avenue, in Lansing. It now accepts credit cards.