The Whole Enchilada

By Matt Tapia

Posted July 29, 2010 in Eats

It’s pretty much stating the obvious when you say Redlands has got a pretty cool downtown. Not all downtowns are created equal, and the one in this high-browed San Bernardino County enclave definitely stands head and shoulders above many with its historic, old school-flavored row of shops along State Street, its storied drinking hole institutions (The “Dirty Bird,” The Falconer) and its famed Thursday night Market Night—where kettle corn, homegrown musical entertainment and an 8 p.m. teen curfew are there for the asking. Yes, downtown Redlands has many virtues. And its restaurants add to the virtue.

Count Oscar’s Mexican Restaurant among these cut-above-the-rest dining establishments. This is an eatery that was once pointed out to me by a business associate I once knew at City Hall. “It’s fantastic,” I was reassured. “Authentic,” I was told.

And Oscar’s is a good place for home-style Mexican belly-fillers. That’s the discovery (or re-discovery?) I made earlier this month when I visited Redlands.

Now, full disclosure, it wasn’t a sense of gastronomical adventure that guided me along that stretch of Interstate-10. It wasn’t a quest for good Mexican food in the East Valley (I had already eaten and enjoyed Cuca’s during my brief one-year attendance at the U of Redlands). No, what prompted me to the northeast was beer. Specifically a bar or some other location of yeasty patronage. You see, I was scoping out locations for purposes of an alcohol-themed assignment. I had visited Hangar 24 Craft Brewery. Struck out. The place—while awesome—was too industrial-looking with stainless steel surfaced, giant tanks and bare concrete floors. I had been to the famed Falconer on Orange. Cool place, too, with lots of dark woods, dim lighting and that miasma of good times and lush-isness that any good pub should emit.

But back to Oscar’s. During this hops-led trek, I got hungry and decided it was type to see what the hype was all about. Location-wise, the restaurant is cozily situation, tucked away on a side street off of State, away from the main drag of a comic book shop, thrift stores and antique stops. And Oscar’s proved to be a thoroughly quaint and folksy Mexican eatery that had none of slick, glossy look of a chain, but also none of the drab, rundown, abuelita’s-getting-ready-to-retire vibe of a mom-and-pop place that’s gotten long in the tooth—and stale in the comal. No, at Oscar’s the offerings are savory and filling. The chile relleno that I ordered was definitely, assuredly blog-worthy—a beautiful dark green pod nestled in a serene, thoroughly decadent pool of cheese. Its dark stem could barely be seen behind the curtain of dairy gooey-ness. It was a cheese oil slick—but in a good way—that spilled over and blanketed the rice and beans that were minding their own business next door. And inside? More cheese(!)

And the best thing of all? No toothpicks. As in, I didn’t have to first pick out the four or five hidden toothpicks (think of razor blades in Halloween apples) hidden inside my chile friend before I could lay a tooth on it. Yeah, I know it’s a trick my grandmother and mother used to keep the stuffed pepper shut. But, at Oscar’s, it’s, “Look, ma, no toothpicks!”

The beans and rice that accompanied the chile relleno were also a delight. And the taco my lunch companion sampled was hearty and satisfying.

And if you’re looking for atmosphere, Oscar’s got that too. Nearby was a nearby counter that looked like Cinco de Mayo exploded all over with an army of bottles, booze and other mariachi-friendly spirits. The booths were cozy and the service was friendly . . . and didn’t condescend when my lunch companion asked what the term “a la carte” meant. Well mannered, Oscar’s is.

Redlands, I know I slam you now and then for being snooty and flaunting your zip code, but you definitely have dining jewels sprinkled within your city limits. Hey, Cuca’s is good, but Oscar’s is better when you want the whole package. Or should I have said the whole enchilada?

Oscar’s Mexican Restaurant, 19 N. 5th St., Redlands, (909) 792-8211. Open 9AM-9PM daily, closes 10PM Sun. AE, D, MC, V.


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