This colorful Mexican entree spoke to Gazette restaurant reviewer Aaron R. Conklin during a recent visit to Migrants in Madison. The Madison eatery is the latest food venture from chef Oscar Villareal, owner of the former Fusion 5 bistro in downtown Janesville and the former Fuegos on Madison’s east side.


By now, we’re all familiar—and in some cases, probably too familiar—with the build-it-yourself model of restaurant.

Whether it’s a turkey sandwich at Subway, a salad at Forage Kitchen or a burrito bowl at Chipotle, we’ve got the drill down: Pick the fave ingredients, have a staffer place them together on or in the delivery system and go. It’s efficient, it’s empowering, and, usually, it’s quite satisfying. In fact, the formula has become so common we’re almost inured to it, like a comfortable sweater we toss on because we can’t think of anything better to wear.

And that’s part of what makes Migrants, the authentic and upscale taqueria run by Oscar Villareal (owner of the former Fusion 5 restaurant in downtown Janesville), such a breath of fresh air—or maybe we should say breath of fresh cilantro. With a long list of ingredients sourced from local farms and butchers and tortillas made fresh by hand every day, this is a familiar formula punched up to perfection.

Madison food lovers shed more than a few tears when Villareal shuttered Fuegos, his exquisite tapas restaurant on Williamson Street, last December over issues related to a severe lack of parking options. (We continue to hold out hope for its eventual revival, if for no other reason than to dig into another plate of crunchy calamari.)

Migrants doesn’t offer tapas, but it definitely features Villareal’s painstaking attention to detail. That includes the food and the décor, which has enlivened a formerly bland lunch-counter type space with lots of snazzy Dia De Los Muertos-esque touches.

Migrants’ menu features things such as nachos and burritos, but its main rasion d’etre is tacos. Fourteen of them, to be specific—split evenly between vegetarian and nonvegetarian options, are available to construct a la carte or on a plate of three with your choice of sides (traditional rice and black beans, salad or chips and salsa). You pick your fresh tortilla type (flour, corn and blue corn) and then go to town with as many freshly sourced ingredients as you’d like.

Meat-lovers will find both the usuals (ground beef, shredded beef and pork) and some eye-poppers such as the Tinga ($3 a la carte), a bright mix of chicken, chipotle and onion, and the Pato ($2.50 a la carte), a lightly seasoned duck that makes a subtle base for added ingredients and salsas. There’s even a lamb taco ($2.50 a la carte) if you’re feeling adventurous. The meats are all locally sourced from Hidden Valley Farms.

On the vegetarian side, the hongos—with marinated portabella mushrooms from Hidden Valley Farms ($2.75 a la carte)—are a solid choice, but there also tacos anchored by spiced squash, broccoli and even grilled potatoes.

The list of addable ingredients will keep your mix-and-match sensibilities sharp. Like onions on your taco? Great. You can get them chopped, or better still, luminescent pickled red. The cheese choices include a smoked queso fresco and a spicy pepper cheese. And don’t forget the aforementioned fresh cilantro.

In a nonpandemic universe, you would be able to wield a ladle or two at Migrants’ extensive salsa bar. Instead, you’ll have to make do with collecting a tower of pre-packaged plastic containers.

There are ten different types of salsa on offer. They’re rated numerically based on their heat factor, but you should be aware in advance that this is a seriously tilted scale. Even the lower-numbered salsas—such as the No. 1, a black bean and corn salsa with poblano peppers—are seriously spicy, and the options above No. 7, while delicious, are best used in moderation.

The spiciest salsa, the El Jefe Diablo, features a tomato-based puree of four peppers, and is likely to torch your tongue if you’re brave enough to sample it straight up. The standout is the No. 6, a blend of mango and habanero peppers that hits the mark between sweet and spicy.

Pay attention to the daily specials if you really want to experience some of the best of what Migrants has to offer. Wednesdays are enchilada day, offering three types (ground beef, chicken and vegetarian) covered in strongly flavored sauces. Thursdays are all about the tamales, while Fridays bring fish tacos into the mix. And on Taco Tuesday, everything on the taco menu is only two bucks, giving you the perfect excuse to experiment and try some new things.

Migrants was originally located and designed to cater to the lunch crowds from the huge office building located above it. Now that many of those employees/customers are working from home, Villareal’s business has pivoted to more of a dinner spot. But whether you’re talking about breakfast, lunch or dinner, you’re going to want to give this taco bar multiple whirls.

Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.