Customers ordering a taco for the first time off the menu at the Oak East Eatery are in for a pleasant surprise.
This restaurant layers its taco toppings over delicious homemade Indigenous fried bread, instead of the traditional corn or wheat tortilla.
“If you go to the pow wows in the summer you will see it a lot, the fried bread with meat like taco meat, lettuce, tomato, cheese on top. It is just like a taco but on Indigenous fried bread. It is really popular. We sell out. You eat it with a knife and fork. It is quite big,” explained restaurant owner Shauna Lee Vazquez.
“We were missing the Pow Wows for the last couple of years because of the pandemic and there was no place to get tacos like these in North Bay, so we made it a ‘thing.’”
The owner’s mom, Cheryl Pangowich, affectionately known as “Momma Bear” lovingly makes the fried bread for the tacos which have become so popular, the team created Taco Tuesday which quickly became a customer favourite.
“I just put a whole lot of love in there, that’s the secret. It is flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, and water. It is a typical fried bread recipe except I use hot milk. Some people use sugar, some don’t. It has taken me a while to perfect my recipe,” Momma Bear grinned.
“I used to make one batch, then I made two batches, now I make three batches. So anywhere from over 70 to maybe 40 on a slow day. I love cooking, and I love hearing the feedback. On Taco Tuesday I hear, ‘Wow Momma Bear, that is so good. It is the best bread we’ve ever had.’ And I like that.”
Customers can also choose a side dish.
“Our soup today is wild rice and chicken, or you can have a chef’s salad or Caesar salad. Usually, our soup flies out the door as well. It is very filling.”
The fried bread is used for more than just tacos.
As a treat, it is dipped in cinnamon and sugar.
“And then we put berries on it like strawberries and blueberries on top. It is really good,” said Vazquez.
“We’ll also slice the bread up for our fried bologna sandwiches. Those are quite popular too. We started to bring it back and now we can’t keep enough bologna. When we slice our bologna it is quite thick, it is not just a thin little slice. So we started to integrate that and we do our wild rice soups,” said Varquez who has worked at the restaurant under different owners for over a decade.
Four years ago, after much deliberation, she became the new owner.
”It was back and forth, ‘Should I? Shouldn’t I?’ And I got talked into it and I have been here every day since except on weekends. We tried opening on Saturdays but it never worked, so it is Monday to Friday.”
The Oak East Eatery is a family-run restaurant where three generations roll up their sleeves to serve up fresh food.
“My mom is the one who has been by my side since day one. I just finally brought my son in because he is done school.”
The menu offers a wide variety of foods serving up breakfast and lunch.
Breakfast is fairly standard with the exception of Fried Eggs Tostada which is an open-face sandwich served with black beans, avocado, Pico de Gallo, bacon, and green onions.
Lunch is a variety of salads, soups, wraps, burgers, and sandwiches.
Sandwiches include a gourmet three-cheese grill, Italian club, Canadian clubhouse, Cuban corned beef grill, pulled pork and apple slaw, roast chicken, and hummus.
Choice of wraps includes an Italian pesto bruschetta, curried chicken Waldorf or you can make it a salad with apples and cranberries and pecans, Caribbean roast chicken, or veggie wrap.
A little something for everybody.
“I would say cultural for Indigenous is about 1 per cent. I really want to bring more of the Indigenous foods in here but I can’t just get moose from somebody and cook it here. It is not allowed. We do corn soup and we do the wild rice soup. In the summer we do a wild rice and berry salad, that is Indigenous too with maple syrup from Nipissing First Nation. So I try to bring as much Indigenous in here as I can. We get a lot of support from our Indigenous community.”
Vazquez likes to shake things up.
“I’m always switching up my specials except for Taco Tuesday. I try something new all the time. It is not the same thing on the menu every day.”
Momma Bear is proud of her daughter and what she has brings to the business.
“When people started to find out she is a young Indigenous entrepreneur, she started getting support from everywhere and the Indigenous community around here never let us down. We are always busy on Tuesdays,” said her mom with a big grin.
Vazquez has aspirations for the future.
“Moving forward, I would like a full restaurant all the time. I haven’t had that in a very, very long time because of the pandemic. Everybody says this is a good location right now. I was looking for a different spot but rent is great, I have the waterfront there, and I have the waterfront park.”
The Oak East Eatery has a special atmosphere where owners get to know their customers on a first-name basis.
“A big thank you to our customers for coming in and for your continued support.”
The restaurant seats about 24 people and food is available for takeout. It is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Oak East Eatery is located at the corner of Oak and Ferguson Streets in downtown North Bay.