Harlem’s Restaurant Row has been and always will be the core of the neighborhood’s burgeoning culinary scene. The eateries along Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Lenox Avenue have played an integral role in shaping the community and have inspired young restaurateurs to keep the wave going. The culinary renaissance is vastly spreading uptown—especially in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood. One of the latest additions to the community is Oso —an intimate, chic restaurant inspired by authentic Mexican street food.
For Los Angeles-bred restaurateur Matthew Trebek, the concept for Oso was derived from his travels to Mexico City. After walking the streets of Mexico’s capital and exploring its street food scene he decided that he wanted to bring a taste of Mexico to Harlem; a neighborhood that he fell in love with during his studies at Fordham University in the Bronx. Oso delivers a unique ambiance; boasting a rustic but modern feel with exposed brick walls and a huge graffiti mural. The old school hip-hop, soul, and jazz music that plays throughout the restaurant creates a very chill atmosphere. The menu, which is centered on shareable dishes, features south-of-the-border favorites like tacos, tamales, and enchiladas.
We recently chatted with Trebek about the inspiration behind Oso, how the Harlem community has had an influence on his business, and the ups and downs that come with pursuing a career in the hospitality industry. Check out the interview below!
What inspired you to create Oso?
It was something that my business partner Nodar and I talked about for a while. He and I met about seven years ago bartending and we both have always shared the same passion and wanted to stay in this industry. When I started bartending, I fell in love with the aspects of the restaurant industry; aspects related to design and creating an experience around a restaurant. We wanted to create a Mexican restaurant in particular because I’m from Los Angeles, where Mexican street food is popular, and after moving out here to New York I noticed there wasn’t a whole lot going on in that specific scene. There’s great Mexican food tucked away in certain places throughout the neighborhood, but we really wanted to create a unique experience around the cuisine.
Why did you choose to open it in Hamilton Heights?
I went to school at Fordham University in the Bronx and after graduating I had a lot of friends who moved to the Hamilton Heights neighborhood so I spent a ton of time there. I fell in love with the neighborhood. I think the architecture is extremely amazing. It’s a really great community. We liked this space because it’s right across the street from City College which is something beautiful to look out to. With other restaurants like The Grange and Coccola, which is now FUMO, we saw the emergence of something special in this neighborhood and we thought it would be a great location.
How did you come up with the menu? What are the most popular menu items?
The menu is inspired by my travels to Mexico. We wanted it to reflect Mexican street food so I spent a lot of time walking around different neighborhoods in Mexico City; exploring different markets trying to see what elements would go well with our menu. It’s Mexican street food brought to a Harlem kitchen.
As far as popular menu items, we have a mole taco which is really good. Mole is a unique ingredient. We use it two different ways; on a taco and in a flauta. Our enchiladas are also a crowd pleaser as well. We don’t have too many large plates. We wanted to stay more focused on small plates and stuff that is a little bit more shareble. That’s why we decided to sell our tacos à la carte.
How has the local community had an influence on your business?
The community has been very supportive. We have a ton of regulars that come here. Ever since we opened our doors, we were really supported by our neighbors. Folks who lived a few blocks away from Oso started stopping by and it slowly grew from there. It’s been great because we’ve gotten to know everybody. The people who started stopping by when we first opened have grown to become like our family.
What was the hardest part about getting Oso off the ground?
For Oso in particular, the build out took a long time. It just seemed like there was always that next hurdle. But I feel like if you stick with it and try to see that light at the end of the tunnel, even when it can seem very distant, things will work out. It’s important to keep going. The hospitality industry requires long hours and lots of hard work, but I love what I do.
What is one of the major elements that goes into creating a unique dining experience at Oso?
When you’re planning to open a business like this, a lot of the focus is on creating an experience and a particular vibe for the restaurant. A major part of that is the music. We really wanted to curate a specific sound for this restaurant with old school hip-hop and funk tunes mixed with a little jazz and house music.