The meaty insides of cubed and caramelized butternut squash burst into a savory-sweet salve tempering the snap of pickled fresno chilies awash in lacto-fermented hot sauce. Crunchy shaved scallions create a vegetal glow over the toasty nickel-sized slices of fingerling potatoes and a hefty but pliant corn tortilla ($6).
You might not expect this layering of flavors and textures in a taco, but the modern taco movement has expanded how we think of the form, exploding the modest taco, often reliant on a simpler roster of ingredients, and exploring the culinary possibilities. Nowhere in Austin is that celebration and examination more exciting than it is at Nixta Taqueria.
Chef Edgar Rico and partner Sara Mardanbigi opened the small, vibrant taqueria in East Austin in early October and have already ascended to the top tier of the city’s taco game. Or maybe we should call it the tortilla game. Because they also make some killer tostadas. Nixta sources heirloom corn from James Brown’s Barton Springs Mill, along with blue corn driven up weekly from Oaxaca, to form the palette of Rico’s colorful and tasty creations.
And they’re even finding a way to please those with dietary restrictions. That divine butternut squash taco? It’s gluten free and vegan, as is an astounding beet tostada ($6.50). The ruby jewels are tossed in a nutty salsa macha aioli creamy with nut butter, showered with shaved horseradish, draped by bitter micro greens and set atop a crackling yellow corn tostada spread with bright avocado crema. It’s one of the best vegan dishes I’ve eaten this year.
Rico, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has worked in the kitchens of the celebrated Son of a Gun, Sqrl and Trois Mec in Los Angeles, and staged at world-renowned Pujol in Mexico City. Those experiences inform the artisanal approach to the tortillas Nixta makes with corn nixtamalized in house and the thoughtfulness of tacos like one featuring velvety strips of yellowfin tuna cured in citrus and soy and worthy of a white tablecloth ($8). The fish, layered over fanned slices of avocado set on a Oaxacan blue corn tortilla, is dappled with furikake and spread with a dusky chipotle mayonnaise (that I wish was dialed back about 20 percent).
Wondering "Where’s the meat?" Don’t worry, there’s something for everyone — though I’d be remiss not to give at least a passing mention to the vegetarian sweet potato taco ($6) warmed by nutty sweetness from a pecan and guajillo salsa. At the opposite end of the light-heavy spectrum from the tuna sits a quesadilla packed with layers of toasty panela cheese that sandwiches chorizo for a gooey and delicious mess. Chorizo is pureed and blended with potato for creamy mixture at the center of another taco slathered with duck fat refried beans ($6), the dish an homage to Rico’s family home in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.
There’s a lot going on with almost every dish here. But I love the food for its satisfying, comforting and exciting flavors, not solely for its fantastic intricacies. And while you don’t need to know all of the details behind technique or a list of every ingredient, Mardanbigi and her small team of front of house staffers will explain each dish, right down to the chamoy-seasoned pineapple that dots an avocado palleta for dessert ($5). Working in the tight space colored with white tile and a brilliant corn mural and decorated with Mexican folk art pieces, the team exudes a level of hospitality one rarely finds at a counter-service restaurant (now if they could just get bigger napkins).
I know some of you read this review and hit those parenthetical price points like speed bumps, especially if you frequent the taquerias and taco trucks that have long made East Austin home. Six dollars for a taco? Eight dollars for a tostada? Yes. And they’re worth it. You’re paying for creativity, craftsmanship and the kind of attention to detail and man hours required to make duck confit with bone-deep flavor ($8).
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