As my colleague Patricia Sharpe can attest, Nixta Taqueria is one of the hottest taco spots in Austin. The small restaurant on the East Side was one of my most anticipated openings of 2019—after reading reports that it was to open over the summer, I would message owners Edgar Rico and Sara Mardanbigi via their Instagram account ahead of each trip to Austin, only to be let down. So, when they finally opened in October, imagine my disappointment when it didn’t live up to my expectations. Though the beet tostada was thick and substantial enough to evoke meatiness, it was drenched in a finishing aioli that coated my fingers and slid down my palm. The thick oil was difficult to wipe off. The finishing oils were applied to almost every dish I tried. Then came the duck carnitas taco, from which a cascade of fatty juice splashed onto my plate before I could even take a bite. The tender meat’s quiet sweetness couldn’t overcome the taco’s faults, which included the stale aftertaste of the corn tortilla (not just in this dish, but in the other tacos as well). Luckily, this visit turned out to be a fluke and a lesson in giving a new place time to work out the kinks (and the corn).
Shortly after that initial visit, Nixta was blanketed in adulation by the local media. Did they get it wrong, or did I? When I returned in December, it was to a seemingly different restaurant. It was all I had hoped it would be: innovative and an honest homage to the owners’ diverse backgrounds—Rico’s family comes from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, and Mardanbigi’s heritage is Persian—while displaying respect for and understanding of the traditions of Mexican cuisines. It’s in the name, after all. (Nixta refers to nixtamalization, the ancient process by which corn is cooked and soaked in an alkaline liquid that separates the outer hull from the rest of the kernel and releases trapped nutrients.) I visited three times in 24 hours, and each time I came away with the same impression: Nixta Taqueria is downright delightful.
The beet tostada’s oiliness was reined in (Rico—an alum of such lauded kitchens such as Sqirl, in Los Angeles, and Pujol, in Mexico City—told me that finishing oils were one of his signature techniques). The crisped tortilla was snappy and fresh. The duck was still juicy, but the cascade was restrained to a trickle. My favorite of the menu items, which include a stable of five anchor dishes and a few rotating specials, remains the flagship enchilada potosina taco. This one is different from the taco potosino I loved so much at the Plaza Restaurant in Childress. Nixta Taqueria’s version is nothing like that, but it’s just as exceptional. Served open-faced, the taco isn’t so much an enchilada potosina as it is an interpretation of the dish.
“If you were to go to the city of San Luis Potosí and ask for an enchilada potosina, it would just be folded over and there would be, like, cheese in it, as well as a little bit of crema and queso fresco,” Rico says. “Some people put avocado on it. But there are different takes, different subregions. Everyone has their own style. The way we’re emulating it is specific to [the region of the] Huasteca, where my parents are from.”
Salsa de chile guajillo is worked into the masa before the tortilla is pressed and cooked. It comes to the table as a disc of shimmering red that is given a swoosh of duck-fat refried beans, sweet and smooth, upon which rest heavy-handed plops of chorizo-potato purée. A pyramid of striking purple cabbage draped with a roasted salsa roja caps the taco. Crumbles of queso enchilada, a chile-rubbed aged cow’s milk cheese, are liberally sprinkled over the composition, coming to rest between the ribbons of cabbage. It takes a moment to figure out how to approach folding and lifting the taco. From the back? From the front? The side? Maybe two—using both hands? Just grab hold and enjoy the funky, deep flavors.
It’s the tortilla and the cheese that bring the flavors and textures into sync. The chewy tortilla is made with corn from Barton Springs Mill, in Dripping Springs. The cheese comes from farther away.
“It’s from only one guy in one market in a town called Rio Verde, which is in San Luis Potosí as well,” Rico says. “The cheese, there’s just something about it. Everyone in the state knows about the cheese. Anytime [my family is] down there, they always bring it back with them in bulk. You can’t find anything that similar to that flavor here in the U.S.” The cheese is formed into a wheel, similar to Parmesan, and rubbed with a blend of red chiles. It’s then aged three to five years.
Ultimately, the enchilada potosina taco is a contemporary homage to Rico’s ancestral home, where people are known for working long hours, he says. “So at the end of the day, it’s more like a really hearty meal … packaged into one kind of thing.” We could all be so lucky to eat one of Nixta’s enchilada potosina tacos at the end of every day.