Patricio Wise, co-owner of the new Roseville taqueria Nixtaco, sets lofty culinary goals. But these days, they’re simply high rather than close to impossible.
Wise, 33, has built a career in banking and high finance, first in his native Monterrey, Mexico, and now in Roseville, where he moved in 2010. “But food has been my passion for as long as I can remember,” he said.
He learned basics from family members as a kid. In his mid-20s, he became more serious, and set about teaching himself to cook via “The French Laundry Cookbook.” He and his wife, Cinthia Martinez, 33, started a private supper club, based on those complex Thomas Keller recipes, in Monterrey, a large, industry-heavy northeastern Mexican city that at the time was light on fine-dining options, Wise said.
“I picked five (French Laundry) dishes, and well, I was learning to cook, and it was a very enlightening experience,” Wise said with a laugh while standing behind the counter of Nixtaco, a cleanly designed, modern-looking 58-seat space in an unassuming shopping center on Cirby Way. “I was close to saying, ‘Let’s just order some pizza.’ ”
Wise “pulled through” and completed the dishes, which he served to members of the dining club, all friends. But he recognized he “couldn’t follow those recipes without some foundations,” he said. So he bought Culinary Institute of America textbooks to study.
The dinner parties became weekly events with a four-month waiting list. Wise eventually opened a steak and seafood restaurant in Monterrey, where reality once again set in.
“Barbecue is very big in Monterrey, but they like skirt steak well done,” Wise said. At his steakhouse, “I was trying to introduce a properly cooked steak – two inches (thick) medium rare.” Yet some customers still ordered their steaks Monterrey-style. Wise, now officially in the hospitality business, would comply, though “something would cringe up inside me when (a customer) would order a rib-eye well-done,” he said.
But Wise had turned other diners into fans of pink-in-the-middle, quality steak – all while maintaining his job in finance. In 2010, he took another job in that field in Roseville, where he and Martinez live with their three young children.
Now Wise is out to convert people who equate Mexican food with enchilada plates smothered in jack cheese to try Nixtaco’s artisanal menu, which features tortillas made fresh from heirloom Mexican corn, queso fundido with cheese from Placer County’s Long Dream Farm, and aguichile verde, a ceviche-like dish of raw shrimp and tomatillo and red onion pickled in lime.
Tacos are $3.50. Fillings include asado norteño (pork shoulder), rajas con queso (poblano peppers with corn, cream and cheese) and chicken with a 50-plus-ingredient mole sauce that’s made in-house. Plus two Monterrey favorites altered slightly due to ingredient availability – chicharrón, with pork belly instead of pork jowl, and barbacoa made from short-rib rather than cow’s head.
Wise came to Roseville for his job as head of market risk and trading for TRC Trading Corp. But his love for food traveled with him to the Sacramento region, whose Mexican offerings were unlike those in Monterrey. So he’s now juggling a full-time job – which he works from early morning until mid-afternoon on weekdays – with family responsibilities and running a restaurant to try to deliver Mexican cuisine that Wise said is “not like everybody else’s.”
Here, it’s “either American chains or American chain wannabes,” Wise said. “Or a restaurant owned by a family who are probably second- or third-generation (descendants) of immigrants from the (western) regions of Jalisco or Michoacán … who came up to work the farms. And that’s good – I love carnitas. But it’s all the same.”
Nixtaco’s limited menu offers items “like we would eat in Monterrey,” Wise said. Those include dishes originally from Oaxaca (mole) and Mazatlán (the aguichile verde and “Mazatlán style” shrimp tacos) that have become common in Monterrey restaurants over the years.
Wise and Martinez began seeking restaurant spaces in 2014, without success, because many shopping centers already have Mexican restaurants, and noncompetition rules, in place, Wise said. So they catered, and set up a 10-by-10-foot tent under which they served tacos at farmers markets in Auburn and Granite Bay. They finally snagged the Cirby Way spot, formerly home to a Thai restaurant, in December.
Nixtaco had built enough buzz as a brand by then that the line of customers was out the door when the taqueria opened. They also had received help, along the way, from a key player in the region’s restaurant scene: Mike Fagnoni, executive chef and co-owner of Hawks in Granite Bay and Hawks Provisions and Public House in Sacramento.
Fagnoni and Wise are friends who first met through a CrossFit program and both frequented Roseville’s Final Gravity Tap Room & Bottle Shop. When Wise needed a commissary for his pop-up and catering business, he used the Granite Bay Hawks kitchen. Through this arrangement, Fagnoni now has a stake in Nixtaco.
Fagnoni said he has been too busy with getting the 7-month-old Sacramento Hawks up and running to take more than an advisory role thus far, but that he plans to become more active with Nixtaco in the future.
“It’s definitely a different style than any taqueria in California,” Fagnoni said. Wise is “grinding his own mole, and using meats that you are not classically going to get. … And I don’t know of anybody else buying and cooking their own corn and then grinding it and making fresh tortillas anywhere in the region.”
Through a company called Masienda that also supplies culinary hotspots such as Broken Spanish and Taco Maria in Southern California and Cosme in New York City, Wise gets heirloom corn that is dried in its stalks before individual kernels are removed and placed in bags like those stacked near the kitchen at Nixtaco. Wise cooks the corn in water with lime (calcium oxide) at night and then rinses it and grinds it in a special volcanic rock mill. Every tortilla is made to order on Nixtaco’s grill.
The taqueria’s name, Wise said, is a portmanteau of “nixtamal” – or “tortillas made from real masa that hasn’t been dehydrated into a flour and then rehydrated,” he said – and taco.
“People think my name is Nick,” he said.
Martinez runs the front of the house, a role she first assumed at those supper-club dinners in Monterrey at their home. “I would come home from work at about 7 p.m., and start vacuuming, ironing the table cloths, the napkins – everything,” she said.
She was not officially part of the Monterrey steak restaurant because, she, like her husband, had two jobs at the time. She was in charge of entertainment at the Monterrey amusement park KidZania, and ran a dance studio with her sister. But she used her customer-service expertise to help train waiters at the Monterrey place, and would run the occasional errand for Wise.
Owning a restaurant was never in her plans but she’s “all in,” she said. “I support everything he does.”
The pair married eight years ago.
They both came from homes where “usually nobody” from the family cooked, Wise said: “Most households at our socioeconomic level, they have a cook and a maid.”
But on Sundays, when the extended family gathered for an after-mass meal, his mother, grandmother and, occasionally, his father cooked. He learned from all of them, Wise said.
Their families are back in Monterrey, which Wise and Martinez had wanted to leave six years ago partly because cartels were running rampant.
“Security was really bad,” Wise said. “You would hear a story about somebody who has a cousin who knew somebody who was kidnapped or killed, and then we started hearing, ‘Well, my friend got kidnapped or killed.’ Nightlife died.”
Though things since have improved, people are still cautious, he said. The nightlife scene will never be the same as it was when he and Martinez were in their early 20s. “It was like Sixth Street, in Austin (Texas, about 375 miles from Monterrey), but on steroids,” Wise said.
Some Nixtaco dishes, like bone marrow, are known as hangover remedies back home, to be consumed on a Saturday after a Friday night out. But they’re also staples of those multi-course Sunday meals with family.
To Michelle Rodgers of Antelope, dining at Nixtaco for the first time on a recent Thursday evening with her husband, Vaughn, the food just tasted of Mexico. She used to live in Veracruz, she said, but traveled to other regions.
“This is definitely northern (Mexico),” she said after sampling several tacos. “We can’t decide which (menu item) we like more. The mole isn’t overpowering, and there’s meat in the chicharrón. It’s not all fat, and it’s flavored nicely,” she said.
“You don’t get flavors like this here.”
What: Counter-service taqueria serving tacos and appetizers.
Where: 1805 Cirby Way, No. 12, Roseville
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. 11-3 p.m. Sunday
Cost: Appetizers are $12 or less. Tacos are $3.50, four for $12.50 or 12 for $36. Draft beer is $6.50 or less.
Information: nixta.co, 916-771-4165