There seems to be converse relationship between high-quality, authentic Mexican dishes and hipness of location.
To find food so fresh individual flavors announce themselves instead of fading into a chili-cumin-garlic background, one should visit Cielito Lindo, housed in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in East Sacramento, and now Nixtaco, which sits in a modest shopping center, next to a dog groomer and across from a martial-arts studio, in a tidy, older part of Roseville.
At Nixtaco – like Cielito Lindo owned by a chef who got his culinary start in his native Mexico – the lime zings as roasted peppers delve into pockets of earthiness not found at Oak Park hot spot La Venadita nor at the shiny-new, arena-near cantina El Rey.
That’s just in Nixtaco’s chips and salsa, which buck the La Venadita-El Rey trend by costing nothing. Chips and salsa might seem minor players in a Mexican meal, but they form one’s first impression of a restaurant. Nixtaco makes a great one, with a salsa bar that holds lively, expertly salt-balanced roasted tomato salsa, two kinds of salsa verde – wonderfully tart and tangy and tart/tangy/scorching – and a smoky, creamy chipotle peanut sauce.
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Nixtaco chef/co-owner and Monterrey, Mexico, native Patricio Wise also furnishes the salsa bar with pickled red onions that pierce that particular condiment’s ubiquity in local restaurants by using a lime instead of vinegar. Still slightly crisp, their salt and acidity trading turns as lead element, these onions improve the flavor of everything they touch.
Nixtaco, a mostly counter-service taqueria (with full-ish service at the bar) wins you over before first bite of taco or burrito, just as a space. Though undeniably strip-mall-esque, it occupies the many-windowed corner of that mall. The sunlight suffusing the place during the day highlights cool touches such as hacienda-pink paint on some walls and subway-style white tile behind the wood-topped bar.
In the evening, the place takes on more of a hideaway vibe, especially when one sits at the bar, drinking local, craft beer as the sound system plays ranchera and Johnny Cash. The sodas are good, too: A case full of Jarritos and bottled Mexican Cokes sits next to a self-serve fountain dispersing sodas into memory-stirring, plastic red Coca-Cola cups – emblem of many a Californian’s Mexican-restaurant-going youth.
But the taste memories these cups evoke, of sweet red sauces and mounds of Jack cheese, do not exist at Nixtaco, which serves small, street-style tacos and modest-size burritos featuring satisfying portions of high-quality meats but no shredded iceberg or other fillers. Wise his wife and Nixtaco co-owner, Cinthia Martinez, further distinguish themselves by offering Monterrey favorites such as hearty roasted bone marrow and shrimp aguachile verde – raw shrimp submerged in lime juice and poured onto fried corn tortillas that are served on the side and absorb some, but not too much, of the creation’s acidic prickle.
This is what people eat back home at Saturday brunch, after a night of clubbing, said Wise and Martinez, who moved to Roseville after Wise took a high-finance job here in 2010. He quit that job not long after opening Nixtaco in June.
He taught himself to cook while working in finance in Monterrey, opening and then selling a steak and seafood restaurant before moving here. He and Martinez first floated the Nixtaco idea – and found a following – as a pop-up at Placer County farmers markets.
The markets were an appropriate start for a taqueria that hews fresh and local, grinds heirloom Mexican corn for its tortillas in-house, and prices its food accordingly.
Nixtaco’s tacos, served on 4.5-inch tortillas, run $3.50-$4.50, though there are deals when ordering multiples. And warning to those who experience sticker shock at seeing double figures on a taqueria menu: Burritos cost $10, and the bone marrow and shrimp aguachile verde $12 each.
Those corn tortillas, solid but malleable and well-balanced in salt and sweetness, offer a freshness level otherwise unavailable outside of someone’s mom’s kitchen. They taste best when wrapped around the contents of a rajas con queso taco.
To make the rajas con queso, Wise chars poblano peppers until they are burnt, before ripping the char from the flesh, julienning that flesh and roasting it with Oaxaca cheese, crema and white corn.
The fresh white corn and the tortilla’s dried yellow kernels recognize each other as relatives, judging from how well their flavors merge. Rajas con queso and tortilla also mingle happily in a combination taco that also holds shrimp, chipotle peanut sauce and Nixtaco’s most magical ingredient, chicharron.
Made from pork belly, the chicharron tastes more like meat than the pure fat of the pork-rind snack the Spanish name evokes. But Wise mimics the rinds by roasting the pork at a high temperature until its crisps, before dicing it and sautéing it in flavor-sparking salsa verde. The meat’s texture, tanginess and fat content (still plentiful even after the roasting renders a lot of it off) captivate equally.
The chicharron impressed in tacos, and in a burrito made with a flour tortilla from Mi Rancho of San Leandro that also comes with a layer of griddled cheese and smear of refried black beans. Perfectly sized – long but not “super burrito” fat – this burrito also benefited from its outside being browned on the grill.
Though Nixtaco’s name clearly indicates its specialty, I preferred that burrito to a few of the menu’s tacos. The braised barbacoa (short rib) and asado norteño (stewed pork) tasted overly fatty and lacked much dimension beyond guajillo chili and oregano flavors. And although the house-made chorizo in the queso fundido-and-chorizo starter revealed lively clove allspice accents, the dish was far too oily.
The masa gets thicker, and Wise’s creativity reaches its height, in the “Nixtaco poached egg,” a Scotch egg-like item exclusive to the Sunday brunch menu, in which the masa envelops barbacoa (better here than alone) that in turn ensconces an egg. Green and red salsa served on the plate cut the richness, and Wise eludes that curse of the Scotch egg, of at least one element tasting stale or lukewarm, by cooking everything perfectly. The barbacoa is tender, the egg soft and creamy and the masa tamale pie-esque in width and moisture level.
Wise and his kitchen staff also whip up some of the region’s best chilaquiles at brunch. Fried corn strips retain their firmness under a tasty attack of salsa verde, burrata, crema and pickled onion. Oh, and chicharron, which Wise suggested as an add-on to the vegetarian base dish, correctly guessing this was an option I could never refuse.
1805 Cirby Way, suite 12, Roseville, nixta.co, 916-771-4165
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays
Beverage options: Local, craft beers on tap. Canned and bottled Mexican and domestic beers. One red, one white and one sparkling wine. Jarritos sodas, Mexican Coke, and fountain sodas.
Vegetarian friendly: Not especially, but Wise will adapt dishes to order. What menu options there are – including a rajas con queso taco, burrata appetizer and chilaquiles (at brunch), are scrumptious.
Gluten-free options: Many
Noise level: Moderate, though you notice the music
Ambiance: This corner space in a Roseville shopping center is light and airy by day and cozy by night, especially in the bar area.
Overall ☆☆☆ 1/2
Mexican-born chef Patricio Wise’s flavors are bold and fresh. The space invites and the service is top-notch.
Food ☆☆☆ 1/2
The fresh-tasting corn tortillas are made from heirloom kernels ground in-house, and the chicharron (pork belly cooked in salsa verde) was stellar in every form we tried – taco, burrito, quesadilla and atop chilaquiles. The Scotch-egg-style “Nixtaco poached egg” is a revelation, and Monterrey, Mexico, favorites such as roasted bone marrow and shrimp aguachile verde impressed as well. A few items were too fatty and/or lacked sufficient flavor definition.
Friendly, informed and unusually interactive for a counter-service place. Staff members, including Wise, check up on diners at tables, and one gets full service at the bar, apart from self-service trips to the salsa bar and soda fountain.
Prices are not cheap for a taqueria. but fit a place that serving such authentic dishes and uses high-quality ingredients.