East Austin Gem Nixta Taqueria Will Lift Your Spirits with Artful Tacos
Tribeza’s Food Critic says the “inventive, elevated” tacos make her taste buds “dance with joy”
By Karen O. Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
I’d had a rotten day. My computer crashed, my husband was cranky, and it was pouring rain. Something had to change. So I headed for lunch at Nixta Taqueria, where the clouds parted, the sun shone and my day began to turn around.
Nixta is my happy place. With outstanding food, a cheerful ambiance and welcoming staff, it always puts a smile on my face. But it’s my taste buds that really dance with joy. Nixta’s artfully crafted tacos are unlike any other. Although served in a casual barrio setting, the food is complex and sophisticated, boasting top-quality ingredients transformed into culinary works of art. If you’re looking for quick, cheap tacos, look elsewhere. But if inventive, elevated tacos pique your interest, read on.
Nixta is the brainchild of co-owners Edgar Rico and Sara Mardanbigi, a cool and clever couple with style and swagger to spare. They opened the taqueria in 2019, quickly garnering national acclaim from the New York Times and Food & Wine magazine, which named it one of the best new restaurants last year. At Nixta, they combine old and new by featuring classic Mexican tacos infused with flavors from Texas, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and beyond. The ingredients are wildly creative, but the tortillas are the star. Nixta gets its name from nixtamalization, the ancient soaking process used to prepare maize for tortillas. Only Mexican heritage corn is used in their tortillas, which are made using traditional techniques. They’re so corn-crazy at Nixta that one exterior wall features an enormous mural of Chicomecóatl, the Aztec god of maize.
The small menu consists of about a dozen tacos. All, of course, are served on homemade corn tortillas. Many are meat-free, but it’s not any sort of dietary statement; they just love veggies and really know how to showcase them. The beet “tartare” tostada has got to be one of the most creative, colorful and delicious tacos in Austin. Rosy red beets are roasted until tender, then finely julienned, piled atop a scoop of whipped avocado crema and crowned with delicate microgreens, salsa macha aioli, fresh grated horseradish and a squeeze of lime. Served on a crispy blue-corn tortilla, this vibrant tostada is an instant classic.
Other standouts include the duck carnitas taco: shredded duck confit folded into a soft blue-corn tortilla and garnished with salsa cruda, cilantro and shaved radish and onions. Juices from this succulent taco will run down your arm and you will love it. The tuna tostada is a Mexico-meets-Japan mashup that will delight any sushi lover. Slivered sashimi-grade yellowfin is cured in citrus and soy, then layered upon sliced avocado and topped with chipotle mayo, microgreens and a dusting of furikake seasoning. And don’t ignore the bean-and-cheese taco, which puts pedestrian versions to shame. Luxurious duck-fat-refried beans and thick batons of panela cheese are tucked into an heirloom tortilla and griddled until warm and gooey.
Other menu options include a roasted-cauliflower taco; chorizo, potato and bean enchiladas Potosinas; and a simple but exquisite cheese quesadilla. There are usually a couple of seasonal specials like the recent smoked-cabbage taco, a delicious mess of red cabbage smoked over post oak and slathered with a finger-lickin’ “maizenaise,” vegan mayonnaise blended with pickled corn. And in the summer, there’s often an out-of-this-world cherry tomato tostada.
While you wait for your tacos, nibble on an order of the excellent tortilla chips served with dips of smoky salsa and unctuous duck-fat-refried beans. For dessert, there’s a rotating selection of refreshing homemade paletas, plus a Persian rice pudding that’s a nostalgic multicultural riff on the owners’ childhood sweets. A hybrid of flavors from Mardanbigi’s beloved Iranian sholeh zard and Rico’s favorite Mexican arroz con leche, creamy rice custard is laced with saffron, cardamom, turmeric, pistachios, cinnamon and strawberry powder.
To drink, there’s a thirst-quenching selection of bottled Mexican soft drinks like apple Sidral and mandarin Jarritos, plus horchata and seasonal agua frescas in flavors of watermelon, lime or peach. Of course, there’s local and imported beer and cider, plus a wine selection that’s as thoughtful and quirky as the restaurant itself: Sauvignon Blanc from Slovenia, sparkling rosé from Texas, vino tinto from Spain, Pinot Noir from California and an orange wine from Italy.
From the outside, Nixta looks like an unassuming funky taco joint, a squat cinder block building painted with vivid murals and surrounded by picnic tables and mismatched lawn furniture. But don’t let looks fool you: This is a high-polished gourmet experience. When I asked my husband his favorite dish, he couldn’t decide. “I’m loving everything!” he exclaimed. His cranky mood had dissipated. My spirits had lifted. Our bellies were full. Wonderful Nixta had saved the day.