Meet Flor Xakali, Nixta Taqueria’s Tasting Menu Dinner Series
Austin's popular taqueria takes you on a culinary journey through Mexico, the US, and beyond with a new omakase menu
Austinites who love delicious, inventive, and homegrown food already tend to be huge fans of Nixta Taqueria, the casual East Austin restaurant where executive chef (and James Beard Award winner) Edgar Rico and his wife and co-owner Sara Mardanbigi serve lively and contemporary spins on classic Mexican dishes in a charmingly quirky space. Nixta has proudly operated under a no-reservations policy since it first opened, but they’ve now launched a dining activation for those who don’t mind planning ahead: Flor Xakali, a tasting menu experience guided by Chef Rico which features dishes inspired by Rico’s heritage and childhood.
Flor Xakali is the new occupant of Nixta’s front patio space.
“Flor Xakali” is a name that honors two major sources of inspiration for this culinary adventure. “Flor” is the first name of Rico’s mother, whose home recipes and commitment to cooking with local produce instilled a deep love of food in her son. “Xakali” is a term from the Nahuatl language (an Indigenous language dating back to pre-Hispanic times) that means “shelter”, expressing Rico’s view of food as a provider of comfort, warmth, and a sense of home.
Nixta’s front patio space, which has historically been used for special/private events and general crowd overflow, is the host location for Flor Xakali, and its decor very much reflects that new identity. Brightly-painted murals cover the walls, corn garlands (made from corn kernels and husks used by the Nixta kitchen) drape across the ceilings, and tumbleweeds personally foraged by Rico and Mardanbigi in West Texas hang over the tables. Speaking of the tables, the seating arrangement at Flor Xakali is designed to encourage guest communication; solo diners and parties of two are often seated together at bigger tables in the interest of serving Flor Xakali’s “family style” dining vision.
That family theme also carries through to the service, as all guests are warmly greeted and seated by Mardanbigi herself. Rico comes out to introduce each dish and share some details on how said dish relates to his culinary story and that of his ancestors.
The menu features seven courses that combine to create a “love letter” to Chef Edgar Rico’s childhood.
While Flor Xakali plans to function as a highly seasonal restaurant and will therefore likely change its menu up depending on the harvest, its current version takes diners on a seven-course journey that highlights summer produce grown in Nixta’s on-site garden. Rico told us that an appreciation for fresh and local fruits and vegetables came from both his mom and his abuela, who immigrated from Mexico to Salinas, California, an area known as “the Salad Bowl of America”. “75% of large corporate farms are all out there. As you drive for miles and miles on end, you see nothing but farms out there,” Rico explained. His abuela worked in those fields, and when Rico joined her at work as a kid, he took note of the strength and focus required to harvest quality produce, and that experience inspired him to set up a garden at Nixta.
The first course was a “Snack” plate filled with bite-sized treats and accompanied by a palate cleansing drink made with prickly pear. “Prickly pear” is also known as “nopales fruit”, as it grows on the nopales cactus (which, incidentally, are prominently displayed throughout the Flor Xakali patio). The bright, tangy, deep magenta liquid whetted our appetites for the array of small bites, which included a deeply-savory mini taco filled with venison barbacoa, a tostada topped with matcha-marinated nopales (resulting in a bright and herbaceous flavor profile), and “Huevos A La Mexicana”, a creamy egg custard served in an egg shell with caviar at the bottom, which brought a pleasant salinity to the palate when we stirred the egg’s contents and took a bite.
Rico told us early in the meal that frijoles (beans) were a crucial element of his family’s diet when he was growing up, so he of course wanted to include a frijoles course at Flor Xakali. For this dish, “I used seven different kinds of heirloom beans cooked seven different ways,” Rico explained. In addition to the beans themselves, the frijoles plate included buffalo milk “nata”, a foam made from fresh and unpasteurized milk. “The fat naturally separates, and you have a nice layer at the top. That was always the treat for us; I have vivid memories of myself going and eating these beans with cream always at the table,” Rico said. The nata lent a hint of sweetness to the earthy beans, while the duck consomme poured over the top made each bite feel rich and indulgent.
Next, we got a “masa tart”, which many of us were already primed to anticipate; Rico and his team are famous for their use of nixtamalization, or the process of soaking and breaking down corn kernels to make the masa used for excellent corn tortillas. The tiny, crispy tart shell contained a layer of fresh guacamole, tiny slices and slivers of veggies from the Nixta garden, and colorful edible flowers. The guac had an aromatic, almost minty quality to it, which blended brilliantly with the crispy vegetables and the nutty masa. Rico served the tart on top of a leaf of hoja santa, an herb native to Central and Southern Mexico that tastes like a cross between freshly-mowed grass and birch bark.
Masa also made an appearance in Rico’s take on a gordita. Rico topped a plush masa cake with a version of al pastor that swapped in marinated carrots for the typical pork. Both from a texture perspective and from a flavor perspective, the carrots pulled off their al pastor transformation with a meaty substance in each bite and a satisfying level of tang and spice. The masa flavor anchored the entire dish, while a zesty salsa and slices of sweet and refreshing pink pineapple added to the overall balance.
The fifth course involved Rico’s cheffy interpretation of one of his favorite childhood snacks: rajas con queso, or cheese-stuffed poblano peppers. He roasted his poblanos over mesquite wood, which infused them with a dusky smokiness. Sweet cippolini onions also got the mesquite-smoke treatment, and a silky blanket of Gruyère cheese brought just enough saltiness into the flavor equation.
The last savory dish came in the form of a skin-on cut of snapper that had been expertly crisped and then plated with salsa Veracruzana and a wedge of lime. The salsa’s smokiness was tempered by sweetness and richness from coconut cream, and the bright zing of the fresh lime juice livened up the plate and allowed each individual flavor to really sing.
Flor Xakali’s nostalgic theme was delivered loud and clear in the final course, which consisted of a masa cake with a fruit medley of prickly pear and cherries covered in a dome of chocolate “Magic Shell”. All of the Gen Xers and Millennials on the patio took huge pleasure in cracking the shells with our spoons (just as we did with Magic Shell as kids!) and enjoying the way in which the dark chocolate worked with the corn flavor of the masa and the refreshing sweet-tart taste of the fruit.
Guests can order beverages a la carte or sign up for the carefully-curated wine pairing.
Nixta is a beer-and-wine-only establishment, and that rule also applies to Flor Xakali. But there’s no need to worry that you’ll be missing out on anything, because the Nixta team takes enormous pride in its wine program. They specialize in low-intervention “natural” wines, and Flor Xakali’s guests can opt for a curated selection of wine pairings designed to suit the dishes on the menu. A sparkling Xinomavro rosé from Greece, a light Txakolina from the Basque Country in Spain, a skin-contact “orange” wine made with Roussanne and Vermentino grapes grown in Provence, France, and an Italian-inspired “Dolcetto Barbera” made with Nebbiolo grapes from California were the choices offered during the night of our visit, and guests who didn’t select the wine pairing could order glasses a la carte. Other beverage possibilities included Modelo beer, non-alcoholic wines, pineapple tepache (a fermented beverage native to Mexico), and a seasonal agua fresca.
With Flor Xakali, Chef Edgar, Sara, and their talented team at Nixta are elevating this spot’s already impressive reputation for top-notch ingredients, dishes that tell a story, and friendly and knowledgeable hospitality. The next time you need a one-of-a-kind restaurant for a celebratory meal or you just want a chance to break out of your usual dining patterns, be sure to grab a reservation for Flor Xakali!