When it came to Portlanders lamenting about the lack of good ethnic cuisine, Mexican fare comes in a close second to Chinese. Sure there are plenty of great carts and inexpensively passable local chains, but outside of one or two standouts, many found it hard to find truly refined Mexican food in Portland. That is until Xico came along.
Opened in 2012, Xico brings the flair of traditional Mexican cooking to welcoming Portlander palates. Chef Kelly Myers runs the kitchen and is co-owner with Liz Davis. Myers and Davis originally met at Nostrana, where Myers worked as an opening-day chef and Davis as a general manager.
Quickly becoming friends, they decided to open a restaurant of their own. Although they didn’t know exactly what the restaurant would be like, they knew they wanted a homemade tortilla program to equal the bread-baking operations of any top Italian or French restaurant.
They would end up taking research trips to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. After getting a taste of American Mexican, they jaunted off to Mexico, where they toured Mexico City, Oaxaca, Puebla and Veracruz.
A molino is a five-horsepower device used for smashing corn into masa. It is the Mexican basis for amazing tortillas. In their quest to create the best tortillas Portland has ever tasted, Myers and Davis purchased one and flew down to Mexico to learn how to use it, at one point even using a water chisel to carve out measured grooves in its volcanic grinding stones.
As Myers operates the machine, fine yellow powder cascades from the bottom. The air is thick with the smell of cordite and corn. Once extricated from the machine, the masa is squeezed until it morphs into a palm-shaped globule of delicious Play-Doh.
You can count on one hand the number of restaurants in America that nixtamalize and grind their own corn for truly traditional tortillas. Fortunately for us, one happens to be in Portland.
In case you’re wondering, Xico recently secured a new, organic, non-GMO corn supplier for their tortillas. Myers and Davis pride themselves on serving up Portland traditions of clean, sustainable food.
Judging by Xico’s success, it appears their efforts have paid off. Upon entering Xico, you are greeted by clean lines, white walls, and a pale marble bar. The roof is composed of X-shaped ceiling slats. The space itself is a repurposed ground floor of a house on Southeast Division.
Paper marigolds and luminescent wax paintings giving the room a solidly traditional feel. Holy white candles sit next to pewter pitchers bursting with fresh flowers. The smell of warm tortillas assaults your senses in the best kind of way.
If Xico is known for something other than its tasty food, it’s for their healthy selection of mezcals. For the uninitiated, mezcal is a liquor fermented from the maguey plant, which is a form of agave – although not the same agave used to make tequila. In Mexico, mezcal is generally consumed straight-up and has strong smoky notes.
Xico’s mezcal offerings would likely rival those of the Mexican Presidential Palace. You might try one from their private selection, a mix of propriety blends and infusions combined with wild agave. According to their menu, they are made in very small batches and sourced directly from the producer.
Their liquor menu is so extensive it may take a few rounds of your server visiting before you’ve even decided what to drink, let alone eat. They feature 29 mezcal varieties, plus a number of tequilas and other popular liquors.
Their vast repository of mezcal is rivaled only by their dizzying selection of chiles, represented in over 17 different varieties. So, after you’ve wet your palate with an exotic Mexican liquor, it’s time to eat.
Start with a fresh round of smoldering chili-glazed tortilla chips with cojita cheese. You won’t be able to eat it fast enough. Another variety offers fresh tortilla chips smothered in chile de arbol salsa.
A simple tostada is elevated to excellence with fresh, lime-drenched halibut. Fried capers add a zing that’ll leave your eyes glazed over in their wake.
Imagine a posole, but instead of the usual pig’s head, you get a whole trout draped over a citrus and ancho-chile broth; a broth so good you’d be happy to swim in it.
Xico’s carnitas are something other-worldly. Succulent, locally-sourced pork shoulder is simmered in its own fat until it crisps up and is served with fresh (organic) avocado, grilled spring onions, chicharrones and pinquito beans. A variety of salsas rounds out the meal, one of which is a rich, brown slurry composed of toasted peppers and caramelized onions.
Pastry chef Mindy Keith capably helms the final course. Complete the meal with a dessert composed of a dark chocolate-dipped ovoid of fresh sliced coconut, ripe almonds, and plump raisins. If that’s too much for you to contemplate, simplify things with a dark chocolate cake with passion fruit ganache.
As for what’s next, Myers and Davis don’t say. For now they are focused on making sure Xico delivers on its promise of affordable, traditional Mexican fair. Considering The Oregonian recently declared them “2015 Cuisine of the Year,” they appear to be making good on their promises.
Xico is open Sunday through Thursday from 5:00pm to 10:00pm and on Friday and Saturday until 11:00pm. They are located at 2715 SE Division Street, Portland, Oregon, 97202. For menu or reservation information, visit their website at www.xicopdx.com or give them a call at 503.548.6343.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.