After a half decade of near-operatic hype, it’s difficult not to feel blasé about Austin’s 2019 food scene. There are too many subway tiles looming over open kitchens, too many years of farm-to-table being a empty marketing selling point, too many shishito peppers blistering in the fire.
Nixta Taqueria, the humble east side concept from co-owners Edgar Rico and Sara Mardanbigi, has none of those things. A swath of cobalt blue hovers above a (square) tile wainscot with a few rogue drips. No farmers are name-dropped on the menu copy. None of the ingredients are particularly trendy.
Still, the first customer on Nixta’s opening day arrived a full hour and a half before opening on October 5. Before the end of the weekend, the restaurant had gone through over 1,000 tortillas — selling out its entire inventory, according to social media posts.
Part of that can be attributed to Rico’s resume, which includes stints at Los Angeles greats like Sun of a Gun, Sqirl, and Trois Mec. Well-timed appearances at events like Live Fire and the Austin Food and Wine Festival certainly played a part. But there’s something more for than just savvy build-up. It took a relative newcomer to mine the few scraps of authenticity left in Austin food.
By “authenticity,” I don’t mean that Nixta’s tacos bow to the theory that traditional cuisine cannot adapt. Though the eatery uses the time-honored process of nixtamilization, it also isn’t afraid to sprinkle Japanese furikake on top. Instead, the operation is idiosyncratic — a reflection of Mardanbigi and Rico’s personality whether it makes marketing sense or not.
Take the proteins used on the opening menu, noticeably missing crowdpleasers like chicken. Instead, Rico spelunks the murky depths of duck, cooking it in fat-like carnitas before laying a garland of watermelon radish, cilantro, and shaved white onion. Each bite is a nude without a fig leaf, aiming for the corporal where it could have been a thought exercise.
The vegetables similarly defy expectations. Again, the team doesn’t rest on recreating familiar recipes. While Eastern European cuisine frequently pairs horseradish with beets, the nuttiness of salsa macha and zip of lime is unexpected on a colorful tostada. Impressively, Nixta bucks back against the rage for designer meat imposters. The distinct flavors of sweet potato may be flattered with a pecan and guajillo salsa, but it’s still sweet potato at the end of the day.
With so many preening birds of paradise, it is a wise move that Nixta keeps all the other offerings nested. Dessert includes two paletas, one made with avocado and dehydrated tajin-seasoned mango chunks, and another tripling the tropical with coconut milk, cream, and chips. The drinks are whittled down to aguas frescas, beer, and natural wine.
Though such genre exercises may be currently enjoying a moment in American cuisine, Nixta is far from a jaunt through Bon Appétit’s back catalog. Without knowing the owners, guests can still sense Rico and Mardanbigi in everything they do. Like the poster of iconic performer Charo in the lively orange bathroom, it's a type of authenticity that can’t be researched.
And perhaps that’s the lesson for a town struggling to move beyond the hype. While the possibilities of food have never been more open, the enjoyment of food has never seemed academic. If Nixta can inspire Austin by sticking to what's real, maybe the city will learn to stop faking it.