THE DINING REPORT – XICO

Xico and the Man, and the Woman, and the Heath Care Insurance

I’m basically a foreign language dummy,  while I had two years of college level beginning French, and can pick out a few written words in that language, and am fine and dandy saying hola, that’s about it. IMG_3261Imagine my trepidation when I’m approaching names like Xico and Cibo, both restaurants who opened last summer in P-Town (pronounced Pee town.) Luckily, many of the foodie reference sources I scour offer pronunciation tips for people just like me (and since I’m an American, I know there are tons of folks like me with no foreign language skills) so I know that Xico is more or less Chee Ko, and that Cibo is like Chee Bo, but that brings me to another issue. What’s with these Division restaurants and their linguistically confusing names? These places are mere blocks from one another, both on the same side of Division, and they both have these Chee names that you would never guess how to say without being told first. What restaurant is coming next, Chee Toh or maybe Chee Zit? (and would those be something like Xito or Cieit?) Good questions indeed, if you’re like me and only marginally brain-functional.

Of course Cibo is Italian and follows those weird Italian linguistic rules as far as C often being pronounced CH. Some of these Mexican things are totally baffling though, I was nearly elderly before I understood that Oaxaca and people talking about wahawka actually had a connection. For sure, many of these indigenous names in Mexico are completely frightening to even consider how to pronounce, perhaps the Aztec’s joke on all us gringos and those unpleasant Spanish Conquistadors running around with chamber pots for hats. If the native peoples of Mexico and those Basque folks could just get together and form a country, that would be really interesting, as no outsider would know how to say anything (and think of the great food!) Whatever the case, Xico is a really cute little name, once you receive those pointers on how to say it right. Also, I guess Taco Bell was already taken (but really, what do tacos have to do with bells? Who thought up that ding dong name, anyway? As much sense as it makes, why didn’t they just call it Taco Donkey, or Taco Armpit, or Taco Spaceship? Those surely make as much sense (and think how cute the Taco Donkey mascot would be!  Heee haaaaw! As long as they don’t call it Donkey Taco, that’s a whole lot less desirable.))

Oh, perhaps I digress (perhaps.) Sorry Xico folk, sometimes my brain just goes into spin cycle and all reasonable thought goes flying out. (That’s right, only sometimes.) The idea behind Xico, the prodigy of two Nostrana alumni (Kelly Myers, Elizabeth Davis) is to replicate the regional Mexican cooking of areas like Oaxaca, Sonora and Vera Cruz, using the freshest local ingredients possible, and consequently supporting area farmers.IMG_3263 The Xico women are into sustainability, and their building (the 1918 Glasswood Building) was remodeled echoing many Passive House principles (the world’s most stringent energy standard) and their bottom floor space uses 60% less energy for heating and cooling. Our table was located next to the large glass window in the front of the building, and initially when I sat down on this cold winter night I found it rather chilly, but I didn’t really notice this later (the building is supposed to have airtight high-efficiency fiberglass windows) and I didn’t feel any arctic blasts when the door next to us was opened, which says something good. Dave pointed out the interesting floor, which looked like cork, and the entire restaurant, although mostly full, seemed acoustically quiet. I didn’t notice the superior air quality Xico mentions, but none of us went blue in the face and started gasping for breath during our meal, so those must be good signs. Tori said to note that the benches along the window were relatively uncomfortable to sit in for normal sized folk, something I missed by selfishly grabbing a chair on the other side of the table (after rushing like a maniac I was the first one there, so I earned it fair and square.)

As I was facing a window looking out on a ho-hum part of Division (my punishment for avoiding the torture bench) I didn’t really see much of the rest of the restaurant, except for occasional glances to check things out. My general impression, a nice, somewhat upscale space that is probably light and airy when it’s light out, with lots of white walls and splashes of color (mostly red.) Not necessarily what you would think of as decked out for Mexican food, a good thing, as we already have enough of those. They are big on hanging your coat up for you here at Xico (which is an improvement over having it slung over your chair and half on the floor) and they have all kinds of hooks on a pony wall (aw, a pony) that was right behind our table, so on the way out you can select a garment better than the one you came in with (I was wondering where that faux sable thing in my closet came from.)

IMG_3247As I alluded to before, great old pals Tori and Dave (nattily attired in his new chapeau) joined us this evening, their first RR outing this year (boy, they cut that one close, December 21st.) I know most people don’t consider someone they’ve know six years “great old pals”, but due to attrition, they are now the longest standing participating members I have. And in their case, they always make up for quantity by being quality. On this evening they brought a couple of friends along, Brian and Jenn, which was fun, as Jenn had lived in Mexico for some months, and Brian had visited China, which was great, as he sat next to Shuhong, and they had many conversations. Oh, and that David guy was there too. just a few days after reaching a Social Security milestone.

Xico is already known as being one of the few Mexican restaurants in town with a really interesting wine list, and also having a cocktail program emphasizing artisan Mezcals. I’ve read recently that one of the new trends in the cocktail movement is using Mezcal instead of tequila, so I guess Xico is very cutting edge in this respect. Mezcals, like tequilas, are made from agave plants, but in their case the Maguey agave plant, unlike tequila, which is made from the Blue Agave. The flavor of Mezcal is said to be smokier.

Xico has to be one of the only places I’ve been where there is a connection between consuming potent alcohol and good health, as their menu says “Xico’s margarita sales pay for full healthcare coverage for our staff!” Hey, everyone, become a drunkard to benefit someone else’s health! Dr. Tori couldn’t get enough drinks in her after she read this, because if she doesn’t support healthcare insurance, who will? (I’m just kidding, this woman’s a mother, for god’s sake!)

Anyway, here’s what our table imbibed in …

BORING beer and shot of Mezcal  – Unless it’s a total wine joint, the only drinks besides Rusty Nails and Rum & Cokes that David D. will drink tend to be Margaritas. Strangely, he had a beer this night (he’s had a few lately) instead of a Margarita. I guess it’s because he asked if they were sour (we had some sour ones somewhere, maybe Mextiza) and the waitress said they weren’t overly sweet, as they used fresh lime juice, not some skanky margarita mix. She did talk him into a shot of Mezcal though, which he sipped demurely.IMG_3248

Classic Xico Margarita – Lunazul tequila, fresh lime juice, Triple Sec, lime wedge, rocks. These really were not sour at all, as far as I could see. I am a person who can’t do sour or bitter, but these were a delicious blend. Jenn, Tori and I all had the Classic Margaritas, doing our exemplary part to fund health care, and enjoying these really tasty drinks along the way.

La Miela – Fidencio Clásico mezcal, wildflower honey, fresh lime juice, chile rim, orange wedge – This was Dave’s drink choice, and he seemed to love every sip. The only downside, the chile rim kept burning his lips. A pretty drink, too.

Mezcal Mule – Vida mezcal, Cock ‘n Bull ginger brew, fresh lime juice, rocks, candied ginger – This was Brian’s choice. He was sitting at the other end of the table, and he and Shouhong were talking a lot about China, so I didn’t  hear whether he liked this or not. I got the impression he gave it a thumbs up. I would say everyone liked the drinks at Xico, so it’s probably going to be a great place next summer to sit out on the patio and have a drink and a starter.

And here those starters are –

ANTOJITOS

Totopos con Chile – Xico tortilla chips dipped in chile de arbol salsa, cotija, crema, lime – These weren’t exactly gobbled up in a hurry, although they are one of the most popular things on Xico’s menu (or so I read) I had a couple, and found them good.

Guacamole con Chile de Arbol Salsa – Avocado, serrano, white onion, cilantro, Xico tortilla chips, chile de arbol – An interesting presentation, with the chips displayed point up around the sides of the bowl (like petals) and the guacamole in the center. It was an avocado flower!

IMG_3251Queso Fundido con Chorizo Rojo y Salsa Albaniles – Molten Muenster cheese, Bricklayer’s salsa, red chorizo, Xico tortillas – Until Oba! came to these parts quite a few moons ago, I don’t know if any of us non-Spanish speaking types in this area knew what Quesos Fundido was. I used to love to get that at Oba’s happy hour, it was so tasty, but the last couple of times I went there the quality had declined (different cheese, less chorizo?) Anyway, now you see Queso Fundido everywhere (population shift perhaps?). The quality of the cheese and chorizo in this adaptation at Xico was good, but I prefer my fundido with crispy chips, not soft tortillas. It’s better to scoop than to gather a wad.

IMG_3249Sopaipillas – New Mexico fry bread, Sonoran refried beans, Muenster cheese, chorizo – Wow, this got Shuhong really excited, when the starters were set down she immediately piped up “I want to try Jackie’s” very assertively. Maybe she likes puffy objects? Whatever the case, I wasn’t sure how to eat this, as it was pillowy squares of fried bread and sort of a refried bean casserole. I finally cut up the fry bread squares into quarters, and scooped some of the dip inside. When I passed it around, everyone appeared to enjoy it, as the dip part was really tasty. I think Shuhong liked it, although as a general rule she did not care for the food at this dinner.

IMG_3250Quesos Españoles con palmeras, cebollas y Peras – Three spanish cheeses; cow, sheep, goat Castille, Mahon and Majorero with quince syrup, date-onion relish & pears – I’ve seen them in action before, so I know Tori and Dave love their cheeses, especially the earthy and unusual ones. For some reason, although this featured a cheese from ever critter imaginable, neither one cared for the cheese plate. Next time, they should go for the cheese plate with rat, monkey, and porcupine cheeses, I’ve heard that one’s really lip smacking.

Here’s the main dishes we had…

PLATOS

Quesadillas Rojas – Pork belly in ancho chile adobo, chile tortillas, Spanish cheese, queso fresco cabbage & carrot curtido, Oaxacan black beans, tomatillo-avocado salsa – IMG_3256This looked really interesting to me with its dark colored tortillas (chili tortillas) but neither person who ordered it was doing handstands, Shuhong didn’t like it at all, so gave most of it to David to take home while she nibbled a bit on his entree. David didn’t mind taking it home though, as he thought it was pretty tasty. “Dave the Hatster” wasn’t overly enamored either, saying he was becoming jaded, food-wise. Our poor friend Dave, too much good food elsewhere, most restaurant food seems so-so. I wish I had this issue, my problem is the opposite, too much good food at restaurants is making my food at home taste lousy (of course it is lousy food to begin with.)

IMG_3259Almejas en Cacahuetado Rojo – Seared sea scallops in a sauce of roasted red peanuts, de arbol & guajillo chiles citrus pico de gallo, 47th Ave fava greens, Xico tortillas – The waitress warned Tori that this would only be two scallops (maybe they have had complaints on the quantity?) but Tori said that was okay, she was expecting as much, but she really loved scallops. Well, the portion was pretty meager, and we all started plying Tori with our food as well. That being said, Dr. T was happy with what she ordered, she said the flavor of the sauce was wonderful and the scallops were delicious.

Grilled Flank Steak – Carman Ranch beef, charred tomatillo salsa, poblano rajas, cowboy beans with bacon, butternut squash escabeche, jalapeno aioli, Xico tortillas.IMG_3258 Two of us had this, and i thought it was good. The flank steak was a tiny bit chewy, par for the course, but the meat was well cooked and it was a good sized portion and prettily displayed. I never saw my alleged tortillas though, and I don’t think Tori or David saw theirs either. I have the feeling they all went to the other end of the table with the big honkin’ chicken with multiple side dishes, and we just didn’t realize they were down there. I do remember someone, Brian maybe, offering me a tortilla, so I did eat one sometime during the evening.

IMG_3260Pollo Asado, Family Style (serves 2-3) – Mesquite chicken in guajillo chile adobo, potatoes in salsa verde, guacamole, mushroom guisado, Oaxacan black beans, escabeche, crema, muchos chiles, Xico tortillas – This is a signature dish at Xico, you can get it for a chicken take-out dinner with a couple of sides (others optional for $15) or $35 for the whole chicken and all the sides at the restaurant. It was a large, lovely looking portion, with the big platter of sides coming separately, and I think Brian and Jenn really enjoyed it. Naturally they passed some around, and it was tender and hearty. Although $35 seems a tad steep for a rotisserie chicken ($4.99 at Costco) with all the side dishes it was a lot of food, and could have easily fed three, making it $11.67 per portion (totally in line.)

When I looked at reviews for Xico, the most common comment was that although the food is interesting and flavorful, it’s expensive. That by-and-large (by-and-large, what does that even mean) is true, all the entrees, maybe with the exception of squash filled tacos ($19?) are in the mid-$20s.IMG_3255 This viewpoint comes from the idea, however, that all Mexican food should be cheap, after all, it’s just rice, beans, tortillas and cheese. Xico certainly goes beyond this, however, using quality, locally grown ingredients and preparing things in what has to be a labor intensive fashion. They actually grind their own masa (cornmeal) in house for their fresh tortillas and chips, does anyone else do that? Their menu contains items like scallops, trout, quesadillas with pork belly and tacos with kale and squash, what local Mexican restaurant has that? The extra expense (in expensive) probably comes from extra labor and quality supplies, not because they think they can get away with charging more than those other Mexican joints. I know I had read complaints about the small portions, but with the exception of the scallops, all portions were adequate or large. I think people hear the term “Mexican” and try to fit everything in the same category, but just because you cook in a Mexican fashion doesn’t mean you use the same ingredients or the same preparation techniques, or cook at the same skill level. We have several Mexican restaurants in town that fall into a more upscale category, Nuestra Cocina, Authentica, and Mextiza coming to mind, and Xico is more along those lines.

I wouldn’t mind going back to Xico one day, the drinks are excellent, the atmosphere above average, and the food interesting. The waitress was really informed when it came to the liquor and the food (although the menu is small enough that the server should be knowledgeable, in this case.) IMG_3252The service was quite good, the only off-note coming at the end of our meal, when the waitress kept insisting that our cash total was short, after several of us had totaled it and it came out fine. The problem was that she was not running the credit cards with the tips, so she had to go back and run the credit cards again. It would have been a better approach if she would have came back and said that things were not coming out correctly, could we explain how we were coming up with our total, rather than coming back twice and insisting we were short. Unfortunately, as someone who works in an industry that is probably even more competitive than the restaurant industry (yes, even in Portland) I have learned that customer service is everything, any tiny negativity can add a taint to even the best overall approach. It sucks, but sometimes it’s better to pretend that the customer is always right (except that I personally know that they are almost always wrong, but you didn’t hear it from me.)

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