One of America's Best Taquerias Is Hiding Out in a Roseville Strip Mall

Nixtaco has put the Northern California city on the taco map.

Photo: Courtesy Nixtaco

On the eve of Nixtaco's third anniversary, a modest strip mall taqueria run by Monterrey, Mexico native Patricio Wise and his wife, Cinthia Martinez, the restaurant had the feel of game night. Wise was hosting chef Guillermo Gonzalez, a founding father of modern Mexican cuisine, whose Pangea is a World's 50 Best restaurant that has earned international acclaim since opening in 1998. The diner seated to my left couldn't stop talking about each dish as it was placed in front of me, taking care to ensure I appreciated the great efforts it takes to transform non-GMO kernels of corn into blue and yellow corn tortillas and preparing me for unique flavors I might not have ever tried before.

"Wow, I never had this combination, duck and this, this peanut sauce — you wouldn't ever guess that these flavors would pair," said the Nixtaco regular. Yet, Wise seems irritated and can't help but counter every accolade by sharing his disappointment, "a party of four — their orders were wrong."

"You should do this every week," said the regular, ignoring Wise's groans.

"No, no, no — I don't think I'll ever do this again," Wise said, with his face buried in his palms. It's been this commitment to service that has achieved the improbable: that one of the best chef-driven taquerias in the U.S. is thriving in Roseville, California.

"I come here for the service — you don't find places like this anymore in this town," said Mike Andretta, a race car official, who has his regular drink started the moment he walks in the door. "I don't even have to order anything; they just know here."

Courtesy Nixtaco

Even on their days off, staff members swing by to grab a taco and a local craft beer. A sour brewed in El Dorado Hills, IPAs from Auburn and Loomis, and an easy-drinking lager from Turlock. Repeatedly, throughout the anniversary dinner and at brunch the next day, references to Cheers, where everyone knows your name, kept coming up.

Upon graduating college, Wise worked as a trader at Afirme, a local bank, and was paid very well. But after hours, he ran an underground restaurant in his parents' home, modeled after Nigerian chef Shola Olunloyo's supper club in Chicago, where he learned to cook by trial and error, ultimately attracting investors to open a steak house in 2009 called Wise and Dine. Just four months in, security concerns at the bank where Wise still worked became untenable. Present Calderon's war on the cartels levied a heavy toll on the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Michoacan, and Nuevo León, and Afirme let all the executives and officers know that they were on their own, and should take precautions to "not get taken."

Wise sold his steakhouse and thought about Los Angeles, New York City, or other active culinary centers, but his niche in the financial world led him to Roseville. In Roseville, he found the typical Mexican-American combo plate restaurants you see throughout the United States. Meanwhile, chef-driven taquerias like Guerrilla Tacos, Hija de Sanchez, and Pujol's taco omakase bar were making headlines, globally, so why not Roseville?

Courtesy Nixtaco

It was difficult at first to convince customers to pay premium prices for non-GMO heirloom Oaxacan corn tortillas filled with grilled octopus, short ribs, and pork belly glazed with star anise. Nixtaco regulars talk about the food as an afterthought but aren't shy about letting you know you won't find Mexican food like this for hundreds of miles.

The chilaquiles rojos served at brunch are crispy and tangy, and the salsa appears chemically bonded to the rectangular bits of fried, blue corn tortillas cooled off with crema Mexicana, sliced avocado, pickled red onions, micro-cilantro, and a fried egg. Of course, there is machacado con huevo, a regio (from Nuevo León) breakfast staple of sautéed beef jerky and eggs. Try it with four tortillas for a true northern Mexican bite.

However, Nixtaco is a taqueria. On the house tacos menu there's a Mazatlan-inspired taco, often called Costa Azul shrimp or momias (mummies) of shrimp, bacon, and melted Oaxacan cheese, cooked home-style, rather than bacon-wrapped. The chicharrón en salsa verde is made with plump, tender squares of pork belly, and on the signature tacos, the pork belly taco can be upgraded to "roadkill," a stew in Nuevo León called atropellado, which is made with shredded meat pan-fried with tomatoes, onions, and chile Serrano. Grilled cheese is added to affix a layer of fat underneath this delicious hit-and-run. Other offerings included mole, octopus in a peanut chipotle sauce, and beef barbacoa.

Through care and patience, Wise has been able to get a mostly non-Mexican audience to appreciate landrace corn from Masienda, stone ground, and nixtamalized in-house, filled with northern Mexican stews from Monterrey, and tacos more in line with modern Mexican American and northern Mexican construction.

These are chef-driven tacos with farmers market-sourced microgreens and seasonal produce, non-traditional proteins, riffs on some familiar themes like carne asada, al pastor, pork skin in green salsa, and Mexican stews, unrecognizable in their respective provinces; however, in the red hot spotlight of contemporary taquerias from Mexico City to Los Angeles to Copenhagen, Roseville has a place on that map.

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