Tequila cocktails and refined Mex- ican dishes share the spotlight
Climb aboard one of the sturdy wrought-iron bar stools at Xochitl (pronounced "So-cheet"), order a margarita, and watch mixmasters Bob Achilles and Sergio Ruiz flex their manly muscles as they squeeze fresh limes for every order. You’ve entered a temple of tequila, where cocktails don’t mask the pure agave flavor of a blanco, or the elegant woody undertone of an añejo. The friendly bartenders, collegial crowd, and 50 tequila varieties to be explored are reason enough to eat dinner at the handsome mahogany bar, rather than move to a table in the sedate, sparely decorated dining room.
And you will want to delve into the menu, because chef and co-owner Dionicio Jimenez, who cooked at Vetri for eight years, is doing fresher, lighter versions of Mexican classics than we find at our beloved taquerias. Marigold Kitchen owner Steven Cook and Marigold chef Michael Solomonov are partners with Jimenez at Xochitl, but they’re content to stay behind the scenes as this new talent makes his mark.
His delicate sopes are a mixed trio of silver-dollar-size corn cakes topped with chorizo, duck breast, or creamy goat cheese over crunchy cactus. The black corn fungus called huitlacoche combines with sweet corn kernels in a mousse-like filling for crisp golden gorditas, and in a stuffing for my favorite dish, a crisp-skinned, sesame-crusted chicken breast, sliced to show off its dark, earthy center. Tostadas topped with three jalapeño-tweaked ceviches — shrimp, octopus and Spanish mackerel — are swimsuit-friendly, as is the lovely scallop ceviche arranged on slender slices of fresh watermelon and sprinkled with smoky chili powder.
Jimenez, who grew up in Puebla, the ancestral home of chilis en Nogada, updates the stuffed-pepper dish created to commemorate Mexico’s liberation from Spanish rule. In his version, a poblano pepper is roasted, rather than fried, and the bounty of dried fruits added to the cinnamon-spiked ground-beef filling includes pineapple, apricot, mango, papaya and raisins. Tortilla soup plays up the contrasting textures of ripe avocado, crisp blue-corn tortilla strips, and nuggets of soft Chihuahua cheese that start to melt when the warm vegetable broth is poured over them. Spicy rounds of blood sausage are a daring and delicious addition to a mixed-greens salad, but the braised goat entrée has been replaced by more universally accepted lamb.
Crisp churros with chocolate and a goat’s-milk dulce de leche are both fun to share, but the most remarkable dessert is Jimenez’s mango-avocado tart, sweetened with vanilla pastry cream and vivid kiwi sauce. An after-dinner nip of Agavero tequila liqueur is yet another way to appreciate Mexico’s great contribution to the spirit world.