Xixa Shines Bright in Williamsburg
We expect to stumble onto a parallel universe in a long-running Marvel series, but not so much when we're out to dinner—restaurants, unlike comic books, tend to follow the rules of time and space. Not Xixa, the second spot from the pork-slinging Traif team, which opened late last year on the same block in Williamsburg.
If chef Jason Marcus and partner Heather Heuser had fallen in love on the streets of Mexico City instead of here in the U.S., what dishes would come from their alternate-reality kitchen? Marcus and Heuser's new restaurant asks this question awkwardly on its website, but answers it with eloquence in the dining room.
Marcus's take on roasted marrow ($11) is far enough away from New York's archetype that the tiresome shinbone is exciting again. It comes with a side of well-seasoned steak tartare and a few soft tortillas, made in-house, blackened by an addition of chile-rich mole to the dough. It's an over-the-top culinary high-low that you assemble yourself, and if you've never layered hot, gelatinous marrow with cold, raw filet, the success of the pairing will come as a nice surprise. Marcus builds an equally offbeat spaghetti-and-meatball dish using fideos—those short, skinny Catalonian noodles. Crisped in olive oil and simmered in duck stock with creamy-centered black beans, the fideos are piled with spicy lamb meatballs that are studded with raisins.
One of the finest dishes on the menu is a pair of warm, tender gorditas ($7) fried to an even golden color, filled with aioli-dressed shrimp, and topped with a crispy black tangle of puffed rice, sesame, and seaweed. As at Traif, Marcus draws from an Asian pantry, making use of soy sauce, seaweed, and Thai flavor profiles such as nam prik, the umami jam, and tom yum, the aromatic broth. He cooks with the enthusiasm of a young chef but the finesse of a more established one, which is to say that these flavor pairings often make a lot of sense. Though a dish may occasionally look like an Asian-Latin fusion experiment from the 1990s—like the stack of raw mackerel and mango brunoise ($8) with chips and a dense avocado puree—it will taste fresher.
Most of the menu is made up of small plates in the $5–$11 range, like a dressed-up version of leeks and romesco made with spring onions, potatoes, and anchovies, or a wobbly corn flan topped with parcels of blue crab, garlic-poblano cream, and herbs. The menu is long, though, and a few of these items do miss the mark, or reveal a heavy hand, like a stodgy fundido that stiffens as if it were carbonite, whiffing most unfortunately of white truffle oil—if you happen to be a wild sow seeking her mate, you will of course enjoy this very much; otherwise, it may prove a bit too powerful.
Servers with bangles loaded up to their elbows are friendly, even when the restaurant is packed beyond capacity on Friday and Saturday nights. They are deeply apologetic when the door gets stuck open (which is every time someone walks through it) and diners up front are blasted with freezing-cold air. The wine list is 10 times bigger than it is at Traif, and whimsically organized by celebrities—rather than region or style—who are meant to embody the wines' characteristics. It may not be the most useful arrangement at first glance, but "Helen Mirren" might prove a more evocative reference for Xixa's young, pop-culture-obsessed crowd than the name of a varietal. The food also pairs nicely with sips of agave spirits—the restaurant offers a list of mezcal (including one served with a side of crispy duck skin and fresh blood orange), flights of tequila, and tastes of the less celebrated Mexican distillation bacanora.
Over several visits to Xixa, I wondered why this idiosyncratic little restaurant doesn't get more attention outside of the neighborhood. Apart from its awful name, meant to be pronounced "shiksa," like the old Yiddish term for a woman who isn't Jewish, there's not a whole lot to dislike. Xixa may not have the scholarship of Cobble Hill's La Vara or the cult status of the Lower East Side's Mission Chinese Food—the kind of restaurants that make New York exciting—but it's still driven by a distinct, personal point of view, an increasingly valuable trait as airbrushed TV chefs dominate the scene and brand-driven restaurants open with identical dishes on their menus. What a relief that there's still room for cooks to carve out some space and do their own thing—not in some alternate reality, but right here in ours.
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