The smell of blistered chiles and toasted nuts rides a current of wind blowing down Morgan Avenue in East Williamsburg. The aroma perfumes the air, fills the nostrils, and then is swept away by the thunderous trucks that rumble north. It comes from Xilli, a commercial kitchen in the basement of an industrial building on that avenue, and the current project of Nacxitl Gaxiola, the former chef of La Superior and Pulqueria.
Xilli, pronounced “chee-le,” is the Nahuatl word for chile peppers, and under that moniker, Gaxiola is turning out a line of sauces, adobos, and mole in squat glass jars.
These small-batch products are about the furthest thing on the salsa spectrum from a crusty jar of cold, ketchupy Pace picante. “My understanding of salsa is a fresh product, mostly, made daily,” says Gaxiola. “Jarring seems almost counterintuitive.” He slowly cooks onions and garlic until sweet, almost marmalade, and then blends them with cooked plantains, ground chiles, and Mast Brothers chocolate, creating a double-strained mole, smooth as silk. Dried chipotle peppers are soaked in a piloncillo-sweetened vinegar until plump; they make the tinned varieties seem rude. The only true salsa on offer is salsa macha, a seething confetti of ground toasted peanuts and dry chiles suspended in oil. Like the mole and chipotles, Gaxiola is able to coax a symphony of flavor out of a dry-goods shelf.
The basement space also acts as a fulcrum for Gaxiola’s various projects: Besides production for Xilli, the chef uses it as a test kitchen to try out new recipes, a base for organizing cooking classes, and a springboard for new endeavors. Gaxiola is putting the final touches on a truck that will debut in December, introducing New Yorkers to classic Mexico City-style tacos, like tacos de guisados and tacos canasta — “basket tacos” — which are assembled in the kitchen and then layered into a basket and peddled on the street. “Hey, if a guy on a bicycle can do it in D.F., imagine what we can do with a truck,” he says.
You can find Xilli at The Brooklyn Kitchen and Urban Market, and every Saturday until the end of November at Smorgasburg.
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering the city’s best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes the ¡Oye! Comida column for Fork in the Road.