By Anneli Rufus
Your chicken taco arrives promptly. Avocado salsa, rose-pink pickled onions and grilled, brick-red, achiote-marinated meat are piled mountainously high atop two palm-sized, neatly stacked tortillas. Lime wedges, workaday elsewhere but exotic in Uptown Oakland, exhale a haunting perfume. Horchata and a bottle of Corona catch the calculatedly industrial bare-bulb light from above. It's happy hour: two tacos and a beer for under eight bucks.
Facing the historic Fox Theater, this is Xolo, the über-casual branch of the Doña Tomás restaurant group helmed by East Bay entrepreneurs Thomas Schnetz and Donna Savitsky. Its other outposts (besides the titular Temescal-classic original) include Berkeley's Tacubaya and Oakland's Flora and Fauna. The latter is located next-door to Xolo, whose name is astoundingly not a play on "cholo," according to Schnetz, who explains that it's short for Xoloitzcuintli, the Nahuatl name for that dog breed known in English as the Mexican hairless.
"Xolo is our version of a Mission taqueria, serving California street food," says Schnetz, who grew up in Sacramento with a Mexican mother and European father, which he says gives him something in common with Frida Kahlo.
"When we opened Doña Tomás 15 years ago, I said, 'We aren't going to do burritos, because burritos aren't really Mexican. They're a California thing.' But finally I said, 'Why not? I love burritos.' So here we do them in our style. Most of the sauces and such are very traditional, very authentically Mexican, prepared with locally sourced ingredients and as many organics as possible, and with the same attention to detail that we've always applied at our other restaurants. At Xolo, we just cloak it in tortillas."
Two very small soft ones are stacked under the poultry promontory—imploring, as soft tortillas always do: Please eat me NOW.
But how on earth to go about this? So much juicy, saucy poultry. Such sparse starch. This is a prime tactic at hipster havens and with its plaid-shirted, horn-rimmed-eyeglassed loyals and Blue Bottle coffee, Xolo is a hipster haven, by design: an Alice-through-the-looking- glass geometry that transforms standard fare such that you sit there staring at it, yearning for it, not quite certain how to insert it into your mouth.
Folding this much topping into these tiny stacked tortillas and consuming the result all in one go with bare hands, as per tradition, would be nearly impossible.
You could go rogue and eat it with a knife and fork.
Or you could gently lift and extract from beneath the topping-laden uppermost tortilla its still-pristine twin. Into this you could spoon half of the topping, fold and eat. Voila (or mira): One taco miraculously becomes two.
At nearby trendy restaurants, you can't deconstruct then reconstruct your paella, say, or pad thai. So why can we manhandle tacos here, trusting that no one in this welcoming place will scorn or disdain you? Because to many of us, Californified Mexican food feels like a forgiving childhood friend. If you grew up west of the Mississippi during the Dorito/Enchirito era, it's technically part of your native cuisine, whether you're of Hispanic heritage or not.
Moreover, because its components and construction are straightforward, Mexican cuisine invites adaptation, augmentation, invention, and fusion. This is why Xolo also offers the Danger Dog: a crazy-messy bacon-clad frankfurter dressed with mustard, mayonnaise, pinto beans, pickled jalapeños, and cheese—wrapped in a tortilla.
Other taco toppings include hongos (hearty and almost steak-like crimini mushrooms, cheese, tomatillo-arbol salsa, pico de gallo, and avocado); vampiro (al pastor, salsa ranchera, red onions, and cilantro); and shredded beef and cheese in a crispy shell: "I can't stop eating those," Schnetz says.
Another signature taco is topped with camarones: plump pinkie-sized shrimp that are batter-fried delicately angel-golden, with cilantro, cabbage, lime, and arbol aioli whose pastel-velvet creaminess absorbs this mixture's gentle fire. A few squirts from the lime wedges that accompany nearly every dish (although, notably, chips and salsa don't) render this taco tropical and royal all at once.
In looks, feeling, and food, Xolo is a tripartite comfort zone, a relaxed refuge from the literal or figurative storm. Order at the front counter, then select a table on the vast main floor, brick-walled back patio, or cozy upstairs mezzanine and watch a trio of white-jacketed sous-chefs working briskly behind clear panes in an open kitchen guarded vigilantly by a silvery plaster Virgin of Guadalupe.
Xolo's chairs are a random salvaged assortment, largely plastic. Its pièce de résistance is a turquoise plastic picnic table. Festooned with vintage Spanish-language film and bullfight posters, sky-blue walls rise and rise to a high, exposed-pipes ceiling. Jazzy, brassy oldies pulsing through high speakers fortify the old-friend ambience.
Also popular at Xolo, firm and tight and requiring no reconstruction, but slightly smaller than their Mission District cousins, are burritos. Fillings include machaca, "surf n turf" (carne asada with shrimp), scrambled eggs, al pastor, mushrooms, and medium-mild chile relleno. Nestling at the heart of the latter is a tender-crunchy cheese-and-herb stuffed poblano pepper which, lightly batter-fried, teasingly suggests tempura.
It's one of several vegetarian items, which along with a few vegan items, are clearly designated on Xolo's menu.
"We want all kinds of people to feel welcome, so we can't just throw a bunch of pork belly at everyone," says Schnetz, who after earning his BA in political science from UC Berkeley in 1989 suddenly realized how much he adored restaurants.
Despite the fact that his mother's family hailed from Guadalajara and coastal Manzanillo, Schnetz's upbringing "was definitely not a culinary adventure. Our family ate a lot of spaghetti and steaks. It was all very, very vanilla.
"I wrote a bunch of letters to the owners of restaurants that I thought were great, offering to work there for free if they would train me."
Legendary chef Joyce Goldstein, then-owner of San Francisco's Square One, took Schnetz up on his offer.
"Perfect, right? So I worked there washing lettuce and making pasta and learning. That's how I got put into a situation that I loved, and it led me to this point."
Worth a visit all by itself, vegan and tailor-made for chilly winter days, is pozole: a garlicky red-chile broth studded with sliced tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots, and lots of hominy, which looks like chickpeas and tastes like potatoes but is actually corn kernels, nixtamalized—that is, soaked then cooked with lye, lime, and other improbable substances to produce big, bloated carb-tastic morsels that are not unlike soggy Corn Nuts—but in the best possible way.
Scattered across its surface is julienned raw cabbage, whose near-whiteness and infinitesimal crunch sings a call-and-response song with the spicy, stewy, cumin-scented, cinnabar-hued soup. Simplicity! the cabbage skirls. Complexity composed of multiple simplicities! the broth replies. If Mexican food has an English-language anthem, this is it.
1916 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-986-0151, www.XoloTaqueria.com
Open Mon.-Tue. 9am-10pm, Wed.-Thu. 9am-11pm, Fri.-Sat. 9am-midnight; closed Sun.
Entrées $3.25-$10.95. Beer and wine. Accepts credit cards.
Tripartite comfort food: Tacos from Xolo include chicken, beef, and the vampiro. Photo by Lance M. Yamamoto.