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Rostra rating: 4
Xico serves food that is recognizably Mexican to your average Portland punter, but the dining space itself is such a complete refutation of what a Mexican eatery should look like that its designers seemingly felt the need to sprinkle some hints throughout. The overall theme is standard PNW industrial decor combined with hyper modern tweeks. Thus, external pipage is enhanced with multilevel slatted ceilings and end grain wood floors. The dominant white walls are nicely offset with pastel accent walls. There is a riotous lighting ecosystem composed of cool warty sconces, an atom model chandelier, clustered insect eye and globule pendants, and track lights in multiple sizes and hues.
Table settings edge even further into frugal minimalism with wood and stainless steel table tops, plastic chairs, and napkins made from recycled something (although the patio table tops are composed of very interesting mosaics). Those hints mentioned earlier? Well there are the encaustic “map” of Mexico as well as a Day of the Dead motif, consisting of a collage of vividly painted human skulls. The wall art tends toward the modern and whimsical, but my particular fave is a cluster of dried long stem roses hanging from the ceiling. Perhaps the sub rosa tables are for extremely private conversations?
Xico’s food meets or exceeds all expectations derived from the decor. It is inventive, elevated, and delicious.
Smoked salmon tostaditas: way good. Crispy, picklely, hot and smoky nachos with a serious tranche of heart healthy, fishy richness supplied by the salmon.
Citrus salad: was refreshing with a hint of richness and a hit of heat.
Grilled Octopus in red chile, lemon epazote aioli, fried potato tostone, and cactus escabeche: a really interesting take on Galician octopus. No intense smoky paprika, but the aioli and pickled cacti took it in an interesting culinary direction. The show was almost stolen, however, by the boiled, smashed, and then deep fried taters.
Pork pozole: very decent cumin-heavy porkage and hominy stew. Killer stock is the key and the fresh, raw, and thinly sliced radishes are a nice touch. The dish needed more heat, so we asked for more of the excellent pepper oil that came with the amazing queso fresco and tortilla. The pozole boasts two types of organic hominy, the blue corn version had better flavor and a nice chew.
Spring greens quelites style with sweet collard greens, serrano, crema, egg, and salsa verde: The slightly bitter greens went perfectly with the rich sauce. These roll your own tacos were elevated further by the addition of a side of Xico’s killer chorizo, which TeamMago tucked into the accompanying bespoke tortillas with the greens.
Empanada de hongos: fresh corn masa fried and wrapped around queso Oaxaca, wild and cultivated mushrooms and poblano chiles, served with purple sprouting broccoli, Yucateco black beans and peanut salsa macha. Best. Empanada. Ever. Crispy masa crust gives way to a cheesy mushroomy molten center. This dish was amped by sweet broccoletti sautéed with spritely pickled cauliflower. The peanut and tomatillo salsas rocked, but the black beans were curiously under seasoned.
Xico’s tamales: are way good but fairly conventional. Their massa is amazing steamed or fried and the pork shoulder stuffing is the real thang. The sides worked better with the empanada than this dish, however.
TeamMago’s only real complaint involved Xico’s house made chips. They were a bit dense and over cooked to my taste, but the salsa duo of tomatillo avocado and muchos chiles insured that we snarfed all of them anyway.
With respect to drinks, the emphasis is on mezcal, cocktails, wine (to include some sixteen rare and rather spendy Mexican wines), and beer in that order. As our waiter explained recently, “We do not sell much beer in our restaurant.” Whether this is a reflection of haute Mexican drinking habits or the booze profile of Xico’s young dining demographic is unclear. There is only one gringo slot allocated to the tap trio, but on our last two visits it was disgorging Georgetown’s highly potable IPA. And while Xico may not sell much beer viz. other booze, TeamMago gives them high marks for clean pipes and and no dreg kegs.
The times we have sampled Xico’s elevated Mexican cuisine this spring the weather has sucked, so we have yet to try out their cozy and inviting off-street patio (a rarity on SE Division Street’s restaurant row). Also, Xico has both an early and a late happy hour with different fare and drinks (early=totopos, queso fundido, and a Sonoroan hotdog; late=tomales and tacos).
In response to the usual social media complaints of snooty service, fussy food, and small portions, TeamMago has always found Xico’s service professional and friendly, the food innovative and delicious, and the portion sizes just fine for a real restaurant as opposed to [insert horrible U.S. Mexican chain here].
Note to so-called food bloggers: Yes, lots of Mexican food carts in Portland serve tasty food at very reasonable prices. But stop dissing serious Mexican cuisine by comparing a cart with maybe six (and usually less) decent offerings to the Oregonian’s 2015 Cuisine of the Year restaurant, dude.
Bottom line: If you love authentic Mexican cuisine, are bored with “Americanized” Tex-Mex, and hate the decor in most “Mexican” restaurants, then Xico is just the place for you.