An illustration of a man in a green shirt sitting in a chair

Illustration by PJ Loughran

“Tacos have always brought me joy,” says Edgar Rico, executive chef and co-owner of Nixta Taqueria in East Austin. Originally from the Central Valley of California, Rico grew up with a passion for cooking and was already writing recipes in kindergarten. “I loved watching and assisting my mom in the kitchen,” Rico remembers. “Then, it became deeper and deeper, particularly with food television of the ’90s, watching the shows of Alton Brown and others on the Food Network.” In 2022, Rico won the James Beard Award for Emerging Chef, in 2023 he was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, and he’s cooked for a president and a pop star.

Rico attended The Culinary Institute of America in New York before spending six years in Los Angeles, some in Michelin-starred kitchens. Upon moving to Austin from LA in 2016, Rico began exploring fresh takes on the traditional taco. He and his wife, Sara Mardanbigi, met in the catering business and opened Nixta in 2019, right before the pandemic. Improbably, the mom and pop operation transformed into an international food destination known for its nixtamalized corn tortillas and innovative tacos—the beet “tartare” tostada features heaps of shredded beets with microgreens, horseradish, and avocado crema. “My wife and I were going to be happy if it was just a little neighborhood hit,” Rico says. “It brings me a lot of joy to see the reach and impact we’ve had with our restaurant.”

Many doors have since opened for the couple. In October 2023, Austin PBS launched an eight-episode docuseries, Taco Mafia, about a collective of Austin taquerías—Nixta, Cuantos Tacos, and Discada—and the support they offer each other and the local community. “We want to spread taco culture and love to all parts of the world,” Rico says.

TH: What inspired your vision for Nixta?
ER: When I left Los Angeles, I knew I wanted to open a taquería in Austin. I took a trip to the city in 2015, and I found that people are fanatics for tacos. It was the first time I had ever seen a breakfast taco. I was like, “Austin is a taco-obsessed city.” I saw a style and a vision of what I wanted to do.

I had an aha moment when I was standing in a cornfield in Uruapan, Mexico, during a six-month sabbatical, and for the first time ever I was seeing corn that was red. And then purple corn. There is the whole world of color with corn that I had never known about. I felt so much history attached to this because you hear about how important corn is to Mexico. A lot of people say: “Sin maíz, no hay país.” [“Without corn, there is no country.”] It was this moment of clarity: “Duh, nixtamalization. You need to do fresh nixtamalized corn tortillas with different species and different varieties that maybe people in the States have never seen before.”

TH: Where do you get the corn for your tortillas?
ER: We source most of our corn from San Martín Tilcajete in the state of Oaxaca.

TH: How does nixtamalization make the tortilla different?
ER: When you have a freshly cooked, nixtamalized corn tortilla coming off a comal, there is an earthiness. It actually tastes like corn. It’s a very intense flavor and smell. If you try our blue corn, you’re going to get this rich, earthy flavor, almost a little sweet. If you try our pink corn, it will be earthy but also bitter and sour. Each corn has its own distinctive characteristic about it—and that’s all based on the terroir and where it’s from.

TH: What inspired the vegetarian-forward element of the Nixta menu?
ER: Anyone knows how to cook meat. You see chicken tacos everywhere. You see al pastor tacos in a lot of places. Same thing with carne asada. If I wanted to stand out in Austin, I wanted to make vegetables a highlight. Vegetables are delicious, and if they are cooked in the appropriate manner, they can be even better, and sometimes you don’t miss the ingredient of meat. I’m not a vegetarian in any shape or form, but do I enjoy eating vegetables? Hell yeah!

TH: What is the spirit of your kitchen?
ER: For Sara and me, we always think, “Lead with kindness in everything that we do.” For all of us in the Taco Mafia, we lead our companies in this way.

TH: How did the Taco Mafia get together?
ER: Discada was the first of us who opened in 2018. I started to frequent Discada because I lived right around the corner. We became good friends with owners Xose Velasco and Anthony Pratto. And then Beto Robledo, of Cuantos, came into the fold when we discovered his amazing tacos through Xose and Anthony. They said, “Yo, we just ate some of the best tacos of our lives!” Xose is tough to impress because he grew up in Mexico City.

Once the February freeze of 2021 happened, we realized the food in our fridges was going to go bad, so we decided to bring all our ingredients to Nixta because we still had gas, and we made huge vats of pozole. By the end of the week, the word was out that we were cooking for people and there were 150 volunteers at Nixta. It is one of those moments in my life that I’ll never forget. I broke down. I’ve cooked for so many people in this world—from President Obama to Jay-Z and Beyoncé—but for me, that was the most impactful day of my culinary career. It showed me the power of food and community.

TH: What is it like seeing your stories in the PBS series Taco Mafia?
ER: It’s been so cool to have friends from New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle see our stories. A lot of people have told us they love that it’s not a cooking show. Obviously, tacos are the connector for all of us, but that’s not the point of the series. It’s really showing who we are as humans—and what we are trying to do to make the community of Austin a better place.

TH: Can you tell us about the Iranian concept you’re starting with your wife?
ER: With this next restaurant, we want to express Sara’s Iranian heritage and story. Sara and I traveled to Iran in January 2022 to do research. We literally trekked the whole country—from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Oman. We experienced new flavors, places, and cultures. Our vision is to open an Iranian diner. With this diner approach, it gives this feel of “I’m eating eggs and toast, but it’s a different preparation for eggs than what I’m used to.”

TH: What do you think of the recent discourse about Austin not being one of the best taco cities in Texas?
ER: There is a friendly rivalry between Austin and San Antonio. I think San Antonio has an amazing taco scene. They do have some great regional styles of tacos that we don’t have here in Austin. What I appreciate about Austin is that there is a real diversity of tacos. There is something for everyone.

 

For more information about Nixta Taqueria, visit nixtataqueria.com. Stream the Taco Mafia series at austinpbs.org.

 

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