You know those places you can't stop talking about after eating there? For me, Xingones is one of those.
"Their tacos are amazing," I bubble with excitement, "and so are their chicken and waffles."
Inevitably, people's eyes narrow with suspicion when they hear this. "Tacos and chicken and waffles?" they say.
A lot of people, I think, are skeptical when they come across a restaurant serving more than one type of cuisine. There's a suspicion that if a restaurant dabbles in multiple styles, it's not "authentic." But according to Mayra A. Velasquez and Justino "Tino" Perez, everything on the menu at Xingones falls under one category: Mexican-American.
The menu at Xingones is a reflection of Velasquez and Perez's different experiences as immigrants from Mexico living in the Bay Area. Velasquez was born in Jalisco and came to Southern California when she was 5. She grew up in a food-oriented household and decided to pursue cooking after high school, studying culinary arts at Laney College. She counts among her culinary influences chef Nora Haron, whom she worked for at Drip Line, a celebrated, now-closed West Oakland cafe. Perez grew up on a farm without gas or electricity in the mountains of Guerrero. He started cooking at age 8, using ingredients from his family's farm like eggs, beans, and veggies all cooked over a fire. He cooked for a living in Chilpancingo, and upon arriving in San Francisco, worked in hotels, catering businesses, and the vegan restaurant Millennium.
Velasquez and Perez started Xingones three years ago as a stand at the Laney College Flea Market every Sunday. About a year ago, they started showing up monthly at Oakland's First Fridays. And in May — while still keeping their pop-ups going at Laney and First Fridays — Xingones took up residence as a permanent pop-up in Old Oakland's Fort Green Bar.
On Xingones' menu, chicken and waffles represent Velasquez's life growing up in the States, while the Jalisco-style pozole and birria de chivo (goat) served exclusively at their Laney College Flea Market pop-ups are a nod to her roots. (While this review focuses on Xingones' menu at Fort Green Bar, it's absolutely worth scheduling your Sunday around a visit to their Laney College Flea Market stand to taste their pozole and birria). Many of the tacos are made using spices from Perez's home region of Guerrero, while the wings and bar snacks are a product of collaboration with his friend and fellow chef Christian Ciscle in San Francisco.
The name Xingones comes from the Mexican slang word chingón. It's one of those words that's good or bad, depending on context. For Velasquez, it's a good thing, and the translation she gives is "badass."
"A chingóna or chingón, to us, is every immigrant who has struggled to overcome everyday struggles and holds their own," Velasquez said.
Velasquez and Perez are total badasses in the kitchen — they serve up an eclectic menu with plenty of playfulness, originality, and strong execution. For me, the tacos were the most badass thing on the menu. The carnitas were juicy in the middle and crisp around the edges, the product of five hours of slow-cooking with a blend of spices including cumin from Guerrero. And while I often find carne asada tough and dry, Xingones' version was marinated in orange juice to create steak that was tender and succulent. The pollo tin-tin was based on a recipe for pollo a la brasa that Perez made back home, marinated in a Worcestershire-like sauce for a sweet-salty-tangy flavor.
The blackened shrimp tacos were inspired by the way Perez grew up making langostinos, the tiny lobster-like crustaceans that swam in the rivers nearby his home. The blend of spices, which included dried basil, thyme, and bay leaves, enhanced the natural sweetness of the perfectly cooked springy shrimp. Shredded cabbage, cilantro, and radish on top added freshness. The craveworthy sauce on top is Perez's creation of rich, tangy sour cream mixed with lime juice and garlic, like a hybrid between sour cream and ranch dressing.
The fried chicken taco is Xingones' way of bridging the gap between its Mexican menu and its chicken and waffles. Named the First Friday in honor of the monthly event that brings so many food cultures together, it came with a big piece of juicy, crisp chicken, zingy curtido (pickled cabbage), and remoulade all tucked into a large, beautifully blistered flour tortilla.
But it was the attention to detail that really took these tacos to the next level. The corn tortillas were crisped a little more than most, giving them a slightly crunchy texture with plenty of toasty corn flavor. The tacos also came with an exceptional escabeche — those spicy, vinegary pickled veggies that come on the side of tacos. Perez served up the standard carrots, cauliflower, and jalapeños along with mushrooms and calabacitas, adding cinnamon, brown sugar, and cloves to the mix. The result was an escabeche that was slightly sweeter than most, with comforting, warming flavors and a buzzing spice.
I would write an entire review about the salsas and purchase them by the gallon, if I could. The orange habanero salsa was so deliciously different from any salsa I've tried before that I found myself adding extra salsa to every bite, even pouring extra salsa on my plate so I could eat it with my fork. It's Perez's own creation, made with plenty of tomatoes and onions for a salsa that was slightly sweet, a little smoky, and so velvety and creamy it tasted like there was butter in it (Perez assured me there was not). Think a spicier version of butter chicken, or Marcella Hazan's famous tomato, onion, and butter pasta sauce with an extra kick. The milder green avocado-tomatillo salsa was robust yet zesty, the ideal accompaniment to the fattier meats like the carnitas.
Xingones also prides itself on its chicken and waffles, which are some of the best I've had in the area. The perfectly-seasoned fried chicken had a greaseless, shattering crust, while the meat inside was juicy and flavorful. The Belgian waffles were crisp around the edges and fluffy inside. The chicken and waffles came with maple syrup and Crystal hot sauce, but to be honest, I slathered my chicken in habanero salsa, too.
The El Koreana fried chicken wings had that unmistakable sweet-spicy flavor of gochujang, topped with sesame seeds and green onions with a satisfying crunchy crust underneath. The chicken taquitos topped with sour cream, cotija cheese, and lettuce were crisp and flavorful. If you're looking to share, go with the Xingones fries, a creation of Perez and Ciscle topped with buffalo wing mayonnaise, sour cream, green onions, and crackly chicharrones. The market salad, topped with plenty of fruits and veggies and a seasonal dressing of peaches and oranges, was well-composed and refreshing.
While the tacos and chicken and waffles merit an immediate visit, I'm particularly excited about what's yet to come at Xingones. Perez speaks affectionately about the food from Guerrero: the pozole blanco he'd eat on Thursdays with garnishes of chicharrones, eggs, and sardines; the pozole verde that families would gather for on Saturdays along with taquitos, carnitas, and patitas (pig feet) in vinegar.
To my knowledge (and Perez's), there are no restaurants in the East Bay serving Guerrero-style cuisine. Though subtle influences from Guerrero are already there, Perez and Velasquez are talking about bringing more regional specialties from Guerrero, as well as Jalisco, to Xingones' menu — possibly even at another location. When they do, I'm sure, like everything else they do, it'll be badass.