Patricio Wise remembers the day last August when his phone started blowing up with congratulations. At first, he figured the texts referred to a recent rave review in the San Francisco Chronicle for his Roseville restaurant, Nixtaco. He soon learned it was something even more momentous: The Michelin Guide, bestower of stars on the world’s best restaurants, had just given Nixtaco its Bib Gourmand award, granted to restaurants for serving affordable great food.
It was sweet vindication for Wise and his wife and business partner, Cinthia Martinez, who opened Nixtaco six years ago in a Roseville strip mall with an exceedingly ambitious goal: nothing less than to change the paradigm of the Mexican taqueria.
The tortilla was key to their concept. The couple had grown up in Monterrey, Mexico, where Wise recalls his mother making fresh tortillas every day. She would cook dried corn kernels, then steep them in an alkaline solution to soften them, a process called nixtamalization. She would take the softened corn—the nixtamal—to a local mill to be turned into masa, which she used to make tender, flavorful corn tortillas.
As newlyweds, Wise and Martinez moved to Roseville in 2010 for Wise’s finance job, figuring they’d stay only two or three years before returning to Mexico. Dining out around the Sacramento region, they were unimpressed with the Mexican food available. At one place, the tortillas would be good but the meat inferior; at another, the tacos would be loaded with lettuce and tomato to hide the fact that the shrimp were tiny and tasteless.
The couple had run a supper club and restaurant back in Mexico, and they saw an opportunity to create a new type of taqueria, with a focus on fresh, high-quality ingredients. They invested in commercial milling equipment to make their own nixtamal tortillas fresh every day from heirloom blue corn grown in Mexico. When they opened Nixtaco in 2016, their signature product, based on Wise’s favorite Monterrey taco, was the Chicharron: soft chunks of braised pork belly topped with pickled red onion and served on two blue-corn tortillas.
At first, some customers simply didn’t get what Wise and Martinez were trying to do. They were spooked by the color of the tortillas or demanded to know why they couldn’t order a chalupa, or a taco salad. But local chefs like Brad Cecchi and Patrick Mulvaney and foodies such as former restaurateur Peg Tomlinson-Poswall got it, and they embraced the innovative new restaurant. Enthusiastic media coverage appeared in outlets like Eater SF and Food & Wine magazine.
Alerted by the F&W piece, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Dianne de Guzman drove to Roseville, then wrote a review proclaiming Nixtaco the maker of the best tacos in Northern California. That started a stampede, with Bay Area food obsessives coming in droves to try Nixtaco for themselves. The Michelin announcement a week later merely amped up the craziness. People waited hours for a table. Regulars were steamed when they couldn’t get in. Wise and Martinez worked nonstop for a week. Their three young kids hung out at the restaurant day after day, waiting for mom and dad to finish up. “It was a blessing but also one of our hardest weeks ever, says Martinez.
Since then, the Bay Area crowds have dispersed and business has settled down to a brisk but manageable level. Wise recently started a distillery next door to the restaurant, making vodka and gin, with plans to eventually make whiskey and rum as well. The products are named after Mexican revolutionaries: Emilia vodka (for Emiliano Zapata) and Dorotea gin (after Doroteo Arango, aka Pancho Villa). “Nixtaco came to revolutionize the taco scene in Sacramento,” says Martinez, explaining the thinking behind the names.
Nixtamal tortillas are now showing up in fine-dining restaurants like the two-Michelin starred Californios in San Francisco, part of what Wise calls the “real tortilla movement.” Getting a Bib Gourmand from Michelin was confirmation that Wise and Martinez were on to something with their blue tortillas and creative taco fillings such as shrimp with beer-and cheese sauce, peanut-chipotle aioli and chicharron powder. The paradigm, it seems, has shifted.
1805 Cirby Way, Roseville