The food of Nayarit (one of the states of Mexico) has always held a special place in my heart. I fell in love with the delicious vibrant dishes of Nayarit and Sinaloa thanks to Chef Sergio Penuelas back when he helmed Mariscos Chente. So imagine my surprise when I heard there was a Nayarit specialist, that also celebrates their Huichol culture, smack dab in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley (which is more famous for being the center of Chinese cuisine in the region).
The interior is brightly decorated with various artifacts and examples of Huichol culture. There’s an inviting, but also modern sensibility about it. It feels like a good way to celebrate the past, but also create a space that’s inviting for the younger generations.
(Complimentary) Chips & Salsa:
As you sit down to order, a server promptly brings out complimentary Chips & Salsa. Which is common in many local Mexican restaurants, but Xecora’s offering is noteworthy: The chips are very fresh (our refill batch was warm-hot, out of the fryer, and even the 1st batch was still great).
The Housemade Salsa is made with Roasted Tomatoes, Serrano and Jalapeno Chilies (along with additional herbs). It’s quite aromatic, complex, lightly smoky and delicious.
Xecora seems to be quite serious about their Ceviche. Whereas many generalist Mexican restaurants have 1 menu option for “Ceviche,” Xecora sports an impressive 12(!) different types of Ceviche.
Mixta Ceviche (Cooked Shrimp, Octopus, and Crab Ceviche):
This was very good: Bright, with a sharp tang from the citrus, the morsels of Octopus, Shrimp and Crab “cooked” in the citrus juices were fresh and tender. A pleasant Chili heat accented each bite paired with a crunchy, fresh Fried Tortilla.
Xecora Rice (Mexican Fried Rice with Shrimp, Crab, Octopus and Vegetables):
Its namesake Rice dish seemed like it should be something special, but it was a slight disappointment: It tasted like a standard side of Spanish Rice (that’s usually found with Refried Beans at many local eateries), then pan fried with Shrimp, Crab, Octopus, and finely chopped vegetables. It’s not bad, but it tasted like a wetter, oilier, soggy Fried Rice.
They offer a variety of Tacos as well, with familiar entries to the region such as Kukuri (Marlin (or Shrimp), Melted Cheese, Roasted Chili and Dressing). Our server recommended their Carne Asada, so we went with that:
Carne Asada Taco:
First, it should be noted their presentation throughout these visits were appreciated: A mix of rustic, but also modern, such as serving their Tacos on polished slabs of wood looking like it was sliced from a tree trunk.
The Carne Asada itself was fine. There was a distinct lack of smoke, for those looking to see if this might be a challenger to Tire Shop Taqueria and similar Tijuana-style preparations. The Flank Steak was tender though, but lacked any depth of flavor. The Handmade Tortillas were excellent!
Charbroiled Octopus (Charbroiled Octopus with a Hint of Garlic):
Their Charbroiled Octopus on the other hand, was outstanding! Crispy charred edges of Octopus tendrils gave way to tender, juicy bites of Octopus from the meatier sections following. The Garlic, Sauteed Onions and marination on the Octopus really elevated each bite. One of the highlights of the meal.
Zarandeado Filet (Served with Beans, Vegetables and Handmade Tortillas):
Nicely presented on a wooden slab, there was definitely something about many of the dishes’ presentations that felt like they learned from the school of Chef Wes Avila (formerly Guerrilla Tacos, now with Angry Egret Dinette).
Note: They also have a “Zarandeado Fish” which is a whole Fish at market price. We were going to order that, but our waitress informed us that it would take at least 1 hour(!) to prepare it. But she said, the “Zarandeado Filet” (which is a boneless Filet cut) would only take 15 minutes. Interesting. We opted for the Filet at this point.
Xecora uses Robalo (Snook), which is the same type of Fish that Chef Sergio Penuelas used for his legendary version of Pescado Zarandeado back at Mariscos Chente years ago. The Grilled Snook Filet was perfectly cooked, buttery tender, moist, and flavorful.
Adding a bit of the condiments, the Vegetable Salad of Tomatoes, Red Onions, Cucumbers, a bit of their Refried Beans (which were so good, creamy, earthy, but not heavy), on their Handmade Tortilla and this was another standout menu item.
However, there was a slight bit of disappointment when thinking on Chef Penuelas’ Pescado Zarandeado in comparison: Xecora’s version had no smokiness, it tastes like they use a gas grill, which is understandable given a commercial kitchen and probably a lack of an area to use mesquite charcoal, and Sergio’s slow-cooked, Caramelized Onions mixture (a signature of his) added far more depth of umami flavor to each bite. But this was still enjoyable, it’s just for those that have tried Mariscos Chente’s version might come away disappointed here at Xecora, despite a generally well made version.
Still, Xecora’s Handmade Tortillas are truly standout: Thick, freshly made and earthy, they really complement each bite of the Robalo.
Aguas Fresca - Cucumber Lemon:
Their Aguas Fresca on this visit was a Cucumber Lemon. The Cucumber flavor was plentiful and bright Spring-like and very refreshing. There was a nice blast of Lemon citrus as well. The only downer was it was a bit too sweet. If they cut the Sugar by 1/3 to 1/2, this would’ve been phenomenal.
Octopus Chicharron Taco (Fried Octopus and Cheese):
It sounded tasty, but the Octopus Chicharron Taco turned out to be simply overfried Octopus slivers, in a Fried Taco shell with Cheese. The Octopus was overcooked, turning it into dried, “Octopus Jerky,” and the adding on the Fried Taco Shell, you ended up with dry, crunchy with more dryness in each bite.
Ensenada Style Taco (Beer Battered Shrimp, Cabbage, Pico de Gallo and Dressing):
This was better, a plump Beer Battered Fried Shrimp prepared Ensenada Style. It was a solid execution, but Holbox and Chef Wes Avila’s OG Shrimp Tacos have more flavor, and are a bit more generous (with 2 plump Shrimp per Taco, instead of 1).
Cauliflower Taco (Beer Battered Cauliflower, Cabbage, Pico de Gallo and Dressing):
It’s nice that Xecora offers a few Vegetarian Taco options as well, from a Xutsi Taco (Sauteed Zucchini Wrapped in Melted Cheese), to Soyrizo, and this Cauliflower Taco.
This Beer Battered Fried Cauliflower Taco was surprisingly good. The batter lent a slightly crunchy edge, soft hunks of Cauliflower within, and the Pico de Gallo and Cabbage with Dressing lent a familiar Ensenada Style profile that matched well.
Lilikoi (Shrimp Ceviche, Passion Fruit, Mango, and Sesame Seeds):
But the highlight of this visit would be their Lilikoi, which is a Shrimp Ceviche prepared with Passion Fruit, Mango, and Sesame Seeds. On paper, this sounds like it might skew too sweet and fruity, but thankfully it was still very much a bold, citric Ceviche that you might expect, but the Passion Fruit and Mango lent a subtle tropical note without overpowering the rest of the ingredients. There was just a touch of the Mango sweetness in the background.
Fish Chicharron (Served with Beans, Salad and Handmade Tortillas):
Finally, their enticingly named Fish Chicharron proved to be another nicely prepared dish. When thinking of the word “Chicharron”, I began to wonder if they might be serving actual Fried Fish Skin (similar to traditional Pork Chicharron).
The end result are very thin slivers of Robalo (Snook) Fish meat, with perhaps a bit of the skin? The whole thing is deep fried to the point that it’s just a crispy “Fish Chip” in a sense. The seasoning is zesty, lightly spicy and fragrant, and adding some of the Vegetable Salad, some of their excellent Beans on top of their Handmade Tortillas made for a satisfying bite.
Xecora Gastronomy feels like a good step forward for advancing the conversation on Nayarit cuisine, with a nod to the owners’ Huichol culture. From the step up in presentation to the use of better ingredients, Xecora is following in the footsteps of what Chef Avila was doing back in the OG Guerrilla Tacos days. They are also unafraid to offer their Tacos on their very good Handmade Tortillas at $4 - 6, instead of trying to cave to old expectations that Tacos should be “cheap” ($1 - $2).
But come for their excellent selection of Nayarit Ceviches, 12 different types in all, with their Mixto and Lilikoi being two delicious ones we’ve tried so far. Their Charbroiled Octopus is another standout item, as is their Zarandeado Filet, using Robalo (Snook). It might lack the smokiness of Mariscos Chente’s version, but is still tasty and a fine version otherwise.
11583 Lower Azusa Rd.
El Monte, CA 91732
Tel: (626) 522-0198
(Also in Montebello, CA)