But he’s not. Starting Monday night, the chef will be whipping up tacos behind the flower-adorned walk-up counter in the back of the Broadway bar.
His new taco venture El Xolo will replace Neon Taco which had its last service at Nacho Borracho this Sunday, March 31st.
Nacho Borracho and Neon Taco go back four years, when Dimas opened the Mexican street-food slash “hangover food” window. Last year, Dimas also opened Little Neon Taco on First Hill and the Mexican sandwich counter Tortas Condesa on Olive Way. Tortas Condesa
closed at the end of February, though Dimas is still present on the Hill with Sunset Fried Chicken at Queer/Bar (with an offshoot at Sea-Tac’s Concourse D
slated to open this summer) and Westman’s Bagels walk-up on E Madison.
After Dimas announced that she would close Neon Taco, Nacho Borracho owners Rachel Marshall and Kate Opatz reached out to Valdes via a mutual friend, Brandon Pettit of E Olive Way’s Dino’s. Valdes had just resigned from the acclaimed Pioneer Square restaurant The London Plane and was ready to spend more time with his twins, aged 5, and wife, ready for non-restaurant hours and a more stable schedule.
At least, “that was the plan,” Valdes says. But opening a taco counter was an offer he couldn’t refuse. He’d always dreamt of having his own restaurant.
It was also an opportunity to go back to his roots. Valdes grew up in Oxnard, a seaside city west of Los Angeles. His grandparents’ home was the neighborhood hub.
“You could never leave without eating,” Valdes says. “My grandmother always had a pot of beans on, and made dinner every single night.” She also made salsas with chili’s from the garden and grew her own nopales and vegetables, which she preserved in jars in the pantry in the back of the laundry room.
At El Xolo, Valdes takes some cues from his abuela by making comfort food with fresh, local ingredients. Valdes calls it “Alta Northwest Cuisine,” a twist on Alta California cuisine, a high-end California-local take on Mexican cuisine.
What that looks— or better, tastes— like? Hand-grinding the masa for the home-made tortillas, working with seasonal ingredients, Valdes says, and cooking as “locavore as possible”, with Pacific Northwest-inspired details such as charred radicchio from Local Roots Farm in the vegetarian taco, Asian pears on a crudo tostada, and smoked salmon and creamy Mexican cheese with everything spice. Valdes will preserve fiddlehead ferns, mushrooms, rhubarb, and chilis in the pantry in the back of the kitchen.
He’ll also be working with local farms and suppliers, holdovers from his time working as a chef for higher-end restaurants such as The London Plane and Delancey in Seattle and dining establishments in California.
Of course, El Xolo is still affordable (the price of tacos average $4) street-food tucked in a dive bar on the Hill, Valdes points out. “It’s a mix of high and low brow,” he says. There will be nachos, but instead of Velveeta-cheese, Valdes is working on the right blend of cheddar, Monterey jack and a bit of queso Oaxaca for the best, gooey cheese melt.
“We’re picking and choosing our battles. Will we have avocados when they’re out of season because they don’t really grow here? Yeah, of course. You’re going to have guacamole. Tomatoes? Maybe not.”
From high-end and low-brow to south and north(west), El Xolo is a blend of things that, on the surface, look like dualities. The name (pronounce: /ˈt͡ʃolo/) reflects that ambivalence too. Xolo’s derived from Xolotl, the Aztec god associated with twins (a reference to Valdes’ children) and dogs who would guide the sun through the underworld every night (fitting for late-night dining).
It is also a reference to an originally derogatory term used by the Spanish colonizers for people of mixed heritage and peasants, and later used as a slur in the US to refer to Mexicans, who then re-appropriated the sobriquet to apply to people who dressed in the “gang member” style.
In a way, Valdes named the restaurants to honor his friends, cousins and the neighborhood guys in Oxnard who dressed in the Cholo style. Mostly, it’s a way for him to reclaim a word born as a slur and give it a positive connotation.
“Just to know that somebody is saying, hey man, that Xolo place is really good. Xolo’s good, Xolo’s great — you’re sort of indirectly changing the term a little bit.”
El Xolo will be open Mon-Fri 3pm-2am and Sat-Sun 12pm-2am. You can learn more at elxoloseattle.com.
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