Ten years ago, I’m told, Roanoke had little to offer by way of ethnic food–Nawab was around as well as Chinese take-out or tex-mex–but now everything’s different. Since moving here a little over two years ago, even, more and more restaurants have opened, from authentic Latin American cuisine to Thai to Vietnamese, etc. Xinachtli, a Mexican restaurant tucked in a small diner-esque corner restaurant in Salem is one of the golden newbies that I’ve been wanting to try ever since it opened last year. G is a semi-regular since he works in Salem, but only recently has the restaurant added Friday and Saturday night hours, making it possible for me to finally hit the place up. And we’ve already been twice in the last two or three weeks. And I could totally go back again tomorrow. It’s that good.
Xinachtli [pronounced zee-nash-li] opened in 2010 and is run by a husband-wife team, Joel Rodriguez and Rubi Lopez. The restaurant is small–an old diner or soda fountain or something–but space is maximized by the two room-length bars with stools. They’ve decorated it with small pieces of art and crafts from Mexico, and the hodgepodge of Gatorade bottles and carved wooden statues somehow works when juxtaposed with the formica floors and traditional Americana space. Although I’ve never visited when it’s crowded, the space is intimate without feeling family-style and our group of four the first night didn’t have any issues with talking to each other or with feeling “too close” to the other group in the restaurant.
Rubi does the bulk of the cooking in the kitchen, it seems, but before our main dishes, I always order the guacamole. Creamy and thick, the guac could come in much larger portions (G & I fight over a single order), but it’s so rich that a single order really ought to do it. More than anything, it’s just fresh avocado, pureed silky smooth, and topped with fresh crumbly cheese. Served with thick cut chips, it’s the only way to start a meal at Xinachtli.
The food pictures span two different visits, so I’ll mix them up as I go. The first night I ate at Xinachtli, G ordered the enchiladas with both sauces and rice and beans. For the enchiladas, corn tortillas are filled with chicken, topped with a red sauce and a green sauce, sprinkled with onions and cheese, with a white cream sauce drizzled on top. Served with black beans and rice, the plate is incredibly filling, and if you like spicy foods, be sure to ask for the spicier version of the green sauce–it’s killer (not exactly the spiciest ever, but with a warm heat from peppers lingering in the back of your mouth). The red, tomato-based sauce is a little more mild than the green, but both versions are definitely medium-heat friendly.
Similar to the enchiladas are the flautas–corn tortillas filled with the same chicken, but rolled up tight and fried, then served with your choice of sauces (in our case, both) and topped with cheese and the fresh cream sauce. G ordered rice and beans as an accompaniment, again. Although so similar to the enchiladas, the simple step of frying the rolled up tortillas & chicken makes the dish a stand-out. The little extra crunch goes a long way and I understand why G often orders the flautas for lunch.
The first night, though, I ordered sopes–something I haven’t had since moving to Roanoke and, well, from three years before that when I wasn’t a vegan in Atlanta (how I miss Buford Highway and her taquerias…) The base of the sope is a thick version of a tortilla which is made in-house (Joel said they have plans to make all their tortillas in-house soon, but for right now only the sopes are), then topped with refried beans, the meat of choice, onion, lettuce, cheese, and cream. Thick and hearty (even though traditionally a snack food and not a meal), the sopes are pliable enough to fold over like a mega taco, and with the different kinds of meat you could top them with, you could eat just different kinds of sope for forever. I went with al pastor (Hawaiian style, though, really, the only Hawaiian element is the pineapple cooked on top of the meat when it’s prepared, so let’s just call it super delicious Mexican pork) and chorizo, and while the chorizo was delicious, the al pastor stole the show. That stuff is so juicy and sweet and tangy and smokey all at once…I’d forgotten how much I miss a good taco al pastor and the like. Nowhere else in Roanoke (that I’ve found) or even nearby gets as good–a must.
On our last visit, however, I noticed something completely different and unassuming on the menu: Camarones a la Diabla. Shrimp. From the menu description–“Grilled shrimp cooked in a homemade tasty sauce accompanied with rice and a house salad”–I had no idea what to expect. Well, other than “house salad” normally implies some bland and watery version of iceberg lettuce with dressing. Tasty sauce? So vague, so potentially mind-blowing. I had to order it. And I’m so, so, so, so glad I did. Turns out that the shrimp are, indeed, grilled, and then served on a bed of onions. Both the shrimp and the onions, though, are cooked in this spicy, delicious marinade-sauce that coats everything and makes your mouth glow with pleasure. It’s intensely layered with almost herbaceous notes peeking through the chili-flavor and, while I’ve never thought I’d like to eat onions on their own, I gobbled those onions down. And since “house salad” meant fresh slices of avocado and tomato, a forkful of shrimp, onions, avocado, and rice meant a well-balanced bite with the fatty avocado lending a smooth richness to it all. It also cooled the palate and offered respite from the heat. If you aren’t a fan of spicy-hot foods, this isn’t the dish for you. If you love a party in your mouth, order it immediately.
But Xinachtli isn’t just about the food–it’s also a great place to grab a glass of horchata or any of the flavored waters of the day. I was lucky enough to score a hibiscus drink the first night. The first sip took me back to memories I’ll gladly visit any time–my first summer in college, biking all over Atlanta into the wee hours of the night, licking hibiscus paletas to cool down from the heat…all good stuff. Regardless of my memories, even though it’s winter, both the hibiscus and the lemon drinks I tried were phenomenally refreshing and not too sweet. You can really taste the fruit/floral flavor. And, being a whore for horchata, I’m stoked to find it in my fair city. I’m sure out by Williamson Road one of the groceries or joints has it, but I don’t know about those yet and Xinachtli’s horchata is everything I want–smooth, refreshing, sweet, and, distinctly, horchata-ish.
While I’ve only been to Xinachtli twice, I’m blown away by the quality of the food and the love that’s gone into both it and the restaurant. Joel and Rubi seem to have put their hearts into the place and, unlike anywhere else in this part of Virginia, I’ve been transported back to some of my happier moments in Atlanta through the food. It’s authentic, it’s delicious, and, even better, it’s approachable to the American palate and American sensibilities. The restaurant itself is clean and modern, the food authentic but also modern–an easy way to learn about the extremely varied cuisine of Mexico. It’s open on Fridays and Saturdays until 9, but only for breakfast and lunch Monday-Thursday. So keep that in mind. And start visiting–it’s a gem in this city and I’ve hardly seen anyone else in the place both nights I’ve gone. Let’s start getting it filled–I’d hate to see one of the better, cheaper restaurants in Roanoke go under just because no one knows about it.
300 E Main St
Salem, VA 24153