Nixta Taqueria Slings Lacto-Fermented Hot Sauce
With bonus natural wine recos for Austin’s sweltering season
Last year, a surprise gift from a local farm kicked off a tradition that continues this summer at Nixta Taqueria in East Austin. One week before the grand opening of Edgar Rico and partner Sara Mardanbigi's first business, Rico received 25 pounds of jalapeño peppers from one of his farm partners (small local farms show their appreciation to chefs by gifting specialty herbs, flowers, and other handmade farm products). What made sense at the time was to set them (to ferment) and forget them during the whirlwind of opening week. The end product – a simple lacto-fermented jalapeño hot sauce – was an instant hit, and the couple soon began fielding requests to bottle and ship from their fledgling business on East 12th Street.
Why lacto-fermented hot sauce? Given Rico's background – coming up as a chef in Los Angeles, with a stint in Mexico to study the art and science of maíz and nixtamal – knowledge of various chiles is a given. It was his time spent as sous chef at the iconic Sqirl (a preservation-focused, hyperlocal/seasonal breakfast and lunch concept in L.A.) that dialed in the application of fermentation to condiments for him. Overseeing the production of the lacto hot sauce that tops the sorrel pesto rice bowl, "was how I gained my first lacto know-how and the base knowledge of how it went," says Rico.
"Our mainstay is really the lacto. There is such a demand! And people get really upset when we don't have it!" laughed Rico. He explains how the initial heat of the peppers, now Fresnos from California when the local chiles are done for the season, is softened and matured through the fermentation process thanks to various tasty compounds synthesized by lactobacilli during their feast on glucose. "You get enough of a kick out of the sauce, but not enough to overpower the dishes on our menu. It is the perfect midway point for someone who wants heat but still wants to taste your food." High quality salt and a touch of sugar are expertly blended with the chiles in a base of vinegar to ensure balance in every batch.
Though the modest sauce is recommended for any hot sauce application (this writer ferments her own lacto at home, and loves a dash in a cold Modelo or folded into any vegan mayo-based salad), Rico and Mardanbigi have a few suggestions for the pairing-minded among us. "Breakfast tacos are the best use, especially," says Rico. "Some people just want that extra kick on top of cheese, beans, a little meat or vegetables in there. We also did a collab with Nickel City and paired a riesling of theirs with lacto-covered wings. I never would have thought but it was an amazing pairing."
And since tacos and natural wine are meant for each other just as much as hot sauce and tacos, in Nixta's shop right now, the salmon-hued "Falistra" is an approachable yet uncommon pet-nat rosé from Podere il Saliceto (Northern Italy). Made from organically grown native Lambrusco grapes with minimal added sulfur, this unfiltered bone-dry sparkling wine is a sip of fresh air at the end of a sweltering Texas summer. It relieves your palate if you've been heavy-handed with your at-home Hot Sauce Festival tasting. For the natural wine novice wanting to taste on-trend, look no further than Poderi Cellario's "La Grinozza," (Northwest Italy), a sparkling red pet-nat made via spontaneous fermentation, again by a young team who honor local varietals, in this case Grignolino (fun to pronounce, more fun to drink). A dusting of tannins show through, making this light red liter of juice irresistible when chilled and shared outdoors.
Look out for Nixta's distanced backyard dining space, now open weekends, as well as their lacto hot sauce available in September. These 12-oz. bottles of silky, spicy Austin goodness can be shipped anywhere in North America.