When a fireball forms in her frying pan and reaches for the ceiling inside Taqueria Xochi’s new carryout kitchen on U Street NW, chef Teresa Padilla doesn’t flinch. But ask the shy chef a question about herself, and she takes a deep breath. Her eyes dart skyward as if she needs to gather strength from a higher power. Then the chef from the town of San José Teacalco in the interior state of Tlaxcala speaks in a soft voice, outlining in Spanish the personal history behind the Puebla-style cemitas tortas neatly wrapped with twine, cheesy Oaxacan tlayudas the size of a large pizza, birria tacos, chile-mango slushees, aguas frescas, and slices of cake that have powered her rare success story through the novel coronavirus pandemic that has been catastrophic for the restaurant industry.
Last week, a day after selling out of orders during a test run for the kitchen that takes up the entire interior space behind a freshly painted hot pink facade at 924 U Street NW, Padilla explained that emptying her inventory comes with a bittersweet feeling.
“I feel very happy, but at the same time, I’m like, ‘Oh, some people missed their food. I have to make more,’” says the chef, with business partner Geraldine Mendoza assisting in translation to English.
Padilla, 45, never wants anyone to go hungry. For evidence, look to the tlayudas, a new addition to the menu after Taqueria Xochi has segued through periods as a ghost kitchen, a pop-up, and now a standalone store. The taqueria works with a Mexican food broker to acquire giant, thin tortillas from Oaxaca that serve as the crispy base for a flatbread smeared with refried beans and covered with strings of Oaxaca cheese, grilled cubes of beef tenderloin filet, chorizo, avocado slices, radishes, and lettuce. For $25, it could easily feed four.
The chef’s cemitas, in many ways the impetus for the business, are big enough for multiple meals. Padilla says she learned the recipe for her sesame seed buns, not too salty and not too sweet, by baking alongside her grandmother, who would would tell her they were making bread so the family could make the tortas. Padilla fries breaded cutlets of chicken Milanesa, beef, or eggplant to order, then stacks them on the buns with mayo, tomatoes, avocado, onion, and a mound of stringy Oaxaca cheese that melts in a sandwich press. Morita chiles, the strong, slightly fruity variety of chipotles that get a relatively brief smoke, are the base of a salsa that’s vital to the sandwich. The whole package gets wrapped and tied with a neat twine bow.
For the past 16 years, while working her way up through José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup, Padilla developed a reputation for making some of the favorite staff meals in the company. Colleagues loved her cemitas, so when Padilla and Mendoza got furloughed from modern Peruvian restaurant China Chilcano, they looked to build their own business on the strength of the sandwiches.
Carlos Delgado, who was the partners’ boss and mentor as executive chef at China Chilcano, says Padilla’s generosity was as memorable as her cemitas.
“She was like the mom of the kitchen,” Delgado says. “Like, comforting, always willing to cook you something. Always cooking you and saving you food, like that kind of stuff that your mom only does.”
Padilla explains many of her coworkers had two jobs and couldn’t always make it into work in time for the traditional family meal. By saving them a plate, she was ensuring they could perform their best at work, too.
According to Delgado, Padilla’s professional cooking stood out, too. She hadn’t worked in pastry before undergoing a training program with the company.
“She was nervous, but then she learned it super fast,” he says. “I would say she mastered it. I’d say she’s a perfectionist at her craft.”
As a shift leader among servers at China Chilcano, Mendoza had an amiable relationship with Padilla. But it wasn’t until the restaurant shut down that the two formed a partnership. Delgado says Padilla clearly had the skill to lead her own business, but the English language barrier and a lack of operational experience would be obstacles to promotion in a big company like TFG. Mendoza, a Mexico City native, helps cover those gaps. She was a front-of-house manager for Delgado at Ocopa during the Peruvian joint’s brief run on H Street NE. Together, they made Padilla the face of their new brand, plastering her image on stickers that cover pizza boxes and bottles of aguas frescas. Delgado says the juice drinks are “money,” with a tamarind flavor that “tastes like you’re sucking on the fruit.”
“I don’t think I would have started a business right at his moment in time,” Mendoza says, referring to the pandemic. “Teresa was the one that was looking to find a means to get an income. It turned into this great venture.”
Mendoza particularly appreciates her partner’s simple approach to tacos, which reminds her of eating at fondas and street stalls back in Mexico City. She says while many D.C. Mexican restaurants feel they have to gussy up the tacos with colorful garnishes, Padilla’s feel “authentic” because she keeps the spotlight on the meat — or cactus or mushroom or grasshopper — filling. Taqueria Xochi’s tacos come with only onion and cilantro, with the morita salsa or a tomatillo-based verde variety.
The partners are on-trend in one respect, though. From the start, Taqueria Xochi has served quesabirria, a braised beef taco full of melted cheese, stained with red grease, and served with a bowl of brick-red consomé for dipping. The dish is growing in popularity, migrating from Tijuana to Southern California and the Bay Area to New York and D.C. Padilla uses chuck and brisket to add multiple dimensions of flavor in the shredded beef. Lamb birria, tied to the stew’s home in the Pacific state of Jalisco, is available as a taco, or customers can order a bowl of consomé, a soup studded with chickpeas.
On weekends, Padilla will start offering a regional dish from Tlaxcala: mixiotes. Mendoza says the wrapped and steamed lamb reminds her of the namesake specialty at South Philly Barbacoa that brought chef Cristina Martinez national acclaim. Tacos de canasta, another wrapped and steamed offering, will be served at brunch.
More rare-in-Washington items land on Padilla’s dessert menu. There’s mangonada, a sweet and sour slushee full of mango, lime, tamarind, and chile-based chamoy sauce with a straw wrapped in more chewy tamarind and covered in chile powder. Padilla calls her chocoflan the “imposible,” because the layer of flan poured onto the bottom rises through the chocolate cake in the oven to form a creamy top.
A staff of five, including Padilla and Mendoza, is responsible for producing the vast variety of regional specialties. But the chef says she’s only scratching the surface. Taqueria Xochi has been so busy already that Mendoza says they’ll be hiring more help soon, and they want to buy a food truck.
“This menu is so little compared to all the food that is in Mexico, and I would like to add more,” Padilla says.
The chef is driven by the idea of making Mexican food she hasn’t been able to find around D.C. While she may be shy, her colleagues say she’s fierce at the stove. When the pandemic put her out of a job, she leveled up and became the dueña (boss) herself. The chef is shy about answering plenty of questions, but there’s no hesitation when she reflects on the example she wants to set for her 15-year-old daughter.
“For her to become someone in life, I’m trying to teach her she has to fight for what she believes,” Padilla says.
Taqueria Xochi (924 U Street NW) opens for takeout seven days a week from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Walk up or order online here.