As it has for many people, the pandemic slowed life down for Justin Bazdarich, providing time — a lot of time — to think about the future. The chef and restaurateur cemented his status in NYC’s dining scene with one crowd-favorite hit after another, first with hip pizza destination Speedy Romeo, and then with Michelin-starred Oaxacan restaurant Oxomoco, along with co-owner Chris Walton. Now, he’s grappling with building a more sustainable path forward in food and, more specifically, his impact on the industry.
After the city went into lockdown in March, Bazdarich enrolled himself back in college online, at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, and now he’s applying more sustainable food practices to his newest restaurant opening this week: Xilonen, a regional Mexican spot located at 905 Lorimer Street in Greenpoint, at the corner of Nassau Avenue. It’ll be the first of Bazdarich’s restaurants — and perhaps the only upscale Mexican restaurant in the city — to debut with an entirely meat-free menu.
Named after the Aztec goddess of young corn, Xilonen uses bright Mexican flavors — evident in salsa mache blends and the use of aromatic herbs like hoja santa — to dress up vegetables in ways that aim to “convert the carnivore,” as Bazdarich puts it. To achieve that goal, Bazdarich enlisted the help of chef Alan Delgado, who moved to NYC at the start of 2020 to join the Oxomoco team after spending a decade building up a stellar reputation within Austin, Texas’s dining scene.
Under Bazdarich’s leadership, Delgado crafted a breakfast and lunch menu to start at Xilonen that features photogenic, inventive dishes like the guacamole ($16) made with a green salsa macha and finished off with a topping of leafy winter greens; a green chorizo quesadilla ($17) combining firm tofu, mushroom, and pecans; and a tostada featuring braised carrots ($14) paired with a carrot-top salsa verde, laid over a base of ultra-creamy bean purée.
Mexican food is “a very spice-forward cuisine,” says Delgado, who grew up in Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas. “It’s just choosing the right ones that reinforce the vegetable that we’re using and how we’re using it. That’s the fun learning process, because for so long, every restaurant that you work at is cooking proteins, and now, it’s kind of like a reset button.”
Like Oxomoco, Xilonen sources its corn through Tamoa, a company that connects small farmers in Mexico to restaurants across Mexico, Europe, and the United States. A floral chocolate from La Rifa Chocolatería, based in Mexico City, is used as a dip for the restaurant’s churros ($6) and in its hot chocolate ($6). For the coffee program, Xilonen partnered with Cafeólogo, a decade-old coffee company based in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, in Chiapas, Mexico, that will make its NYC debut at the restaurant. “Alan was very kind and enthusiastic, inviting us not only to source but to develop and roast the coffee that they want to serve,” Cafeólogo founder Jesús Salazar tells Eater of the partnership.
Xilonen is designed to be takeout-friendly to start with ordering and pickup windows installed alongside one wall of the restaurant’s eye-catching exterior facade. The space, located just off McCarren Park in the former home of French restaurant Sauvage from the team behind Maison Premiere, has been designed to showcase paintings by San Francisco artist Victor Reyes, a handwoven textile from Oaxaca-based weavers Fe Y Lola, and uses an interior color palette of purples, oranges, and yellows meant to reference heirloom corn varieties.
The team will likely add dinner with on-site table service, perhaps with a tasting menu, after Xilonen settles into a rhythm with breakfast and lunch, Bazdarich says.
Xilonen’s largely vegan menu lines up with how other new restaurants in the city, like Chinese-American spot Fat Choy and Clinton Hill cafe Guevara’s from the Mekelburg’s team, have focused their menus around vegetables. Overall, Xilonen’s food breaks down into a ratio of 75 percent vegan and 25 percent vegetarian offerings. The percentage breakdown utilizes a system of sustainable menu metrics that Bazdarich worked on with the help of Lourdes Castro, the head of NYU’s Food Lab.
Essentially, the metric, which can change depending on the restaurant, acts as a tool to help reorder a menu to focus less on animal protein. Bazdarich has envisioned reworking his other restaurants to follow a menu metric of 50 percent vegan offerings, 30 percent seafood, and 20 percent animal protein, although he acknowledges that retroactively applying this kind of a menu breakdown at Oxomoco or Speedy Romeo is a “bold” proposition.
“It’s tough for menus to go backwards,” Bazdarich says. “What we’re doing with Xilonen, it’s just like we’re going headfirst.”
In the new year, Bazdarich hopes to get other chefs to join him in a type of collaborative chef collective where participants will commit to rethinking their own menu metrics, focusing less on meat and more on vegan and vegetarian dishes in an effort to combat climate change and promote more sustainable food practices.
“My partner [Chris Walton] and I want to have restaurants all around the world. And so, if that’s going to be my mission, then how can I do it in the softest way towards the people and the food and the environment and the planet,” Bazdarich says. “All of this just rings more true for me in a pandemic.”
Xilonen is open for takeout from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with delivery service to follow. Heated outdoor seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis.