At Xilonen in Greenpoint, a vegan-leaning Mexican spot by the team behind the meat-friendly Oxomoco, the carrot tostada is a $14 appetizer posing as an avant-garde Christmas ornament.
Five thin carrot spears lie parallel to one another on a crisp tortilla. The top and bottom slices jut out over the edge, their Fanta hue magnified by the golden chip underneath. Maple syrup slicks the delicate treat; it shimmers in the sunlight. Before the pandemic, food like this would sit on a shiny white plate; you’d relish the colors while listening to a polite waitstaff sermon about the name of the farm that sourced the corn.
Xilonen, which opened in December, does not regale diners with tableside speeches. The owners do not source custom plates engineered for their commodious negative space. The tostada comes in a brown cardboard box that you retrieve from a window. It is, I’d argue, the right serving vehicle for this particular dish, or anything else here. In a pandemic-stricken culinary world struggling with a separate plague of customer entitlement — as Khushbu Shah argued in Food & Wine — there’s something subversive about a compostable container being the only way a tasting-menu-worthy dish is served, whether you seat yourself at Xilonen’s semi-enclosed shed or back at your apartment. This isn’t a concessionary, second-class way for the chefs to plate a tostada; it’s the only way they plate any dish here.
And inasmuch as chef Alan Delgado puts so much care into the visual side of the gastronomic equation, there’s something wonderful about opening up an opaque, anonymous takeout box and finding something inside that looks like a one-of-a-kind gift.
It doesn’t hurt that the gift in question is a gustatory masterpiece. Xilonen’s tostada reveals its bright flavors in successive waves. The aromas of the salsa — a sharp kick of mint — hit me while I was still wearing a mask. Then, after a bite, the sugars of the maple and carrots asserted themselves, followed by the vegetal earthiness of the same root, the cream of a silky bean puree, and, finally, the popcorn toastiness of the crisp tortilla.
Delgado, his arms clad in polychromatic tattoo ink, isn’t just putting together some of New York’s most visually striking platings; his ingredient combinations put Xilonen on par with the city’s top purveyors of high-end Mexican cuisine. And in an era when venues like Empellon Midtown and Cosme remain closed, the aesthetically inclined fare of this Greenpoint newcomer fills a serious gap in our modernist Latin American scene. Its takeout-forward ethos also suggests a path forward for artsy dining outside of actual restaurants.
Eating at Xilonen will eventually involve sit-down dinner service. For now, queue up, pay at a cashier, pick up your order, and eat. Come early, as the venue closes at 4 p.m.
Consider the quesadilla ($17). Two tortillas, slathered in a black-bean puree with avocado salsa, sandwich a cilantro-heavy meat filling. It was one of the lightest and most fragrant pork chorizos I’d ever sampled. A few days later, Delgado, who grew up in El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Mexico, told me that it was vegan sausage, forged from tofu and mushrooms.
That bean puree, incidentally, spills over the quesadilla and onto the floor of the cardboard container. It’s so inky that it takes on the shade of a fake Acme hole from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. “I always like food to be hidden, to make something look as simple as possible, but more complex than possible,” Delgado told me.
COVID-19 has changed the way we look at food. Indoor dining is verboten. Alfresco patios become dim, chilly, and unevenly lit affairs after a premature winter sunset. And the ascendancy of takeout has a flattening effect on our nightly meals, which can all feel strikingly similar when they’re consumed from the same ubiquitous containers on the same apartment floor while watching the same reruns on Netflix. Make no mistake: We’re grateful these restaurants still exist, and that we can enjoy their pleasures from afar. But still, there’s no getting around the fact that the olfactory or visual cues that make our food taste better in dining rooms — the smoky haze at a barbecue shack, the lush overhead track lighting at omakase parlors, or that fancy curvilinear bowl that perfectly frames an elegant tartare — are largely absent in cozy Manhattan studios.
And even though artful plating might not be a priority during a time when many of us are simply grateful to be enjoying a meal we don’t have to cook ourselves, it feels all the more luxurious when a chef like Delgado jolts our senses with optically inimitable, tweezer-leaning takeout fare to remind us of the whimsies of yesteryear. The flourishes allow his food to be transportive regardless of where one consumes it.
Xilonen plates its tacos flat — Alex Stupak-style — placing a grate of purple potatoes over a paper-thin tortilla. Staffers then cover the exterior with griddled vegan cheese. “I thought it would look nice if all you could see is the nice golden crust,” Delgado told me. He dabs little circles of green salsa cruda on top for acidity and verdant contrast. The result is a hash-brown taco, an ode to textures that are alternatingly stretchy, starchy, and soft.
Delgado keeps things even more Friday casual with the breakfast tostada ($13), where eggs serve as a backup player to the main event: a messy crown of salsa macha, a blend of nuts and peppers that’s as crimson and aromatic as Sichuan chile crisp. The condiment spills off the eggs, drips down your hand, and emits the raisin-y punch of guajillos and smoke of anchos.
Finally, there’s the fresh masa pancake ($15), whose packaging constitutes a bit of a pivot. Xilonen hacks the single breakfast treat into five slices so it can fit into a small box. It’s a style of plating that would feel casual even by the standards of a McDonald’s at a highway rest stop. When I asked Delgado about his thinking here, he said he didn’t want to rely on round, pancake-accommodating containers manufactured from plastic. Accordingly, he carves the pancakes into triangles, or pancake toast points, if you will.
The cakes are pillowy and salty at first, like a good omelet. Then, when the pancake points cool, they betray a whiff of sweet maize. They exhibit no less complexity than the polished gemstone of a carrot tostada, but the plating is more appropriate for eating in front of an open refrigerator. It’s still a very good look.