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Oaxacan Tacos With A Middle Eastern Tinge? Meet The Brothers Making Them

Felipe and Ignacio Santiago stand in front of X'tiosu Kitchen in Boyle Heights. (Photo by Tien Nguyen/LAist)
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If the idea of ordering from a walk-up window, in a parking lot, surrounded by the whoosh of cars and Metro buses while a nearby radio blasts Spanish pop from 107.5 FM sounds romantic to you, you'll adore X'tiosu Kitchen. Brothers Felipe and Ignacio Santiago opened the "Oaxacan-Arabesque" taqueria in 2017 in a small corner strip mall on the northern edge of Boyle Heights, a few blocks from El Tepeyac Café and its infamous five-pound burrito. With a menu of chicken shawarma tacos and Oaxacan hummus, X'tiosu Kitchen (pronounced sh-tee-oh-sue, X'tiosu translates to "thank you" in Zapotec).

The Santiago brothers grew up in San Felipe Guila, a small town in central Oaxaca where Zapotec is the dominant language, and came to Los Angeles more than a decade ago, as teenagers. Felipe was 16 and Ignacio was 14. They both found work in restaurant kitchens. Ignacio ended up at a Lebanese restaurant where he stayed for about eight years. Felipe eventually worked there too.

Although Ignacio is the younger of the two, he was the one who pushed for the pair to strike out on their own. Felipe was reluctant. Without deep pockets or optimistic investors, pulling together the funds to start a business is tough, for anyone. If you're working paycheck to paycheck and making just enough to cover rent, as the brothers were, it's tougher.

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Ignacio began catering on the side, experimenting with Oaxacan and Mediterranean flavors and relying on his brother when he needed help. Balancing their full-time jobs with this side hustle was hard but people loved the food. The enthusiastic response gave them confidence, Ignacio says. The brothers took it as a sign that the had a concept they could scale up. But how best to do that?

They didn't want to open a taco table. Street vending hadn't yet been decriminalized in Los Angeles (or the state of California) and they didn't want to risk expensive fines and the possibility of losing their equipment. A food truck seemed like a good idea until they contemplated the logistics — parking, driving, parking. As those doors closed, a window opened, specifically this window, in Boyle Heights. It had already been home to a taqueria, which was encouraging. Still, it was a daunting leap. The amount of paperwork alone was enough to make Felipe nervous. With a crucial assist — Ignacio's wife, Dr. Xóchitl Flores, handled the paperwork — the two went all in and opened their business in September 2017.

With X'tiosu Kitchen, the brothers have leaned into their personal and professional backgrounds, taking what they learned while working in restaurant kitchens and combining it with the Oaxacan flavors of their youth. Since opening, they have become popular with Boyle Heights locals, workers at the nearby medical centers and people who travel from as far away as USC and UCLA to eat their kebobs and baba ganouj (their spelling).

They may expand and open another spot but for now, Ignacio and Felipe are here, in a Boyle Heights strip mall at the corner of Forest and Wabash, grilling kebabs, making chorizo, assembling tacos and tending to the plants on the patio. Their menu is small enough that you could — and should — order everything, especially if you're with a few friends. To start, here are their standout dishes.

Chicken Shawarma Tacos

These are the only tacos at X'tiosu, and, unsurprisingly, their most popular item. They're a riff on al pastor (which has its roots in the Lebanese immigrants who brought spit-grilled meats to Mexico) but instead of pork, the brothers pile chicken shawarma onto a double stack of corn tortillas and top it with a flurry of cilantro, chopped onions and pink pickled turnips. The sauce, a mild, tangy cross between salsa verde and tahini, ties it together. Felipe loves the versatility of the sauce, which shows up as a dip for their fried cauliflower. In the unlikely event you have leftover sauce, it works great on scrambled eggs.

Tabbouleh Oaxaca Salad

Although it seems like your typical tabbouleh salad — chopped parsley, tomatoes, a bright, citrusy dressing — look closer and you'll notice a decidedly untraditional element: nopales (cactus paddles). Following advice from a chef friend to make these recipes their own, the Santiago brothers tinkered with their tabbouleh by omitting the bulgur, adding more onions and featuring diced nopales. Parsley is still the star of the salad.

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Falafel Plate

Of the handful of rice platters on X'tiosu's menu, the most popular is the combo plate of beef, chicken and chorizo kebabs. (The chorizo is made in-house, by the by.) Don't ignore on the falafel plate because these fried balls might be some of the best in town. Made with black beans instead of chickpeas or fava beans, these falafel have more garlic, more cilantro, more onions and, for the proper Oaxacan flair, chili. The balls are perfectly crisp on the outside and tender and fluffy on the inside. As with all plates, they're are served on a bed of rice with a side of hummus and salad. If you'd rather, you also can have the falafels in a wrap that the brothers call a "pita burrito."

  • X'tiosu Kitchen, 923 Forest Ave., Boyle Heights. 323-526-8844.

Lori Galarreta was provided crucial translation and language assistance in reporting this story.

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