Xilonen, the Aztec goddess of sustenance and maize, is often depicted with ears of corn in each hand. The other day, my stance was not dissimilar as I sat at a table outside her namesake Greenpoint café, opened, last December, by the chef Justin Bazdarich and his partner Chris Walton, as a sort of spinoff of Oxomoco, their inventive Mexican restaurant nearby. Between bites of a glorious masa pancake—its texture a harmonious balance of fluff and grit, a scoop of salted butter sliding tantalizingly down the slight dome of its bronzed and bubbled surface—I took refreshing sips of atole, a drink, usually porridge-thick and served warm, made from sweetened and spiced masa and milk; here it’s strained and chilled into something more like horchata.
Xilonen’s crunchy taco, filled with red “chorizo” (made from pecans, tofu, and mushrooms), vegan queso, and shredded lettuce, and finished with a jalapeño-cashew crema and salsa fuego (morita peppers, apple-cider vinegar, garlic confit, and salt).
Masa—made with an heirloom variety of dried corn that’s imported from Mexico but nixtamalized in-house—plays a role in almost every dish at Xilonen, although it’s just as often supportive as it is starring, affording other humble ingredients their moment. From mid-morning to afternoon, crunchy, undulating tostadas serve as pedestals for guacamole and sky-high curds of dense but velvety sunset-hued scrambled egg, topped with sharp Cheddar—broiled just enough to bear a hint of smoke—and an inky hazelnut salsa macha. In the evening, tostadas are spread with a silky purée of navy beans and carrot, then layered with serrano peppers, caramelized soy-marinated onions, a zesty carrot-top salsa verde, and tender spears of carrot that are braised in carrot juice before they’re charred and maple-glazed.
At right, the crunchy taco. At left, Xilonen’s corn tamal, featuring steamed masa laced with sweet potato al pastor.
Need I mention that Xilonen does not, as a rule, serve meat, poultry, or fish? I suppose it’s good to know, but it would be a shame to overclassify a restaurant that sets its own terms. Its Mexican-American chef de cuisine, Alan Delgado, grew up in El Paso, Texas, cooking vegetarian food that adhered to a diet his mother had been prescribed while she was ill. The ways in which he’s designed dishes to be “plant-forward,” as Xilonen self-identifies, do not leave the diner with a sense of absence but, rather, convey a honing-in. Here’s a chance to really consider the purple potato (creamy and nutty, smashed between a soft tortilla and a lacy disk of griddled vegan mozzarella) or the guajillo chili pepper (blended into a wonderfully fruity hot sauce). Nor will an aesthete suffer: Xilonen’s vibe, from plating to décor, is austerely yet invitingly chic, sun-baked even on a cloudy day.
The tamal comes wrapped in a banana leaf and topped with smoked vegan crema and poblano salsa.
It would be easier to pigeonhole Guevara’s, in Clinton Hill, where the menu is also loosely Mexican, and whose Web site advertises it as “vegan forward”—which is to say, vegan. It’s been a while since “Portlandia” went off the air, and yet the world continues producing fodder for it: the other day, as I lunched on Guevara’s torta milanesa, made with breaded eggplant instead of the usual chicken or beef, and nachos wearing squiggles of cashew crema, my view was of a sandwich board, placed directly outside the café’s front door, advertising the obscenely fleshy porchetta sandwich available at Mekelburg’s, a meat-centric restaurant on the next block. Guevara’s also trades in pricey houseplants and grocery items, including cans of Gardein-brand “plant-based be’f & vegetable” stew. I struggled to find a bottled drink that didn’t contain “adaptogens” or hemp.
Counterclockwise from bottom left, at Xilonen: guacamole with housemade tostadas; a green chorizo quesadilla; the crunchy taco; a carrot tostada.
But Guevara’s had the last laugh. The nachos—optimally sturdy, salty tortilla chips strewn with black lentils, olives, avocado, and jalapeños, in addition to the crema—were excellent, as was the young-coconut “ceviche,” tender slips of the meaty fruit, cured in citrus, with avocado, mango, and cilantro. I even loved the bagel and “lox,” featuring tofu cream cheese, marinated orange bell pepper in place of smoked salmon, and plenty of dill and capers. And I finally landed on a drink: a made-to-order rose-halvah iced latte—a double shot of espresso, black tahini, rose water, and raw sugar—dairy-free, hideously, hilariously murky, and absolutely delicious. (Xilonen dishes $6-$15; Guevara’s dishes $2.50-$10.) ♦