“I’m just a Mexican kid that knew how to eat when I was growing up.” Chef Ricardo Antunez’s words put a smile on my face because I know exactly what he means. In our culture, learning how to cook well is as important as knowing how to eat well. Antunez, chef and co-owner of Xicha Brewing in Salem, spent his childhood helping his mom at the Bay Area taqueria she owned — in and out of the kitchen, watching, learning and, of course, eating. This would set the course for his culinary future.
With three and a half years under its belt, Xicha — the first Latinx-owned brewery in Oregon — has put down some West Salem roots, living their slogan of “Cerveza. Comida. Cultura,” which translates to “Beer. Food. Culture.” Antunez and his business partners Matt Dakopolos, Ben Mendoza and Maggie Antunez (Ricardo’s wife) are the heart and soul of the operation.
“We get to show culture differently [here], through a different lens — food, beer and community,” says Antunez. Since Xicha launched, a Latinx-owned cidery, La Familia Cider, opened in 2017 just a few miles away, which helps solidify the city’s cultural draw. However, Antunez notes that even in Salem, a city that is 23% Latinx, the culture can still be underserved and misunderstood.
Food From Many Cultures
Antunez has been a resident of Salem for over a decade, but he got his start at the California Culinary Academy and began dialing in his style with Latin American cuisine in places like San Francisco and Belize. In 2006 he made the move to Oregon and began cooking at places like La Rambla in McMinnville and Portland’s Andina.
Soon Antunez met Dakopolos (the brewer) and Mendoza (now Xicha’s business manager), while studying business at Willamette University in Salem. The trio, interested in beer making as a hobby, found chemistry together not only as a team but as friends. They decided to design their business around a tried-and-true pairing: tacos and beer. Xicha was born, an expression of culture and an opportunity to gather, share a meal and raise a glass.
Antunez and his wife, Maggie, opened their first restaurant, Pura Vida Cocina, in McMinnville in 2013. “It was a lot of hard work, but we got there,” Antunez says. Xicha was born three years later.
Six days a week (closed on Mondays), Xicha’s doors open at 11 a.m. and the local lunch crowd begins arriving, filling up within the hour. Antunez (affectionately called jefecito, or “little boss,” by his staff) throws on an apron and starts speaking rapid-fire Spanish to his kitchen crew, cumbia music playing in the background, bright pops of color and hand-painted Mexican-style murals on the walls giving the place a warm feel even on the grayest of days.
A few minutes later, Antunez and the crew start turning out plates of savory, salty hatch green chile empanadas, frijoles negros, pickled cabbage and tall, cold beer. Dakopolos brings out a plate of warm cinnamon churros served with a Mexican chocolate dipping sauce. “Chuurrrrrossss,” his eyes roll back in delight as he rolls the Rs.
Xicha sources locally by season from purveyors including Draper Valley Farms, Carlton Farms and Minto Island Growers. The menu options are built around Mexican, Spanish and Central American-inspired flavors. Dishes like croquetas (chicken and chorizo fritters with a melty cheese filling), pollo adobado (New Mexican chile-stewed beef) and albondigas (a modern take on a traditional Mexican soup) let people choose their own culinary flavor profile.
From Ancient to Modern Beer Pairing
Xicha boasts an innovative beer list, but don’t come here for an IPA — there are too many other wonderful options to choose from. “The beer has to speak to the food,” Dakopolos says, noting that in the IPA-trendy Northwest, Xicha and their beer took a different direction. Chela, their Mexican-style lager, is crisp and refreshing, while darker and moodier ales like La Cobriza and Terremoto are creamier and sweet on the palate, without a heavy, bitter aftertaste. In short: The beer is fantastic.
Dakopolos incorporates unusual ingredients like guava, chile and chocolate (to name a few) into the beer to allow the flavors to complement the meal you’re enjoying. The restaurant’s namesake, Xicha, comes from the ancient fermented drink from Latin America. “It’s our culture,” says Maggie, who manages front-of-the-house operations. “If you don’t take care of your people, they won’t take care of you.”
If You Go:
Xicha Brewing is open six days per week, with Fridays and Saturdays being busiest, but don’t worry — they have margaritas on draft (Maggie’s recipe) that you can sip while you wait for a table. Situated among warehouse-style businesses in a pocket of West Salem, the restaurant has a large front patio that is most popular in the summers, easily accessible for families and large groups.
Tuesday evenings are game night with Millennial Loteria — a Mexican-style bingo. And XichaFest, their anniversary party, takes place each September with live music, dancing and new beers crafted for the occasion. In the winter months, Xicha hosts a dinner-and-beer-pairing series, Brindar, which means “to make a toast.” The dinners are themed by different types of Latin American cuisine — for example, from Brazil; Oaxaca, Mexico; or Peru — and offer an intimate setting for sharing a meal and a story.