In one way or another, the story behind most every restaurant is a family saga. Usually it revolves around inheritance, in the passing down of traditions and recipes (if not actual businesses) through generations.
That holds true at least in part for Walter Meza, owner and operator with his wife Paola of Golden’s Xicamiti La Taquería y Bistró. As the native of Chihuahua, Mexico, explains, “My passion for cooking comes from home—from my mom and both of my grandmas. They were great cooks. My grandma on my mom’s side loved cooking with oil and lard; her tacos dorados were amazing—greasy but amazing. But my mom didn’t use oil or lard to cook, and that’s what I learned too. My grandma on my dad’s side, she used to make amazing salsas.” Fans of Xicamiti—who are so legion that the restaurant made Yelp’s “100 Places to Eat in the U.S. in 2019”—know that Meza shares that trait.
As for his father, Meza laughs, “My dad was so bad for cooking. The best dish he made was scrambled eggs with refried beans. If my mother left the house and he had to cook, we knew we we’d be having eggs with beans. But from my dad is where I get my passion for Mexican street food. In the mornings, we’d go and get barbacoa. In the afternoons, we’d go get burritos—the burritos in Mexico are smaller than here but full of meat. At night, we’d go get some tripitas [tripe] on tacos.”
And yet, Meza credits his children as much as parents for his entry into the restaurant business. Several years ago, his two daughters, now 16 and 13, began playing a game with him. “They started playing with me Chopped, the TV show: ‘Now what do you have for us?’ Every time I had to cook something different and present [it] better for them, and that was when it clicked: This is what I like to do.” What’s more, Meza realized he liked to do it his way. Despite the influence of his family, he insists, “It’s not like I took a book of recipes from them; because of the [shifts between] generations, I have access to all kinds of things they didn’t, and I’m not a traditional cook.” He laughs. “My customers, they know Walter and Paola are crazy. They’re always doing something different.”
Family matters aside, then, the story behind most every restaurant is also, in one way or another, a portrait of true grit, independence, and resourcefulness. Meza’s father passed away while he was in college, so to make tuition ends meet and help his mother, he would spend his school breaks in the States, working in the hospitality industry. Upon graduating with a degree in business, he was offered a job managing a Mexican restaurant here in Colorado, which he took in 2004 after his wedding to Paola in Chihuahua.
For all his years of experience in the business, however, Meza had never actually done any professional cooking, so Xicamiti’s opening in 2017 was rough going. “At the beginning it was just the five of us,” Meza recalls, with his daughters and young son helping out after school. “My son was seven at that time—we’ve got a picture of him doing dishes in the back. We were about to close because we couldn’t find help.”
But enthusiastic word of mouth spread early and fast, reflecting Meza’s sense of integrity. “My menu is compact, but it is quality,” he says. Tacos, burritos, quesadillas, alambres (a type of skillet dish), and all, “everything is fresh, made in small batches, and cooked to order.” His personal favorite is the tacos campechanos with steak, chorizo, and grilled onions in chipotle salsa. (Campechano, according to Meza, “means two or three meats in the same taco. If you ask for campechano in a seafood place, they’re going to give you a cocktail with octopus and shrimp and fish.”)
Equally popular is the corn flan, a recipe developed by Paola for a wedding the couple catered. “It was a boom—everybody loved it,” Meza says. “So when we got the taqueria, that was the first dish we put on the menu. At any Mexican restaurant, you find sopaipillas, churros, fried ice cream. The purpose for us is to create something fresh and new.”
Xicamiti’s carnitas burrito, meanwhile, is a wonder of engineering, so tightly packed with juicy pork, refried beans, and onions it should burst at the seams but doesn’t. It’s covered in cheese and, optionally, chile verde—not, Meza stresses, Southwestern-style green chile: “What we do is more like a tomatillo salsa verde. We don’t use lard or flour. We cook everything separately—marinated pork, chorizo, roasted poblanos, potatoes.” Speaking of salsa, the version that came with my chicharrón-topped queso flameado electrified, but if I ordered the same dish tomorrow I’d likely receive a different salsa. Meza’s decision to rotate his selection of eight salsas every couple of days is as practical as it is ambitious; considering the small size of the menu, they ensure that “even if you order the same stuff every week, the salsa gives it a different flavor,” as he puts it. He also bottles his salsas and sells them to go, along with jalapeño preserves.
Meza also packages tequila and mezcal cocktails to go in an eye-opening array of flavors. On a recent visit, I picked up a bottle of mezcal infused with jalapeño and cilantro, which was fruity yet herbaceous and kicky; also available at the time was papaya-pineapple mezcal and mango–passion fruit tequila, but the options are always changing. “At the beginning, customers would say, ‘Can I have a top-shelf margarita?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m sorry, this isn’t that kind of place,” he notes. “When I worked at restaurants, I didn’t like when they tried to up sell you something and you can’t even taste it. Here, with us, it’s about flavors,” like his tamarind-mango margarita garnished with crushed pepper.
For all of Meza’s emphasis on creativity, it’s clear that family remains a motivating force. “When I talk to my guys in the kitchen,” he admits, “I say, ‘Make something that would make your mom proud.’”