Chef Erasmo Casiano wants to bring the flavors and culture of Mexico’s capital to your table.

“Mexico City is such an epicenter for all things culinary,” says Casiano, the chef-owner of Aurora’s Create Kitchen & Bar and Park Hill’s Lucina Eatery & Bar.

His newest concept—Xiquita Restaurant & Bar—will embrace the diverse cultures of Mexico that converge in the City of Palaces, with influences from Sayulita to Oaxaca to Mérida in the southeastern state of Yucatán. The name is an homage to Casiano’s father’s nickname for his mother, chiquita linda, or ‘little beauty,“ with an X replacing the CH to evoke an Indigenous Mexican feel.

The restaurant is set to open in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood in June with the help of some familiar faces from Create and Lucina. Diego Coconati and Michelle Nguyen are managing partners, while Alexander Moon and Henry Ottrix are director of operations and beverage director, respectively, for both spaces. “Without this team, there’s no way I’d be going for it,” Casiano says.

Casiano is most excited about the newest addition to the crew, Rene Gonzalez Mendez. The Mexico City native and co-owner of recently shuttered restaurant Pato’s Tacos will take on the role of Xiquita’s executive chef.

Chef Rene Gonzalez Mendez
Chef Rene Gonzalez Mendez. Photo by Casey Wilson

Xiquita’s menu will explore the influences of Mesoamerica—a historic region that encompasses Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and other areas of Central America—on the contemporary cuisine of Mexico City. Masa, a Mesoamerican ingredient, will be front and center in a section of the dining room, where patrons will be able to view the nixtamalization process as it occurs.

Nixtamalization is a method of preparing maize (corn) and other hard-hull grains by cooking or soaking the dried kernels in an alkaline solution to remove the outer shells. The nixtamalized corn is drained, rinsed, and milled into masa, which can be made into tortillas, tamales, empanadas, or any number of dishes. ”[In Mexico City], every single place, whether it’s a street cart with a grill attached to a bicycle or a fine dining space—everybody’s doing their nixtamal in-house,” he says.

Masa is the perfect vessel for flavor-packed creations such as Xiquita’s sope barbacoa de lengua, slow-roasted beef tongue barbacoa wrapped in maguey mezcal leaves and served with salsa borracha (a fermented salsa made with dark beer).

In September 2023, Gonzalez Mendez—who also owns Denver’s Pinche Salsa, which sells jarred salsa macha—joined the team at Lucina Eatery & Bar in preparation for his impending transition to executive chef of Xiquita. That allowed the team to develop and test out some of Xiquita’s menu items via Día de los Muertos and Cantera Negra pop-up dinners at Lucina last year.

Lucina Eatery and Bar
The Lucina Eatery & Bar team, from left to right: Diego Coconati, Michelle Nguyen, and Erasmo Casiano. Photo courtesy of Lucina Eatery & Bar

Another dish to look forward to on Xiquita’s menu features hoja santa, an herb whose Spanish name means “sacred leaf,” which gives off a natural anise and subtle eucalyptus aroma. The hoja santa will be stuffed with queso fresco and griddled to serve over sautéed hongos (oyster mushrooms) from Colorado Mushroom Company, Gonzalez Mendez’s salsa macha, and a salsa morita. It’ll also be accompanied by a tostada dusted with the ash of tortilla trimmings—a tribute to the ancestral utilization of resources past their assumed finishing point.

Casiano and Gonzalez Mendez are also experimenting with a steak dish that will likely make the menu. Conceptualized as a play on a fajita, it is a wagyu skirt steak rubbed with arriera (roasted chile salsa), grilled over charcoal, and smoked with corn husks that yields a toasty aroma familiar to any Mexicans who know their way around a comal (a traditional Mexican griddle).

Guests can also expect to savor ingredients produced close to home, including Bow & Arrow Brand’s blue corn sourced from the Ute tribe at the Colorado/Utah border and locally grown squash from Belafonte Farm in Fort Collins. Other grains will be sourced directly from Mexico, including different varieties of corn not commonly available in the United States.

Casiano’s team also plans to work with Huitla, a Los Angeles–based vendor, to source specialty Mexican ingredients of cultural significance, like huitlacoche (a smoky fungus that grows on corn whose subtle sweetness and soft chew makes it a Mexican delicacy) and other native Mesoamerican ingredients such as chicatanas (ants), chapulines (grasshoppers), and chilhuacle (a pepper often used to produce mole negro).

A dish at Xiquita
A dish at Xiquita. Photo by Casey Wilson

The space’s design will also represent Mexico City, thanks to local firm Regular Architecture (also behind Beckon, Hop Alley, and Point Easy) and finishing touches by Habitat interior decorator Lori Pratt, who previously helped curate the vibe for both Lucina and Create. A palette of natural tones, including ash, charcoal, wood, and lava stone, will be accented with vibrant live greenery and candle light when the sun goes down. Casiano also promises an open kitchen, a signature fixture at Lucina, to allow face-to-face interactions with the team. “You can always just walk up to the kitchen and say hello, and that’s what we want,” he says.

Ultimately, Casiano believes that the people of Denver are missing out on a whole world of cuisine that’s a mere four-hour flight away and hopes meals at Xiquita spark customers’ interest in the travels, culinary experiments, and cultural connections that brought the restaurant to fruition.

”I would love for people to taste something and be like, ‘Where does this dish come from and why haven’t we had it before?,’” he says. “Let me take a crack at it. Let us show you what we know. We’re learning a lot in the process, too. We can’t wait to share these stories, these elements, with our guests.”

500 E. 19th Ave.; follow Xiquita on Instagram for updates on its June opening

Chris Marhevka
Chris Marhevka
Chris Marhevka is a freelance writer and a graduate of Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Follow him at @chrismarhevka on Instagram.