“‘Xingones means badass,” said Mayra A. Velazquez, the chef and co-owner of the pop-up that took over the kitchen at Fort Green, a sports bar in Old Oakland, on April 11. Velazquez runs Xingones with Justino “Tino” Perez. Both have worked in kitchens for many years.
“For us, what Xingones means is we are both immigrants and we were able to open a restaurant,” she said. The two chefs are originally from Mexico. Velazquez mostly grew up in Southern California, in the San Gabriel Valley, and now lives in Richmond; Perez lives in San Francisco.
Three years ago, the two started Xingones, slinging street tacos, pozole, fried chicken and waffles, and taquitos de pollo at the Sunday Laney College flea market. Velazquez has long had a strong connection to both the market and the college. Prior to the food business, she sold leather wallets and belts at the market; she’s also a graduate of the Laney College culinary arts program. Xingones will continue appearing at the flea market on Sundays, where the menu features more traditional Mexican cooking, dishes like birria de chivo, a goat stew, and a red pozole.
“When we cook for our customers, it’s food from the heart and soul,” Perez said in Spanish. “We try to feed people what we would eat ourselves. It’s like home cooking to us.”
The Xingones menu at Fort Green currently doesn’t have birria nor pozole on the menu, although that might change in the future. Velazquez and Perez plan to expand the menu in the coming months, but for now, the menu leans heavily to bar bites, like fried chicken and waffles, chicken wings, tortas and street tacos.
Xingones has joined the ranks of pop-ups finding homes in bars. In the East Bay, there are others like Likha, serving Filipino food at Hometown Heroes Bar in Emeryville; Smokin’ Woods BBQ at 2nd Half Sports Lounge in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood; and Rocko’s Tacos and Lovely’s, offering Navajo tacos and burgers and salads, respectively, at The Lodge on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. All have helped elevate and diversify what we now consider as “bar food,” a category of fare traditionally thought of as a culinary afterthought.
I was invited to try some of the dishes during Xingones’ soft opening.
The chicken and waffles are a Xingones specialty. Perez has been honing his chicken recipe for years, and it shows. The waffles, though, deserve their own shoutout: they reminded me of eating food at a county fair, and that is meant in the best way possible. The waffles had a thin layer of crunch of the outside, and were light and airy on the inside, which I was grateful for, as I still had a lot more of the menu to try. Instead of waffle, you can also choose hand-cut Kennebec seasoned fries, macaroni salad or black beans as a side. A two-piece chicken meal is $13.
The tortas were like giant po’boys, served in bread from Bordenave’s, a bakery in San Rafael. The fried shrimp torta was filled with lightly battered, amply seasoned fried shrimp and layered with house-made curtido, Perez’s version of a pickled cabbage and carrot slaw that’s often served with pupusas. The house-made remoulade added just enough tanginess to the sandwich.
Chicken wings are another specialty of Perez, who is the one mostly cooking, with Velazquez running front of house. Perez spent many years working with Christian Ciscle, who ran Wing Wings in the Lower Haight, and who just opened SF Chickenbox at a sports bar in San Francisco. He’s been a mentor and one of the biggest supporters of Perez and Velazquez as they make their restaurant dreams come true. The “C Double soy glaze” wings on the Xingones menu is named for Ciscle.
The wings come in six varieties: El Koreano, citrus glaze, buffalo, dry or spicy rub, hella hot, or the C Double. Other shareable dishes include two types of nachos, one of which is their version of chilaquiles (Nachos Xingones).
All of the sauces are house-made and offer plenty of fire. Same goes for the escabeche, or pickled cauliflower, carrots and peppers, which comes with the tacos and have a nice spicy kick.
I also tried the Pollo Tin Tin tacos, made with flavorful marinated chicken that was heaped onto corn tortillas, is garnished with onions and cilantro, and comes with a side of avocado salsa verde. Xingones serves seven kinds of tacos right now, most are $3-4, except for the First Friday taco, made with fried chicken and served on a flour tortilla for $5.
Both Velazquez and Perez have cooked in lauded dining establishments. Velazquez has close ties to chef Nora Haron, whom she worked for at Farley’s in Emeryville and later, during the opening months of Drip Line in West Oakland. Velazquez calls Haron her godmother because of the support she’s given her. Velazquez also worked at Fog City Diner in San Francisco.
Perez cooked at Wing Wings, frying up to 500 pounds of chicken wings a day. He also worked at high-end vegan restaurant, Millennium.
But it’s clear Perez is most excited about cooking food from his homeland in Guerrero, Mexico. Once he starts talking about it, he can’t hold himself back. Velazquez has to rein him in, but she is also enthusiastic about what they might eventually add to the menu at Fort Green. There are regional dishes, Perez explains, that are hard to find here. Bringing them to Oakland is a chance for his love of home cooking — his heart and soul — to come into play.
Starting on May 6, Xingones plans to begin weekend brunch service and open for lunch at 11 a.m., Monday-Friday. For now, its hours are 4-10 p.m., Monday through Thursday; noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday. Or, find Xingones at the Laney College flea market, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, and at First Fridays in Oakland.