San Antonio Chef Jesse Perez’s Óxido Is New York City’s Modern Mexican Game-Changer

Once you go Óxido, you don’t go back to Chipotle
Once you go Óxido, you don’t go back to Chipotle

Arthur Bovino

There’s a secret menu option at San Antonio chef Jesse Perez’s new fast-casual New York City restaurant Óxido. Just ask them to “make it dirty.”

New York City finally has great Mexican food from someone who actually knows what he’s doing, and in a fast-casual format that seems like it should put the corrugated iron-lined, office worker lunch favorite Chipotle in its place. The name of this new Mexican restaurant? Óxido. The chef? San Antonio’s Jesse Perez.
In 2013, after tweeting that I wished I were in San Antonio eating puffy tacos, I found myself on a whirlwind food tour of the Alamo City’s great Tex-Mex spots, molinos, and up-and-coming restaurants in the historic Pearl District. Guided by (and as a guest of) the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau, I met with local experts, like food and dining writer for the San Antonio Express-News Edmund Tijerina, and fantastic local chefs and institutions, like Diana Barrios Trevino of Los Barrios and Jesse Perez, chef and partner at the Pearl’s Arcade Midtown Kitchen
I’ve spent a lot of time in Texas eating with Texans (I married one), so it’s not like this was my first experience with the state’s great food, but, quite simply, much of what I’ve eaten in San Antonio over the years has blown me away. Case in point: One morning, I found myself in a parking lot with chef Perez, tailgate down with a bag of tamales that we bought from his favorite molino (a corn mill where masa is produced and often made into other Mexican culinary stalwarts like tortillas and tamales) sitting on it, me eating hot masa out of another (that) man’s hands. Best tamales I’ve ever had (save for the ones my wife’s co-worker’s mother sends home with us occasionally, that is… thanks, Jesus’ mom!). 
So it made me supremely happy to learn that chef Perez had partnered with Pinkberry guru Daihwan Choi to open up a “modern Mexican” concept in Manhattan just three blocks from The Daily Meal’s Flatiron District headquarters (thanks for doing that on purpose, Jesse). Just walk up to the register and ask them to 'Make it dirty.' That’s secret menu-talk for 'you won’t be disappointed nachos.'
You choose from two tacos, a burrito, or a rice bowl (you’ve seen this before), but everything is better than at that familiar fast-casual Mexican chain. There’s grass-fed garlic steak (not skirt), chicken poblano, chile lime pork carnitas, New Mexican beef curry, and (for the vegetarians) red chile mushroom. All the options are great, but the standouts are the carnitas (fresh, tender, and infused with Mexican oregano and red chiles) and the curry (great depth of flavor). There are black and pinto beans, and Óxido’s take on huitlacoche (without the funk). Then you get a choice of seven salsas (chile de árbol with toasted spices and smoked chiles is my favorite).
I’ve been twice in the first week that Óxido opened, once for an overview and a secret menu option, and the second time for a burrito. If you haven’t been yet, go. Order anything. Really. You can’t go wrong. The salsas are all fantastic, the chicken is delicious thigh meat, the flavors are all tremendous, and the whole idea is that this is a from-scratch kitchen (though I should note that they get their tortillas from a local tortilleria). 
And on the way over, read our interview below with chef Perez, in which he explains his concept, tells us why he has opened in New York City, and divulges his picks from the menu. My suggestion? Just walk up to the register and ask them to “Make it dirty.” That’s secret menu-talk for “you won’t be disappointed nachos.”
The Daily Meal: Why open in New York City?
Chef Jesse Perez: Two of the founding partners are from New York City, and one of the partners, Daihwan Choi, revolutionized the yogurt shop concept by bringing Pinkberry to New York City. Now, we are ready to do the same for the fast-casual Mexican concept.
What’s the concept behind Óxido?
Óxido is all about bold and vibrant flavors. This theme is echoed throughout the restaurant — from its food to its interior design, colors, uniform, etc. As popular as Mexican cuisine has been recently, we’ve always felt New Yorkers were missing more authentic and homey flavors that are bold, spicy, and unafraid.  So when we met, all the pieces came together.
Where does the name come from?
Just like our flavors, we wanted our name to be bold and memorable. We went through a couple of hundred potential names and Óxido just stood out. Óxido means rust in Spanish, and for us, the color rust — burnt orange — echoes our bold flavors.
What is “modern Mexican,” anyway?
Óxido’s innovative and neoclassical style of bold flavors is what supports our approach as a modern Mexican eatery. The menu pays homage to traditional flavors and techniques, but with selections that have their own tasty identity.
How did you settle on the Flatiron District as the location?
Actually, it came up rather opportunistically. We wanted our first location to be in a heavily trafficked and visible area. When our real estate broker presented this Flatiron District location, we were ecstatic. It’s an iconic area with business, residential and tourist elements — we thought this was a perfect place to launch our brand.
What’s the story behind the restaurant’s décor? What is it meant to convey?
The design inspiration for Óxido comes from wanting to create an interior that matches the bold flavors of its food, with a colorful, vibrant atmosphere and a feel of the outdoors. Our architect/design firm out of Austin (Michael Hsu) masterfully interpreted our vision into a truly unique and art-like design. And our construction team skillfully materialized the 2-D design into a physical space that truly captures the essence of Óxido.
New York hasn’t been well-known for having great Mexican food — what do you think New Yorkers don’t know about Mexican food that they will learn through Óxido?
This is an exciting opportunity for Óxido to showcase and bring to New York flavors that are complex, taste of a home scratch kitchen, using traditional techniques with our modern twist, that are not all familiar with many who haven't experienced that flavor profile of Mexican food.   
Tell us about the entrees. If someone is going to try just one of these proteins, which is the one he or she has to have?
As many will experience, Óxido’s chicken poblano, garlic steak, and chile and lime pork carnitas are nicely flavored and original. The Mexican beef curry and red chile mushrooms are two of our protein fillers that will be unique and the two most will find to be special to their Óxido experience. 
What about the sauces? If someone is going to try just one, which is the one to try?
At Óxido, we pride ourselves on being a scratch kitchen that prepares fresh salsas daily, from the toasted chile de árbol, the bright salsa cruda, our smoky smoked jalapeño, the charred fire-roasted tomato, our herbaceous suiza, and our creamy chipotle crema. Each of these salsas pair nicely with our numerous flavor combinations, and they can also hold their own to our guacamole and house-fried corn chips. But if you're asking me, go for the smoked jalapeño. 
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