Unrated during the pandemic

Technically, a cemita is a sandwich, since bread and filling are involved. One look at the split Mexican torta from a youthful Washington carryout and I find myself playing armchair geologist, hungry to plumb a cross-section of terrain that starts with a dome of sesame-seeded bread and continues with a web of tangy white cheese, mayonnaise, buttery avocado, juicy tomatoes, smoky onion, crisp chicken cutlet and refried beans. Bite down and a curtain of chipotle sauce washes over the interior.

Calling the behemoth a sandwich is like saying President Trump fibs a little.

You’ll find the object of my great affection at a slip of a place called Taqueria Xochi on U Street NW, home since October to chef Teresa Padilla, 45, a former pastry chef at China Chilcano in Penn Quarter. When the pandemic left her without a job, she partnered with Geraldine Mendoza, who helped manage the Chinese-Peruvian restaurant, and began selling the food that had made Padilla popular with her fellow workers when she prepared the staff meal. Initially, Padilla assembled cemitas in a rented space in Capitol Heights. In June, she moved to a pop-up at Little Beast in Chevy Chase, where her menu grew to include tacos and birria.

The entrepreneurs’ permanent roost, in a former pizza joint, is easy to spot, thanks to buckets of hot pink paint on the facade and a cheery neon sign. The walk-up window is conveniently located next to Service Bar, where their mentor, Carlos Delgado, the former executive chef at China Chilcano, is previewing some of the Peruvian fare he plans to serve at the forthcoming Chelita in Blagden Alley. Xochi (pronounced SO-chee) pays homage to the ruins of Xochitecatl near the small town where Padilla grew up, in the central Mexican state of Tlaxcala. The venture is also one of the most mouthwatering debuts to emerge from a year none of us is likely to forget.

In the six years they worked together, Delgado says, he saw something special in Padilla, a maternal figure who confronted the crisis head-on. “She was not afraid,” he says. “She was ready to go.” His nudge involved sharing his business expertise. “All I could do was take care of my mom.”

“Mom” nails the fine points. Her tortilla chips are made to order and warm to the touch when you eat them, preferably with the chef’s surprisingly light guacamole, best ordered “spicy” with jalapeño. Padilla also bakes the round bread for her cemitas using a recipe she learned from her grandmother. That’s the mission at Xochi: “family recipes that are as authentic as possible” in this country and without any “updates,” the chef says in a three-way call with Mendoza, who translates from Padilla’s Spanish. While I have a slight preference for the tender chicken filling, the chef’s Puebla-style signature can also be ordered with lightly breaded beef or eggplant. All meet a sandwich press before they’re gift-wrapped in foil, butcher paper and twine.

The owners’ time at high-end China Chilcano, part of José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup, gives Xochi an edge on the competition. Shortcuts need not apply.

My gut reaction to brrr — winter’s chill — is birria, in the case of Xochi, beef or lamb slowly braised with a seasoning mix (chiles, cinnamon, cumin, chocolate) as complex as a mole. Xochi’s birria comes with handmade tortillas and broth for dipping, although I tend to reserve the dark liquid for sipping by itself. Just smelling the broth, conjured from meat and bones, makes me feel more vigorous. Drinking the elixir comes with the benefit of sharp minced onions and cilantro. Bottoms up! The trendier quesabirria involves dipping a tortilla in the braising liquid of beef or lamb and cooking it on a flap-top grill, fusing meat with cheese and creating a marvelous mess.

Padilla is protective of her family recipes, as anyone with great ideas should be. “They are close to my heart,” she says. Were she to share them, she would worry someone might leave out an ingredient.

Pizza boxes are used to dispense the tlayudas, crisp, hubcap-size tortillas spread with refried beans followed by a colorful buffet of crumbled chorizo, juicy beef tenderloin that any steakhouse would be happy to claim, slices of creamy avocado, slippery nopales and shredded iceberg lettuce. The combination is as much party as dinner, and a meatless version extends an invitation to a broader audience.

Nice touch: When ordering tacos, you’re asked if you want to eat your food immediately or later. The latter involves tortillas, filling and garnishes packed separately (and some light assembly back home) — an experience akin to eating the tacos straight from the kitchen. Padilla acknowledges the spectrum of tastes with her nine fillings, including springy, well-seasoned cubes of beef tongue; chopped mushrooms tossed with guajillo sauce; and toasted grasshoppers lit with lime juice. What her various tacos share is a delicious trio of soft corn tortillas and garnishes of chopped raw onion and earthy cilantro. The tacos, beautiful in their simplicity, represent a composed dish that would be at home at a fonda in Mexico City. For the full street-food effect, wash back a meal with one of the taqueria’s refreshing aguas frescas, sweet-tangy tamarind being my first choice.

Remember the chef’s job at China Chilcano and try all her available desserts, likely the swoon-worthy tres leches cake, prettied up with sliced strawberries, and the less traditional chocoflan, which is exactly that: moist chocolate cake topped with slinky custard. Sinking your spoon into the plastic cup delivers ebony and ivory in perfect harmony.

Padilla says she wants to open more taquerias, but only if she can be sure the dishes taste like the original. She’s not just thinking of her own future. More Xochis would allow her to hire her former colleagues at China Chilcano, she says.

Food operators know some customers visit them as much for service as for sustenance. The challenge throughout the pandemic is how to extend hospitality when a lot of people are avoiding dining indoors or eating restaurant food at home. Xochi addresses the issue by labeling its bags and cartons with a sketch of the chef’s face. Her small smile looks both shy and confident, as if she’s waiting for your reaction as you transfer takeout to plate — or mouth! — and tuck into her efforts. Surely Padilla knows we’re smiling back at her in gratitude.

More from Food:

Taqueria Xochi 924 U St. NW. 202-292-2859. taqueriaxochi.com. Open for takeout and delivery: 3 to 10 p.m. daily.
Prices: Tacos $8 to $15 (three per order), cemitas $15, birria and tlayudas $12 to $25. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub and
Uber Eats. Accessibility: Walk-up window only. No restrooms.