Levi’s Plaza is once again home to mezcal margaritas and twice-fried tostones. Maria Elena Esquivel and her husband Ignacio Perez opened the doors to their entirely gluten-free Mexican restaurant Xica on March 6, six years after the business first debuted in the same waterfront plaza. Back then the business operated under the name Chica, as a take-out window that later moved to Oakland for a number of years. Now, the entrepreneurs are back in a huge space. While currently open for breakfast and brunch, Xica — with its massive windows and tremendous, colorful paintings — will unveil plenty of dinner options when the restaurateurs extend hours in just a few weeks. Whether by morning or night, the entire menu is designed with all diners in mind: It’s 100 percent gluten-free, and most everything can be made vegetarian or vegan. “It’s a personal thing,” Esquivel says. “It’s for myself, and for my family. Sometimes we just don’t want meat.”
Esquivel points out diners might not notice the menu is gluten-free unless they ask; many Mexican dishes naturally leave wheat off the plate. But Xica’s sauces are also dairy-free, spare the Hollandaise, and vegan diners can swap avocado for egg on most items. Esquivel prefers to create dishes in which meat is an add-on option rather than something to take away. That said, when dinner service comes online in early April, Esquivel will show off her more meat-centric dishes for the carnivores out there. Bright aguachiles, crispy flautas, and rich carnitas are just a few of the entrees diners can expect. Shareable tapas, centered on flavorful meats and vegetables perfect for forming into tacos with a large group, will also take center stage.
The 5,000-square-foot space was designed by Roy, a woman-owned San Francisco firm. The space complements the bright menu with red-tiled floors and simple wooden furniture, both of which keep the sprawling restaurant from feeling ostentatious. Ivan Camilo Lopez, a painter and artist whose work some will recognize from his mural “Gracias a la Vida” outside Limon Rotisserie, coated the restaurant’s interior with butterflies, birds, and portraits. The idea was to tell a tale of Northern Mexican travel and a mother’s journey; Esquivel’s mom is from Sinaloa, and her portrait is on the right side of the restaurant. The entrepreneur wanted both feminine and masculine energies in the restaurant, both simple and detailed, and she feels Roy pulled that off.
The business is also open for happy hour on Thursdays and Fridays from 3 to 6 p.m. Tacos and quesadillas are the features, with small bites including guacamole and a soon-to-be added carne asada fries, which pay homage to Esquivel’s husband's roots in San Diego. At the end of the day, Esquivel wants Xica to feel vibrant, bold, and unapologetically Chicana. She had a junta, or a gathering, before the restaurant opened with fellow women and people-of-color entrepreneurs. It’s not lost on her that her journey is a true blooming of all her hopes and dreams. “It’s surreal,” Esquivel says. “This is dedicated to my nine-year-old self. There’s no way I could have imagined this actually coming to life.”
Xica is open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 2:30 at 1265 Battery St., Suite 100 in San Francisco, with Saturday hours to be added at the end of the month. In the first week of April, Xica will open for dinner from 5 to 9 p.m.