Award-Winning Chef Edgar Rico’s Taqueria Is Giving Back, One Free Meal at a Time
By Ana Paola Davila Chalita
When someone approaches Nixta Taqueria, it is not a given that they are after the place’s famous tacos. They could be looking for a free meal from the brightly painted refrigerator outside Nixta’s door.
Edgar Rico, chef and co-owner of the taqueria, hosts the biggest community fridge in East Austin, a project born of the financial struggles of the COVID pandemic.
“Hundreds of people a day were coming to our door to ask for food,” recalled Rico, a second-generation Mexican chef who recently appeared on Time magazine’s “100 Next 2022” list of influential people.
In June, Rico won a James Beard Award — the so-called “Oscars of the food world” — as best emerging chef, and his restaurant continues to appear on “best of” lists. That success traces to his love of the culture of his parents’ home country and a desire to inspire and help others through food, both through his restaurant and through the community fridge it stocks.
“Being Mexican, cooking is part of our DNA,” said Rico, whose taco “Enchilada Potosina” is inspired by his parents’ hometown, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, where they met at the city’s Ferris wheel line and fell in love. “I am a child of immigrants at the end of the day.”
Rico grew up in the Central Valley of California, attended the Culinary School of America in New York, and, after working as a cook in several Los Angeles restaurants, decided to “take the plunge” and open his own.
After staying with some friends in Austin, he fell in love. “The first week I got here I was infatuated by the culture,” Rico said.
But before he could open his taqueria, he knew he had to go to the source. He traveled around Mexico for six months, “just eating tacos and learning about corn along the way,” Rico said. After his trip, he pulled together $75,000 from savings and from a friend to start Nixta. By the time it opened, “we were down to the last $5 in our bank account,” he said.
Nixta Taqueria opened on Austin’s East 12th Street on Oct. 5, 2019, and it was an instant success, “The day we opened there were 100 people waiting at our door,” Rico recalled.
Then the pandemic hit, and they had to recalculate.
The needs of its East Austin neighbors led Nixta to collaborate in summer 2020 with the ATX Free Fridge Project, a program that puts home refrigerators in various locations and takes care of them.
The idea is simple: Vendors and anyone else who wants to help, can leave food that is still in good condition for anyone who wants to take it.
Nixta hosted the project’s first fridge, and the program has since expanded. Nixta’s owners, Rico and Sara Mardanbigi, upgraded their community fridge to an industrial one and Nixta took over its maintenance after the initial fridge struggled in the Texas heat.
The refrigerator is next to the restaurant’s entrance. A sign reads: “Please try to leave some food for the community by only taking what you need.”
One day, it was stocked with fresh bread, canned food and boxes of bananas. Another day it had prepared meals. All food is labeled and dated
“I don’t come often,” said an Uber driver named Mala who stopped at the fridge in search for eggs. “I live far from here, but I heard about it on Facebook so I came. It’s a lifesaver.”
Nixta does not know how many people use the fridge, given that it is open at all hours. But they know it doesn’t stay full for too long and needs to be restocked throughout the day.
Whole Foods has become one of the fridge project’s biggest sponsors, delivering a full functioning grocery list, from boxes of heirloom tomatoes and fresh strawberries to pre-packaged food, cheeses, milk and prepared meals like sandwiches and chicken enchiladas.
Ariana Diaz, one of Nixta’s cooks, expanded the effort by creating Aleph Cookery, a weekly food redistribution project that started when she was selling her home cooked products to raise money for food for the fridge.
Aleph Cookery has volunteers working every week redistributing food in the community, “It just has been something that’s really important to me, just because I grew up with my own experiences with food insecurity,” Diaz said.
The fridge also receives a wide range of community donations. Jaymie Rivera-Clemente was recently stocking the fridge from grocery bags filled with fruit, canned food and other goods.
“Up until I lost my job, I was bringing 150 meals a day, Monday to Friday,” she said. Clemente now picks up food from the grocery store and brings it to the fridge four times a week, “So I still give, but if there is something in here that I need, I definitely get it,” she said. “Since I lost my job it has also helped me.”
As soon as Clemente got back in her truck, people started approaching the fridge.
“The program has grown and bloomed,” said Nixta’s chef Rico, “I’m very happy with the impact it has had.”
Rico hopes the fridge project keeps moving forward and inspires other restaurant owners from all over the country to do the same.