Ignacio, left, and Felipe Santiago grew up in the small Oaxacan town of San Felipe Guila speaking only Zapotec.EXPAND
Ignacio, left, and Felipe Santiago grew up in the small Oaxacan town of San Felipe Guila speaking only Zapotec.
Samanta Helou

A Oaxacan-Middle Eastern Restaurant in Boyle Heights Has an Inspiring Backstory

The chicken shawarma taco at X’tiosu Kitchen is a physical representation of the journey of two brothers. The brothers grew up in a small Oaxacan town and crossed the militarized border as teenagers, then worked their way up in various American kitchens until they were able to open something of their own.

X’tiosu, which means "thank you" in Zapotec, is a small, humble outpost in a Boyle Heights strip mall with outdoor dining only. A hand-painted sign welcomes you to the service window, where posted menu items include multicultural mashups such as the above-mentioned taco, a Oaxacan chorizo kabob served with spicy tahini sauce, and tabbouleh with nopalitos (cactus).

For Felipe and Ignacio Santiago, cooking was a childhood necessity. They grew up hunting rabbits and chicatana ants — now considered delicacies at some of Mexico’s most renowned restaurants — to help their mother feed the family. Unable to afford closed-toe shoes, they went out to the arid fields of Oaxaca’s valley in sandals and often crafted makeshift ovens in the ground to cook what they caught.

Chicken shawarma taco at X’tiosuEXPAND
Chicken shawarma taco at X’tiosu
Samanta Helou

The Santiago brothers grew up in San Felipe Guila speaking only Zapotec, an indigenous language family native to Oaxaca with more than 50 dialects. In their town, it was common to hear stories of emigrants making a better life for themselves on the “other side.” The brothers didn’t have access to an education in San Felipe Guila — not only because of financial instability but because of Mexico’s history of devaluing indigenous languages (public school classes are taught in Spanish).

Today Zapotecs make up the largest Mexican indigenous community in Los Angeles. Due to collectivist traditions like “guelaguetza,” which translates to gifting and reciprocity, Zapotecs created strong cultural enclaves in places like Santa Monica and Koreatown, where many traditions from their hometowns remain intact.

After convincing his mother that he would be safe, Felipe left behind the two jobs he had worked since 5th grade and made the trek across the border as an unaccompanied minor. He was 14. He found a job washing dishes and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a cook at an Irish restaurant in Long Beach. Ignacio followed him years later and joined him in the kitchen.

Felipe and Ignacio Santiago took what they learned in the kitchen of a Lebanese restaurant and melded it with Oaxacan culinary traditions.EXPAND
Felipe and Ignacio Santiago took what they learned in the kitchen of a Lebanese restaurant and melded it with Oaxacan culinary traditions.
Samanta Helou

Adjusting to life in the United States was a lonely transition for the brothers, filled with 18-hour workdays and discrimination from fellow Latinos. “They bullied us, called us ‘stupid Oaxacans that don’t speak Spanish,’" Ignacio recalls. "They called us dumb Indians, all kinds of things. But hey, those Indians made the effort. We fought hard each day and we learned Spanish.”

Over the years, they worked in various kitchens where their passion for cooking grew. One of those businesses was a Lebanese restaurant. They took what they learned about Middle Eastern cuisine and brought it into their own kitchen, often making unique creations using Lebanese recipes and Oaxacan ingredients.

“For years we’ve been wanting to open up a business," Felipe says. "We needed to get out of our poverty, which was the biggest and saddest thing we had to confront."

Shawarma tacos, falafel plate, tabbouleh with nopalitos, fried cauliflower with spicy tahini dipping sauce, and chicken, beef and Oaxacan chorizo kebab plate at X'tiosuEXPAND
Shawarma tacos, falafel plate, tabbouleh with nopalitos, fried cauliflower with spicy tahini dipping sauce, and chicken, beef and Oaxacan chorizo kebab plate at X'tiosu
Samanta Helou

Their dream came true when, with the help of Ignacio’s partner, Dr. Xochitl Flores, a professor and expert in Zapotec culture, they bought an old taco stand and slowly turned it into X’tiosu. They had a soft opening in September with a menu that included touches of their culture; their falafel skips garbanzo beans and parsley in favor of black beans and epazote, and they use Mexican spices like chili powder in the rub for their shawarma.

The brothers work joyfully together, telling jokes in a mixture of Zapotec and Spanish and swiftly forming falafel balls and dropping them into the fryer. Their dishes are a colorful clash of cultures. In the shawarma taco, the creamy zest of tahini collides with the tangy kick of green chilies and tomatillos, and bright pink pickled turnips (commonly found on Lebanese dinner tables) have the added punch of a spicy chili infusion.

“It feels great not having to depend on anyone, but instead creating our own business, our own job, with the effort and work we’ve put into it,” Felipe says in his native Zapotec. “Coming here to work is like coming home. We are happy to start a business together as a family, with the love we have for the kitchen.”

923 Forest Ave., Boyle Heights; (323) 526-8844, xtiosu-kitchen.business.site.

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