Nixta Taqueria's Sara Mardanbigi on crafting their trademark dreamland – HexClad Cookware

Nixta Taqueria's Sara Mardanbigi on crafting their trademark dreamland cuisine

by HexClad Cookware

Nixta Taqueria's Sara Mardanbigi on crafting their trademark dreamland cuisine

Growing up, Sara Mardanbigi longed to eat school cafeteria food. As the child of Iranian parents who’d recently settled in Arkansas, she’d be sent off instead with an intricately packed lunch. Mardanbigi laughs as she recalls the situation (with not a little irony): “My mom would pack me something like ghormeh sabzi, this beautiful stew with herbs and meat and saffron rice, and I remember thinking, ‘Damn, I really just want to have that pizza.’” 

Looking back, Mardanbigi locates her present-day love of food in her mom’s homemade dishes and the Persian-inflected American food made at her dad’s diner-gas station. It’s this kaleidoscope of influences and generosity that Mardanbigi has carried into Nixta Taqueria, the restaurant Mardanbigi co-owns with her husband, Edgar Rico. Nixta’s food is a blend of nostalgia and innovation—her Persian roots are melded with his Mexican heritage into food that Mardanbigi calls “a dreamland state.” What this means in practice is dishes like mushroom empanadas, duck carnitas tacos, and sholeh zard. It’s perhaps this latter dish—a combination of Mexican arroz con leche and Persian rice pudding—that best exemplifies Nixta’s hybrid cuisine.


As first generation Americans, Mardanbigi says, it’s natural that the food is a blend of three places: Iran, Mexico, and America, resulting in something both old and new. What this means in practice is serious and playful. Case in point: Mardanbigi and Rico source corn from Mexico and spend about 15 hours processing it using ancient nixtamalization techniques that date back to the Aztecs. What results is a tortilla that gets topped with “everything new” whether that’s a gourmet version of cheese whiz (science courtesy of Rico’s former food scientist dad) or duck confit rather than the traditional pork carnitas.

Choosing duck over pork isn’t just about making Mexican food cheffy or injecting childhood nostalgia to a standard taco. There’s a political element, too. For instance, before settler colonialists came to Mexico, there wasn’t any pork, says Mardanbigi, so poultry (like duck) was a common protein.

The hybrid nature of Nixta’s food has been reflected in the highs and lows of the past couple years for Mardanbigi and Rico. After opening their business without investors, successfully navigating the pandemic, Rico won the Emerging Chef award from the James Beard Foundation in 2022. Then in August 2023, Austin Energy forced Nixta to temporarily halt operations before adjusting to a smaller occupancy and mandated renovations, resulting in massive costs along with lost revenue. Nixta’s community showed up to support. Through GoFundMe, they raised over one hundred thousand dollars (which covered about half the scope of work) and began doing weekly popups to stay afloat. Mardanbigi had just been accepted to The James Beard Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program (WEL), a 10-week advanced educational, training, and networking program for women and non-binary entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry.


Though she had the option to push back her enrollment to a future session, Mardanbigi drew on the perspective she’s gained over five years operating Nixta and the ups and downs. Maybe, she realized, it was the best possible time. “A personal and professional goal of mine every year is to stretch myself in a way that will allow me to be a lifelong learner,” Mardanbigi says, comparing it to the way her doctor brother studies for the medical boards each year.

The James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) program was “a breath of fresh air” for Mardanbigi, which allowed her to find camaraderie in the “inspiring, strong badass women who get overlooked in the [food] industry and the hospitality industry.” Whether it was brushing up on financial literacy or thinking about the marketing pipeline for Nixta, Mardanbigi found what she was looking for: to be pushed to continue learning, to find community, and to hone a toolkit that can help Rico and her achieve their ultimate goals for Nixta.

After the setback in the summer and the the James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) program, Mardanbigi is headed forward with the hard-won knowledge of an amateur contractor and the confidence to lean into Nixta’s (metaphorical) special sauce to create sustainable growth. Her biggest takeaway? A sense that she can do anything. HexClad can’t wait to see where she (and Nixta) go next.

Mardanbigi’s HexClad Pick: 3.5-inch Damascus Steel Paring Knife

“Being married to a chef, there’s like a crazy amount of knives around. I’m a very simple gal when it comes to cooking utensils. Every summer growing up, I would go to Iran and my grandpa had this really beautiful backyard with all these fruit trees. We would pick all the fruit to make fruit leather. So, first, you’d have to cut it up and they just had one knife—I grew up with one knife in Arkansas and one in Iran. I use the HexClad paring knife for everything now. We don’t really use cutting boards. We just hold it and peel it. I really relate to that ‘cause I’m more of a minimalist. It’s a utilitarian tool that I can use for anything.”

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