Ricardo Antunez, who’s chef at one of Salem’s newest breweries, happily zigzags across the Americas without concern about borders in his kitchen. It’s a place where marinades from Mexico and Peru collide in a single dish. The innards of an empanada are given a Cuban twist before they’re folded into an envelope of masa. Barbecue chicken finds a home in an otherwise traditional sope from Mexico.
“We have a little bit of play on a lot of different countries here, which is really cool because I’m not about boundaries,” said Antunez, also one of four co-owners of Xicha (chee-chah) Brewing. “I spent some time in Central America, and in Central America there’s a vast variety of cultures. Family meal is, like, the best time of day because everybody makes food from where they come from.”
That may have been the foundation for Antunez’s multinational culinary experimentation, which has led to the opening of first Pura Vida in McMinnville, which he runs with his wife Margarita Antunez, and now Xicha where cultural exchange is taken to the next level as European-style lagers are married with the cuisine. Though he’s often worked in fine dining, Antunez had long been interested in becoming involved with a brewpub. But the right collection of partners never materialized to get one off the ground. That all changed in 2014 when the godfather to his first born, Ben Mendoza, met a homebrewer in grad school who had aspirations of growing beyond his garage. Matt Dakopolos developed a passion for European styles during a year abroad in Salzburg, Austria where a decent amount of his education occurred while bumming around the area’s cavernous pubs drinking Marzen from barrels hoisted out of cellars.
“From that point, it was really exciting for me to think about how fun it would be to be connected to the industry,” Dakopolos described. “But it was only ever that romanticized picture of what it would be like to essentially just live in a beer hall for the rest of my life.”
That alcohol-drenched fantasy was enough to ignite a more serious attitude toward his hobby upon returning to the states, which eventually led to discussions about the potential business with Mendoza, also now co-owner/business manager, and the Antunezes. They realized crisp, bright lagers could be the perfect base for Latin American flavors, and the brewery’s identity began to take shape. By 2016, the team was on the hunt for a location. In recent years, Salem’s beer scene has been quietly growing. It may come as a surprise that there are at least 10 breweries in the state’s capital. Yet all were concentrated on one side of the city. That’s a significant reason why Xicha’s owners chose to situate it in the parched landscape across the Willamette.
“Well anecdotally, we knew that West Salem was underserved,” Dakopolos said. “This side of the river did not have a brewery, and so being able to capture a section of town that has more than 60,000 people, is the fastest-growing area of the city, has some of the only developable land and is disconnected geographically from six of the other breweries was really appealing for us.”
While Xicha appears to be locked in by industrial parks and warehouses, just blocks away neighborhoods of homes and schools extend west and north along several major thoroughfares. The nearby hulking buildings used for manufacturing give the property surrounding the brewery its own gritty character — but change is underway. A number of spaces are ripe for redevelopment and Xicha’s largest neighbor, the decades-old Oregon Fruit Products, is preparing to relocate.
“There’s some businesses in this area that have been operating for more than 100 years. And so there’s a lot of history right in this spot,” said Dakopolos. “Unfortunately for our opening, some of that history was in the building and that prolonged the opening date.”
It wasn’t the good kind of notable find during renovations, like discovering a hidden safe or uncovering a mural hidden by a false wall. The history that was hanging around Xicha came in the form of lead dust leftover from a former battery factory. Officials with the Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Occupational Safety and Health ordered brewery construction to come to a halt and the closure of several other businesses sharing the lot after wipe samples revealed the health risk.
“So we basically had the pause button pressed on our whole project,” Dakopolos said.
At that point, the property owner faced two options: explore avenues to clean up the site or abandon it. Far from being the best-case scenario for the Xicha owners, Dakopolos explained that veering from the plan gave them an opportunity to “have a reality check” and assess their goals and commitment. The obstacle only strengthened their resolve.
“There was never really any question of ‘Do we believe in the brand? Do we believe what we can do in the marketplace?’ It was just, ‘How long is it going to take us to do it here?’”
After about six weeks, the decontamination was complete and renovations resumed. Xicha wouldn’t begin hosting customers mid-summer as first scheduled. But when they did finally open in November, there was a line of eager customers spilling out the front door. Some of those who showed up for a first taste included the crewmembers who helped with cleanup efforts. It took some imagination, carpentry and a lot of colorful paint, but Xicha was transformed from a spartan space defined by cinderblock walls and racks of telecomm equipment left behind by a previous tenant to a taproom as warm and vivid as any Malecon in a coastal Mexican city.
The 15-barrel, steam-fired system, though bigger than what they’d envisioned at the start, turned out to be a well-timed purchase from Fire Mountain Brew House in Carlton. The owner of that now-shuttered business was looking to sell his equipment, which included two horizontal fermentation tanks — well suited for the lagers Dakopolos wanted to make to pair with Antunez’s food. For too many weeks to remember, he ended up job shadowing the Fire Mountain founder at the remote property, learning through application and asking every question he could.
“The brewhouse itself doesn’t have very much automation. It’s all manual controls. So that brings with it all the romanticism of an analog system and all of the headache of an analog system,” Dakopolos described. “So it’s been a pretty steep learning curve. I don’t know that I’d wish it on anybody.”
A good head brewer knows there’s little room for error in the world of craft beer. Drinkers aren’t very forgiving and they’ll vote with their dollars and their tweets. But so far, Dakopolos is producing true-to-style conventional offerings along with beers spiked with Latin-influenced flavors. His take on the kellerbier is inspired by the Mexican lager, with fresh, vibrant notes perfect as an all-day summer guzzler or as a partner to the kitchen’s Ceviche del Dia. On my visit, tombo ahi served as the core of the dish and base of a multicolored mound of fruits and vegetables: Granny Smith apples, shaved red onion, avocado slices, julienned radishes and a tuft of cilantro. A verdant moat of jalapeno, cucumber, cilantro and chile surrounded the fish, bringing a mix of heat and smoke to play with the sweet/tart slaw.
Xicha’s Marzen is fuller-bodied with a slight sweetness imparted by the malt. The penny-hued beer is bold enough for a snack like the Empanadas, normally stuffed with lamb picadillo, but mine was an off-menu creation. Inside the crescent crust was tender, roasted pork covered in a rub of paprika and salt along with red peppers and garlic. The fried masa then got a generous drizzling of peanut romesco and mojo verde.
One final pairing was tied together by fruit. Guava helps define Xicha’s Golden, though the flavor is subtler in its Sopes that are topped in eye-catching purple and green garnish. The Guava beer, developed with Oregon Fruit Products, is like a boozy Squeezit that’s been resurrected for nostalgic kids of the ‘90s. It’s all too easy to finish a pint of it faster than you expect. Some of that sweetness is echoed in a barbecue sauce composed of guava and Xicha’s Pale Ale that generously coats the chicken piled high onto masa cups and then sprinkled with pickled cabbage, queso fresco and cilantro.
Though the theme that guides the beer and food translates easily, the name of the business maybe not so much. But that’s understandable since the owners made up the word. Xicha is a nod to the drink called “chicha” that’s often associated with the Incas. Those early residents of the Andes founded their system of exchange on reciprocity and hospitality. As owners of a pub who want to give their neighbors a gathering place in exchange for their support, the name seems to be a perfect fit.
“Chicha, wherever it’s served throughout Central and South America, is a beverage that pulls communities together,” Dakopolos said. “And what we really hope with our brand and with our location is that we can honor those traditions that pull people together in really positive and meaningful ways.” •