There’s something to be said about nostalgia, particularly when it relates to food. Our abuela’s rice and beans. Nonna’s slow-simmered Sunday sauce and meatballs. Our favorite comfort foods growing up. These dishes make us feel safe, sentimental, familiar. The craving for them is part of our bones. For Ataula‘s celebrated husband-and-wife team, Jose Chésa and Cristina Baéz, and their long-time friend David Martin, that translates into one thing: xurros.
The power-trio casted Portland’s first xurreria, 180, out of a childhood dream. In Barcelona, where the three worked together at a three-star Michelin restaurant, xurros are a way of life. “In Spain,” David explains, “xurros are a part of our everyday life. And you really realize this when you don’t have them anymore.” Bringing this nostalgic treat to Portland, however, was no easy task. It took several months to create the perfect recipe, and nearly half a year to find the right chocolate.
The success behind the shop is evident when you see the passion of its owners. “At first, you think ‘how hard could it be?’ You just mix the dough and fry it!” Cristina laughs. “No. Yes, it’s simple. But simplicity is hard.” They explain that this delicate, artisan dough can be tricky. Several factors come into play when it comes to the batter: the humidity in the air, the water temperature for creating the dough, the time it needs to rest. “If it’s not perfect,” Cristina notes, “we toss it out.”
Merging the old traditions of Spain with the distinctive character of Portland was a delicate balance, but one the restaurant did perfectly. “We want to respect the basics,” David explains. “But we still want to make it playful. Fun for us, and fun for the guests.” The restaurant creates their xurro in the classic Spanish shape, a pointed loop piped from a star-shaped pastry tip. “It looks like a raindrop,” Cristina grins.
The celebrated choux dough is fried in their specialty fryer, imported from Spain. “A lot relies on these machines,” Cristina emphasizes. “If they break, we close.” The exclusive fryer was designed by a Spanish family with generations of xurro production in their lineage. It yields a clean, crisp dough, with a lighter texture and non-greasy feel. It’s perfect.
But that’s the only thing from Spain (besides the owners). It was extremely important to the 180 team to keep it local. “We could have easily flown in all of our ingredients from Spain,” Cristina notes. But they didn’t. Everything about the Northeast spot is local–from the ingredients to the decor. The tables, hand-made signs and murals, the lights…even the speakers. Local Roasting Co. coffee is served – a darker roast similar to what you’d find in Spain. Cocanú‘s Ecuadorian chocolate is exclusively used to create 180’s xocolata. Although that certainly didn’t happen overnight. Cristina, Jose, and David spent six months in search of the perfect chocolate: a pure, balanced chocolate that wasn’t overly sweet. When they finally found Cocanú, David describes it as a revelation. “We just looked at each other. No words. Nothing. That was it.”
Now, the xurros themselves? The slender strips of dough are fried at 180ºC (hence the name) and yield a treat with delicate crisp and impeccable chew. They stand alone just fine, but something magical happens when they’re dipped in chocolate and speckled with Jacobsen Sea Salt, or dunked in a house-made dipping sauce. The roasted peanut and caramel sauce is rich, layered, and complexly nutty. An orange zest-infused marshmallow cream will put any preconceived notions of the white fluff to shame. Xurros Rellenos are stubbier, cylinder versions stuffed with bruleed crema catalana, dulce de leche, or xocolata cream.
The drinking chocolate is sinful. With nearly pudding-consistency, it coats the xurros like a velvet blanket. All the desserts walk a consistent, balanced line, never edging on too-sweet. Vegans have a seat here, too. The xurros are completely vegan, and there’s always one seasonal vegan sauce option offered. (Think bananas foster, strawberry, or coconut arroz con leche.)
There’s also house-baked bread, xuixos, and cafe con leche elevated by house-made soy or hazelnut milk. Xuixos, the traditional deep-fried conch-shaped pastry filled with crema catalana, sells out fast. They have never been able to keep this popular item around past noon.
Perhaps the only adverse aspect about 180 is that they close at 4pm. But no cloud is without a silver lining. Their adjoined sister-restaurant, Chesa, opens soon after. Chesa, only opened for a couple weeks at the time of this article, is a lively space serving traditional paella, tapas, and Iberian cuisine.
“I think of them as our family tree,” Cristina explains, referring to her restaurants. “Chesa is the grandfather, deeply rooted in tradition. Ataula, the son, is not afraid to be a little more modern, inventive. New. 180, a young grandchild, is playful, fun. Sees the world through new eyes.”
That’s a family we certainly wouldn’t mind being adopted into.
180 Xurros and Xocolata
2218 NE Broadway
Photography by Katie Summer