These days, with events canceled and gatherings frowned upon, people have to make their own fun.
That spirit seemed to inform the dozens who gathered Downtown on a recent Saturday night for an impromptu car show. Restored trucks and classic cars car cruised up and down Central, music thumping from inside them like mechanized heartbeats. The LED lights on the tire rims and undercarriages gave the procession a festive glow.
Juxtaposed against all this noise and energy, the scene at Brixens, a 3-year-old restaurant on the southwest corner of Fourth and Central, looked positively melancholy. The dimly lit, cavernous space was empty except for a few staffers prepping takeout orders.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Brixens’ reopening in October after a seven-month closure was timed for the winding-down phase of the pandemic, but just weeks later the second wave rose, forcing a temporary end to dining in.
While the pandemic may be the biggest challenge Brixens’ owner Tanya Sanchez has faced, it’s certainly not the first. She took out a lease on the space inside the historic Yrisarri Building in early 2016 with a plan to open in six months, but renovations pushed the opening back to the summer of 2017. During the first few months of operation, a glitchy computerized ordering system – since replaced – resulted in long waits for food.
The place survived those early hiccups on the strength of its food and drinks to become a favorite gathering spot Downtown – at least up until March 2020.
Brixens takes its name from X-shaped brick accents inside the restaurant. It occupies one of the more exuberant of the historical structures Downtown, a multicolored two-story building lined with intricate brickwork that dates back to 1908.
The restaurant has been retooled for the new environment, with a to-go window out front, an updated online ordering system and a pared-down menu. Entrées such as meatloaf and chicken Florentine have been sidelined in favor of a selection of diner food that can survive the trip home and reheating without too much loss of quality. Remarkably, everything on the menu is available in gluten-free and vegan versions.
The handful of snacks and starters include chicken wings ($14) with two dipping sauces of your choice. I’m wary of wings, as they so often turn up as greasy wedges covered with rubbery skin, but these were so good I found myself reluctant to share them. Slow cooking left the meat moist and tender, and a finish in the fryer crisped up the skin. A dusting of a savory, spicy seasoning blend added a bit of a kick.
A starter of upside-down corn chip pie ($10) flips the traditional Frito pie so that the corn chips sit on top of the chili. This inversion allowed the chips to remain crisp when mixed with a smoky, blazing-hot Tex-New-Mex chili topped with cheddar cheese and house-pickled jalapenos. A dollop of sour cream balanced the heat nicely.
Burgers and sandwiches are mostly a make-your-own proposition. You pick from chicken breast, Angus beef patty and some vegetarian options and then choose a bun, condiments and sides. I had the Burqueño ($15) on a brioche bun. The thick half-pound patty, cooked to the specified medium rare, got a kick of heat and smokiness from the roasted green chile and red chile aioli, and the french fries were superb.
There is a selection of inexpensive sides and extras, including the aforementioned Tex-New-Mex chili. Brussels sprouts ($4), sliced in half, charred and served in a red wine balsamic reduction, were excellent, with crispy outer layers and an appealing sweet and tangy flavor.
Pre-pandemic Brixens was known for its extensive collection of beers and inventive cocktails, such as a blackberry basil margarita. Sadly, that side of the menu has been put in mothballs for now, but there are some terrific nonalcoholic choices available, including Mandarin orangeade and cucumber limeade ($4). The latter provided a tangy, sweet and cooling accompaniment to the spicy dishes.
Desserts include a brownie sundae and six milkshakes, with a make-your-own option. In the Abuelita Azteca milkshake ($8), brown sugar cinnamon ice cream mingles with chocolate, red chile and spices for a transcendent variation of Mexican chocolate.
Brixens’ online ordering system enables you to select your food and pay for it before you leave the house. My order was ready in about 20 minutes, and a server brought it out to my car.
After a seven-month shutdown, Brixens is back, and judging by the quality of the food, it hasn’t lost a step.