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Caracol, Hugo Ortega's Latest Outpost, is Reeling Them In

The ambitious new spot is making waves.

That beguiling smoky flavor comes out in a few other standout dishes, including the ensalata de pulpo, an octopus salad that looks more like art than food. A few purple tentacles are grilled, then arranged in Caracol's spiral motif, wrapped around potatoes, with celery leaf and pumpkin-seed accents. It's an unusual but highly effective medley of tastes and textures, and the octopus is tender and juicy throughout — a feat for a creature whose meat can often veer into chewiness.

My favorite items on the menu are some of the simplest ones — spicy, acidic padrón peppers roasted until their skin is black and blistered; layered tortilla casserole, like lasagna only with tortillas and Oaxacan cheese instead of pasta, mozzarella and ricotta; nutty green pozole with hominy and juicy littleneck clams. The pozole verde, in particular, is the sort of thing I now crave when I'm sick or in need of comfort on a chilly day. The ground pumpkin seeds, cilantro and tomatillo work together to alternately soothe and attack with a hit of spice at the back of your tongue, while the hearty hominy is perfectly chewy in between bites of slippery, salty clams.

I prefer to order a number of smaller dishes at Caracol, then share with friends, but the "platos fuertos" on the menu are each large enough to pass around as well. Pescado alcaparrado a la plancha, or "catch of the day" (usually bass or red snapper), in a tomatillo caper sauce, is subtle, the mild warmth of the tomatillo unveiling itself slowly from beneath the veil of vinegary capers, while the soft white fish (when I ordered it recently, it was sea bass) manages to hold up to stronger flavors thanks to a crispy grilled skin.

Caracol's oven-roasted oysters give all other Houston oyster spots a run for their money.
Troy Fields
Caracol's oven-roasted oysters give all other Houston oyster spots a run for their money.

Location Info

Map

Caracol

2200 Post Oak Blvd, 160
Houston, TX 77056

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Galleria

Details

Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Ostiones en su concha: $10/$15
Ostiones asados: $14/$23
Ceviche de Caracol: $14
Ceviche de Callo de Hacha: $14
Lengua en escabeche: $12
Pozole verde: $10
Ensalata de pulpo: $13
Pescado alcaparrado a la plancha: $26
"Texas T Kobe" bistec: $39
Tamal azteca: $7
Chiles de Padrón asados: $7



Get a behind the scenes look at the subject of this week's Cafe review in our slideshow, "Caracol: A Closer Look."


Most surprising is the kobe strip steak with huitlacoche mole, primarily because I wasn't expecting such dark and complex mole to be on the same menu as light, citrusy ceviche and fish. The protein itself is not the best example of steak in Houston, but the ruddy mole covers a multitude of sins. It's made with huitlacoche, a rather unpleasant-looking fungus known more colloquially as "corn smut," along with a heavy dose of ancho chile powder, cinnamon and possibly coffee.

Ortega is, of course, Houston's king of moles — if you haven't had every single one at Hugo's, make that your next endeavor — and he brings the same skills that made him famous to the kitchen at Caracol, at least where the mole is concerned. If you see the word "mole" on the menu, it's safe to assume that dish will be phenomenal.
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Caracol is ambitious. Maybe overly so. Chef Ortega is wildly talented, and he has the James Beard nominations and successful restaurants to back that up. But something is seemingly lost in the shuffle at Caracol, where too much of a good thing is no longer such a good thing and dishes seem to suffer when not under Ortega's watchful eye.

Perhaps there are too many people to feed and too many different menu items for the kitchen to keep up with. At the dining-room tables, the food fares well, but at the bar, generally the only place you can get a seat without reserving several days in advance, the dishes feel hurried and not as well executed as they could be.

Of course, Caracol is still growing, and it's currently stuck somewhere between fine dining and rowdy bar scene, with the food attempting, sometimes unsuccessfully, to bridge the gap. With Hugo Ortega at the helm, though, I imagine it's only a matter of time before the restaurant truly comes out of its shell.

kaitlin.steinberg@houstonpress.com

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