Caracol, Hugo Ortega's Latest Outpost, is Reeling Them In
There's a divide as soon as you enter through the heavy glass doors and head toward the imposing limestone hostess stand. To the right, the dining area is filled with four-tops and families silently slicing into ruddy, mole-covered strip steaks and colorful salads featuring eggplant-hued octopus tentacles coiled around indigo potatoes. There's a quiet private-dining space that's nearly always packed with folks laughing over plates of ceviche as platter after platter of glistening whole-roasted catch of the day is whisked to tables of well-groomed men in blazers and women in sensible shoes.
To the left, a lively bar scene with an interesting mix of tanned socialites and foreign businessmen drinking their fair share of chardonnay and sucking down raw oysters dipped in mignonette.
Then the bowls of wood-fired oysters arrive, their gray shells practically overflowing with bread crumbs drenched in chipotle butter, followed by bowl after bowl of bright-green guacamole and freshly fried corn chips, and the couples, strangers until moments ago, inch closer to one another in an effort to reach the food, seemingly hoping the communal dining experience will lead to something more. And every now and then, above the din will come the loud crack of someone biting into an impossibly crisp chicharrón.
It's an interesting dynamic, subdued families on one side and the clublike bar scene on the other. And in the middle, the grandiose wood-burning oven, around which oysters and conch shells sit on ice, waiting to be cracked open and served to the massive crowds gathered at this bastion of Mexican seafood.
It's Caracol, the newest restaurant from the husband-and-wife duo Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught, who have built a mini Houston restaurant empire that's interwoven with their unique and very sweet love story. First came Backstreet Cafe, Vaught's initial foray into the industry, in 1983. Four years later, Ortega was hired as a dishwasher. Next, Vaught took over Italian restaurant Prego, and Ortega continued to climb the ranks in the kitchen. The two married in 1994, welcomed a daughter in 1997 and together opened Hugo's, a Mexican restaurant featuring recipes from Ortega's heritage, in 2002.
Caracol is the result of the couple's extraordinary efforts in the Houston restaurant industry and Ortega's intense passion for Mexican coastal cuisine. In the three months since it opened, the restaurant has amassed quite a following, every evening welcoming a diverse crowd of food-lovers, many of whom are avid followers of Ortega's cooking. If you're expecting the same solid favorites you find at Hugo's, however, you may be disappointed. The menu is about as undulating as Caracol's signature spiral motif, which is designed to represent the restaurant's namesake.
Get a behind the scenes look at the subject of this week's Cafe review in our slideshow, "Caracol: A Closer Look."
The Spanish word caracol translates to "snail" or "conch shell," but there is only one dish that incorporates conch on the menu at Caracol. The rest of the extensive lineup consists of a cross-section of Mexican seafood from every coast, as well as a few dishes that might seem familiar to Hugo's regulars. They might seem familiar, that is, if you can find them.
Though the menu is contained on one oversize page, it feels staggeringly inclusive — too inclusive, perhaps, judging from the sometimes inconsistent quality of the dishes. Instead of featuring a dozen or so steadfastly excellent items, the menu is brimming with what feels like too much of a good thing.
The ceviche de caracol, made with the restaurant's namesake conch, pineapple, red jalapeño, red onion, cilantro and ginger, is well worth the $14 price tag (where else can you eat fresh raw conch in Houston?), as is the ceviche de callo de hacha (scallop ceviche), but other "crudo items" on the menu fail to impress. The aguachile offers up shrimp with an odd, almost mushy texture, possibly from an excess amount of time curing in lime juice and chile, but the result is neither delicious nor intriguing. It's bland and sort of, just, there. The "Texas T Kobe" carne apache is similarly disappointing, flavor-wise. For $15, it's a very small portion of kobe tri-tip sliced so impossibly thin that the only elements your tongue registers are the corn and avocado-tomatillo sauce. The sauce is beautifully complex, but when you're paying for kobe beef, a lack of beef-ness is unfortunate.
The "coctales y escabeches" menu contains a few more interesting dishes than the "crudo" section, including a Spanish octopus cocktail with meat so sweet and tender you're apt to forget you're chewing on tentacles at all, as well as the more unusual pig feet, which were sadly missing from the menu on my most recent visit. But then there's the lengua, cured in a citrus and vinegar marinade and served with practically raw cauliflower, carrots and prickly pear slices. The tongue is chewy and its flavor oddly off-putting, like something not very fresh. The crunchy vegetables served alongside it are only mildly marinated as well, making for a dish that seems somehow incomplete.
I admit to being only mildly disenchanted with items like the lengua and kobe beef, though, because when I think about Caracol, I think about seafood, and, in general, Ortega knows his way around everything from scallops to snapper. The oysters, in particular, are a reason to make a weekly visit to Caracol. The raw ones are beautifully presented, scrubbed clean and served with a side of mignonette, but it's the oysters roasted in a wood-burning oven that have half of Houston filling bar seats and crowding around big bowls of bivalves. They're buttery and smoky, just barely cooked so that they retain some of their signature brininess, and a punch of chipotle brings the heat up a notch. Where raw oysters feel almost like palate cleansers, these roasted ones at Caracol are rich and filling and take on a pungent and unique smokiness. If you order one thing here, make it the roasted oysters.
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.
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.
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.
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