This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega's new seafood-centered Mexican restaurant has a menu full of stunners. The ensalada de pulpo (octopus salad) is a refreshing mixture of grilled octopus and roasted potatoes and carrots dotted with bright green celery leaves and a slightly spicy pumpkinseed sauce. The tostones de atun feature crisp plantain tostadas topped with tuna ceviche and a bright but creamy cilantro dressing. The pozole verde with hominy and littleneck clams is green with cilantro and oregano, and as soothing as it is exotic. You cannot order wrong at Caracol.
In spite of the bounty of beautiful fresh seafood though, a different dish had me oohing and ahhing on my most recent dinner at Caracol: The chiles de padron asados.
It's probably the simplest dish on the entire menu. Padron chiles are originally from South America, but they were brought to Spain from the New World in the 18th century, where the city of Padron became famous for cultivating them. Padrons are in the same family as habañeros and ghost chile peppers, but they're much milder. The flavor is somewhere between a green bell pepper and a jalapeño, but they're generally more mild than spicy.
At Caracol, the padron chiles are treated with the utmost respect. They're sautéed over high heat in a pan with hot oil until they blister and brown. Then, they're finished simply with lime juice and sea salt and served, stems on, in a dark ceramic bowl.
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That's it. I'm honestly unsure what else to say about this dish, except that the combination of roasted pepper, citrus and salt dances across the tongue, almost playing tricks on it in a way that it's unsure of what it's just consumed until after it's already been swallowed. One moment it's warm and comforting, like a slightly slimy bell pepper. The next it's sharp and biting, causing the mouth to pucker with the influx of citric acid on the taste buds. Finally, the salt crystals both heighten and, eventually, mellow out the other flavors, leaving you with the essence of burnt bell pepper and then a little something extra.
It's so obviously good, and yet so surprising on a menu of far more complicated and intentionally amazing dishes. And yet, it's my preference. I could eat it every day and be very satisfied with the abundance of warm green peppers in my life.
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The list so far: No. 35: Morning Thali at Pondicheri No. 36: Fried Mini Fish at House of Bowls No. 37: Trompo Tacos at Taqueria La Macro No. 38: Spicy Tamale Plate at La Mexicana No. 39: Mum's Chicken Curry At The Queen Vic Pub No. 40: Canestri alla Funghi at Paulie's No. 41: Biscuit with Marmalade and Crème Fraîche at Blacksmith No. 42: Fried Oyster Po'Boy at Goode Company Seafood No. 43: Roasted Duck Red Curry at Morningside Thai No. 44: BBQ Pulled Wild Boar Sandwich at Sammy's Wild Game Grill No. 45: Guanciale Burger at Plonk No. 46: Parma 600 Pizza at Pizzeria Solario No. 47: CFC Deviled Eggs at Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar No. 48: The El Real Burger at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe No. 49: Custard Sandwich at Petite Sweets No. 50: Black Pepper Beer Lobster at Hai Cang Seafood Restaurant No. 51: Red Dragon Roll at Michiru Sushi No. 52: Fried Bananas Foster at Custom Confections No. 53: Bánh Canh Hue at Simply Pho No. 54: Kimchi Koagie at Koagie Hots No. 55: The Juicy Lucy Burger at Lowbrow No. 56: Eggplant Fries at Batanga No. 57: Macarons at Ganache Dessert Bar No. 58: Grilled Cheese at The Golden Grill No. 59: Baklava French Toast at Harry's Restaurant & Cafe No. 60: Patata e Funghi Pizza at Pizaro's No. 61: Old Fashioned Frito Pie at Armadillo Palace No. 62: Korean Spiced Brisket Plate at Revival Market No. 63: Bánh Mì at Les Givral's Sandwich and Cafe No. 64: Squirrel Master Burger at Cottonwood No. 65: Shorty Mac at H-Town StrEATS No. 66: Enchiladas de Mole at La Guadalupana No. 67: Bad Ass Hambur-Torta at Pistolero's No. 68: Green "Hurry Curry" at Nit Noi No. 69: Dozen Raw Oysters at Pappas Seafood No 70: Banana Split at Cloud 10 Creamery No. 71: Lazy Lane Frites at Brasserie 19 No. 72: Chicken Pot Pie at Kenny & Ziggy's No. 73: Chili Cheese Mac from Jus' Mac No. 74: Taco al Pastor at Taco Keto No. 75: 'Date With a Pig' at Sparrow Bar + Cookshop No. 76: The Heights Burger at Gratifi No. 77: Lamb Lollipops at Américas No. 78: Mortadella Sandwich at 13 Celsius No. 79: Carnissima Pizza at Coppa Osteria No. 80: The Marie Laveau Sandwich at Sandy Witch No. 81: Catfish and Grits at The Breakfast Klub No. 82: Grilled Ahi Tuna at St. John's Fire No. 83: Lobster Roll at Maine-ly Sandwiches No. 84: Greek Burger at Hubcap Grill No. 85: Pork Tamales at Irma's No. 86: Ham, Egg & Cheese Crepe at Melange Creperie No. 87: Crab Daddy Bao at Fat Bao No. 88: Sesame Soft Balls at Golden Dim Sum No. 89: Porchetta e Fagioli at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 90: Uncle Daryl's Cake at The Chocolate Bar No. 91: Lobster Cake Benedict at Sorrel Urban Bistro No. 92: Homeroom at Bernie's Burger Bus No. 93: Vuelve a la Vida Soup at Connie's Seafood No. 94: Foie Gras Mac & Cheese at BRC Gastropub No. 95: Sweet Potato Gnocchi at Brooklyn Athletic Club No. 96: Chicken and Waffles at Adair Kitchen No. 97: Soft Pretzel from Mongoose Versus Cobra No. 98: Bulgogi Tacos with Kimchi at Chi'Lantro No. 99: Almond Croissant at Phoenicia No. 100: Bangkok Fries at Boheme